This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
c 2009 Timothy Ley, Mandy Emett-Ley, Miranda Ley & Alexander Ley
To Mum (of course), for support, encouragement and occasional apple crumble.
Author’s Note This story is set in the nineteen eighties. Change of customs and lapse of time have made many of the ideas and beliefs of the characters seem strange, or at least eccentric, to those of us who live in a wiser, more civilised age. But there is some value, I believe, in remembering a time when the mightiest personal computer was the I.B.M. A.T., and communists lurked behind the counter in every pharmacy.
“I think,” said Desmond Fisher, “that I’d better go now.” It wasn’t that it was a bad party, because it wasn’t. Lots of people were having fun. The music was good, the wine was good, the peanuts were covered in honey (Desmond had eaten far more than his fair share of those), and he hadn’t noticed anyone being rude to him. Nor did he mind that all the good looking women at the party already had boyfriends (although he still hoped, as shy young men often do, to meet a single woman one day). Nor was it that the group sex Colin had promised he would ﬁnd at the party had failed to appear. Desmond, being shy, was in fact a secret virgin, so if the group sex he had come to the party to ﬁnd had actually been there he would probably have left much earlier. No, the problem was that Desmond, when he went to a party, liked to know a large number of the people there. Or, failing that, he liked to know what a large number of the people there were talking about. He hadn’t enjoyed this party at all. “Aren’t you enjoying yourself then Desmond?” asked Cathy. It was her party. “Oh,” said Desmond, “yes, very much. I’m just a bit tired, that’s all.” “Half-past nine start on Monday morning?” “Eight o’clock, actually.” “Poor you. My ﬁrst lecture’s at eleven.” Cathy and the other people at her party were university students. 9
Desmond worked in a bank. He thought that this was causing a problem. He thought they all found banks boring. But Desmond was wrong. If he had been an internationally famous ﬁlm star he would still have hated the party. Because all the people at the party found Desmond dull. Desmond, as all his friends would have admitted, was something of an acquired taste. He was well meaning, considerate and kind hearted, but it took time for people to appreciate these qualities. He was all right when you got to know him, but boring as hell at ﬁrst. For Desmond had a problem. It was not a problem he was aware of. Nor was it one he could have done anything about if he had been aware of it. His problem was quite common, quite serious and a little bit tragic. He had no sense of humour. This was bad enough. But by this time next week things would be even worse. This time next week he would be suﬀering from an even more terrible problem. This time next week he would be in love. Meanwhile, at the party, the lack of a sense of humour was the problem. He’d had a go at a couple of conversations, but none of them had worked. Cathy’s friends tended to start out being friendly enough, then Desmond would run out of things to say, and the person he was talking to would start looking around for an escape route. Finally the person would say: “What are you studying then?” To which Desmond would reply: “I’m not studying anything. I work in a bank.” “Oh, how interesting,” the person would say, then walk oﬀ and talk to someone else. Desmond was sure his bank was putting people oﬀ. He decided to stick to parties where some of the other people worked in banks. Then he would have someone to talk to. He could, perhaps, have talked to Cathy, if he’d tried. Cathy was someone he liked, but he didn’t know her well enough to feel comfortable with her. She was really Colin’s friend, or rather, she was someone Colin was keen to sleep with. Cathy thought Colin was a ‘sleaze’, and had told Desmond so more than once. “Oh well,” said Cathy, “if you’re feeling tired, you’re feeling tired. 10
Pity Colin couldn’t come.” “Yes. Oh well. Bye Cathy,” said Desmond. Actually it was odd about Colin not coming. He and Colin shared a ﬂat, and it had been Colin’s idea for him to go to the party. Colin had told him about it, had arranged for him to go, and had told him that it would be just his sort of thing. Colin even said that Cathy’s parties were full of beautiful, single women who were bound to ﬁnd even banks interesting, when they were drunk enough. Desmond had become suddenly interested. Of course Colin had been wrong, at least about there being single women. As for how the guests might feel about banks when drunk, Desmond had been unable to ﬁnd out. All the guests were respectable, and since half of them were driving and the other half were teetotallers not one of them was even slightly drunk. “Wait,” said Cathy, “don’t go yet. You haven’t met Roz. You can’t go until you’ve met Roz.” Could this be a young woman without a boyfriend? Cathy took Desmond to where an attractive young woman was standing and talking to two young men. “Roz,” said Cathy, “this is Desmond.” “Hi,” said Desmond. Roz smiled dazzlingly. “Hello!” she said. “I haven’t seen you before. You’re probably the only person in the room who hasn’t seen my badge yet.” “What badge?” said Desmond. One of the young men wandered oﬀ , but the other remained. He wanted Roz to himself, but he had talked to Desmond earlier in the evening and knew that he didn’t constitute serious competition. For one thing he was pretty sure that Desmond would be too stupid to express the slightest bit of interest in the badge Roz had been showing to people all evening. “Do you like my badge?” Roz asked Desmond, showing him a little tin brooch pinned to her lapel. Desmond thought it looked stupid. “Yes,” he said. “I got it at Glastonbury.” 11
“Oh.” “In England.” “Oh.” “Don’t you want to ask what it is?” “What is it?” “It’s a Chalice Well badge. It shows the Chalice Well. At Glastonbury.” “Oh.” “Don’t you think that’s interesting?” “Yes.” “Do you know what the Chalice Well is?” “Er, no.” Roz, during this exchange, had gradually smiled less and less. At last she asked the fatal question. “What are you studying then?” Now Desmond knew he’d blown it. His last chance that evening to ﬁnd true love gone up in smoke. She had asked the question that would doom him. “I’m not studying anything,” said Desmond for about the tenth time that evening. “I work in a bank.” “Really?” said Roz. “I used to work in a bank!” Desmond’s heart leapt. Hope at last! “Yes,” said Roz, “I met my boyfriend in a bank. He’s not here tonight, of course.” Despair. Desmond left the party.
It was very important to Miranda Catarini to look her best that night. But as she sat at her dressing table applying her make-up she was convinced that she was failing dismally. She was a very pretty young woman, small and blond, with a pleasant, open face and big, blue eyes. Yet somehow during the last twentyone years she had managed to develop into a young woman with almost no self-conﬁdence at all. For this reason she was taking far more trouble over her make-up than she could possibly need to. It was probably the size of her eyes that had been her undoing. When she was small her older brother had teased her about them, saying she looked like Marty Feldman. Miranda had discovered at an early age who Marty Feldman was. In spite of having a highly developed sense of humour Miranda didn’t ﬁnd her brother funny at all. As well as her eyes Miranda had a few freckles at the top of her nose. These were also very attractive, but her brother had given her hell about them too. Miranda’s lack of self-conﬁdence had led to her having Morris for a boyfriend. Morris was a creep, something Miranda hadn’t spotted yet. What made Morris a creep was not his looks, for he was very good looking, nor his sense of humour, for everyone found him witty and entertaining. What made him a creep was his utter disregard for other people. He wasn’t exactly insensitive, for he generally knew exactly how the people around him were feeling. He was a creep because he 13
used this knowledge exclusively to his own advantage. For example, Miranda, although shrewd enough to avoid falling in love with most of the other men she’d ever met, was in love with Morris. Perhaps Morris was even in love with Miranda, in his way. At least he found her extremely attractive, and enjoyed sleeping with her just as much as he enjoyed sleeping with the other girlfriends Miranda didn’t know about. What illustrates how evil Morris was is the way he ﬁrst made Miranda fall for him. They originally met at a party. Morris hadn’t wanted to end up talking to Miranda, largely because he suspected that anyone as good looking as her would not be easy to pick up. Normally Morris would have gone out of his way to secure a young woman like Miranda, but on that particular night he was in too much of a hurry. He was looking out for someone easier. But Morris did end up talking to her. He hadn’t meant to. It was just something that happened, as these things will at parties, and something he at ﬁrst wanted to stop happening. They were talking about personality, and ways in which people hide their feelings. He said something about eyes being the windows of the soul. It wasn’t a very clever sort of thing to say, but it was a matter of principle with Morris that whenever he ended up talking to a woman he had already decided not to sleep with he never wasted creative energy by saying anything original. So all he said was: “The eyes are the windows of the soul.” “Oh no,” said Miranda, “don’t talk to me about eyes. Mine are awful, much too large. My brother says they make me look like Marty Feldman. Don’t you hate my eyes?” Now a less cunning or less callous man than Morris would have taken this as a cue for a compliment. But Morris was not such a man. Miranda, he realised, didn’t know how attractive she was. She might do for him after all. “Not hate, as such,” said Morris, “they’re hyperthyroid and a bit odd, but I’ve seen worse.” “Hyperthyroid?” said Miranda. “Just my luck. Not only ugly eyes, but ones with a medical term to describe them. So much for the 14
windows to my soul!” “Don’t worry about it,” said Morris. “Some men don’t mind women with hyperthyroid eyes.” Miranda smiled. “You’re very kind,” she said, and Morris realised with joy that she meant it. “Can I get you another drink?” he said. “Yes please,” said Miranda, “more chardonnay. You know, it’s so nice to meet an honest man for a change. Normally at parties you can’t talk to a man for more than ﬁve minutes before he starts paying you false compliments and trying to ﬂatter you into sleeping with him. It’s so disappointing to discover that he’s not the least bit interested in you as a person.” Morris nodded and looked very understanding. He thought she had the sexiest body he’d seen all evening. After they had slept together that night he made a major decision. He decided he was still going to be there in the morning. He had found the girl of his dreams at last, and there was only one thing for him to do. He would have to add her to his list of regulars. That had been some months ago now, and Miranda was still as much in love with Morris as ever. Of course Morris was growing a little bored by this stage, but not so bored that he didn’t want to keep his options open. For this reason he had invited her to the Young Liberals ball that night. And for this reason she wanted to look her best.
William Pratt was going home. He did not know that, as a result of what would happen to him that very evening, he would go out the following Thursday to buy a water pistol. Nor did Maria Pratt know that, as a result of her actions, her husband would decide to buy a water pistol. This hardly matters because Maria Pratt wouldn’t have cared even if she had known. All she cared about was that her husband had come home drunk. Again. The real problem, from his wife’s point of view, was that William Pratt suﬀered from a complete lack of ambition. His occupation, for example, was that of shopping trolley collector. He was forty years old, and what he did all day was drive a small tractor around a shopping centre car park. His job was not altogether without power, he kept telling her. His tractor pulled a cart, and on the cart were young men who would run around the car park collecting the trolleys that the shops’ customers had abandoned. William Pratt decided which shopping trolleys these young men would collect. As far as Maria Pratt was concerned her husband’s job was stupid. It would be a tolerable job for a teenager out to earn some extra pocket money, but not for a tall, distinguished looking man of forty. If he was not more assertive with his employers, Maria thought, he would end up driving that tractor for ever. So she told him to be more assertive and competitive. Unfortunately for William, who couldn’t see anything wrong with 17
the idea of driving the tractor for ever, he was not very good at being assertive and competitive at work. He was quite good at being competitive in the pub after work, when he would challenge all the men at the bar to a drinking competition. But he couldn’t seem to apply the same degree of assertiveness at work, where it might possibly win him a pay rise or a promotion. His brother-in-law, Aristid, said that the problem was to do with what he called ‘delayed action aggression’. William had great respect for his brother-in-law, and always bowed to his superior wisdom. Another interesting thing about William was that while winning drinking competitions he never seemed to become drunk. Only after he had left the pub and returned home to Maria would he fall over, or throw up, or do something even more embarrassing. As well as suﬀering from delayed action aggression he seemed to suﬀer from delayed action intoxication. Thus it was that William Pratt came home drunk. Again. And as he fell into the rose bushes, and discovered once more that roses have thorns, a chain of events was set in motion that would lead, ultimately, to him buying a water pistol. “William Pratt, is that you?” said Maria from inside the house. He tried to separate himself from the rose bushes. “Yes dear,” he said, speaking carefully so that his words would not be slurred, and also to make sure they were the words they were supposed to be. “Come inside at once William Pratt.” “Yes dear. These roses are lovely. You have done a very good job on them. Ow!” “What are you doing?” “Nothing. Aargh!” Maria’s head appeared through the window above the rose bushes. “My roses! Get out of them at once!” “Yes dear. I’m jush shrying. I mean, I’m just trying.” “William Pratt, you’re drunk and you’re sitting in my roses. Get out of them. Now.” “Yes dear. Er, could you help me, perhaps? I seem to have forgotten how to stand up, and I am also in terrible pain.” 18
It then occurred to William that he would very much like to throw up. So he did, on the roses. Fortunately, Maria did not see this. She was making her way round from the window to the door, in order to help him up. When she arrived he smiled at her. “Hello dear,” he said, “have you had a nice day?” “No. Did you have a word with Mr Blenkham, about your salary?” “Well dear, I was going to. But Mr Blenkham was very busy. I will speak with him tomorrow.” “Tomorrow’s Sunday.” “Then I will speak with him the day after tomorrow.” “What if he’s busy the day after tomorrow?” William thought about this. “Then I will speak with him the day after the day after tomorrow.” “Oh William!” “I did, however, win ﬁfty dollars at the pub afterwards.” William reached into his pocket and produced the ﬁfty dollars. He handed the money to Maria, then threw up in her roses again. Maria Pratt was not a harsh or intolerant woman. Very few things her husband did could make her speechless with rage. One of those things was winning money in drinking competitions. Another was being sick in her roses. Maria Pratt dropped the ﬁfty dollars in disgust. “William Pratt,” she said, “you are a failure, and I never want to see you again.” “Oh,” said William. “How could you do this to me? What sort of life are you giving me?” “I will talk to Mr Blenkham on Monday, dear. I promise.” “And why are you always drunk?” “I am not always drunk. It’s just something that seems to happen to me shortly after I leave the pub in the evenings.” “Oh you . . . just go away. I’m not having anything more to do with you.” “Sorry dear?” 19
“It’s ﬁnished, William. Over. Done. Goodbye.” Maria turned to go back into the house. William tried to rise and follow her, but fell over again. At least he was now on the path rather than in the roses. “Maria,” he said, “have I done something to annoy you?” “Go away William.” “Perhaps I should buy you a ﬂower, dear. Would that help?” “A ﬂower?” “Yes. A red one, perhaps?” “You mean like the ones you just sat in and ruined?” “Ah. Is that what’s wrong dear?” “Go away William.” Maria Pratt went back into her house and locked the door. She also bolted the door. This meant that when William ﬁnally stumbled to his feet and reached the door he was quite unable to get in. This was especially irritating for him because he had been quite clever in getting the key into the lock and turning it. William Pratt knocked quietly on the door of his house. “May I come in, dear?” he said. “Go away William,” said his wife from inside. “Please,” said William. His wife didn’t answer. “Are you still there dear?” said William. Still his wife did not answer. “Dear?” No answer. He sighed. There would be no bed for him at home that night. He would have to go and stay with his brother-in-law, Aristid. Maria didn’t approve of Aristid, even though he was her brother. She was of the opinion that he was a little too strange for his own good. William liked him though. Aristid was one of the few people who appreciated the problems associated with delayed action aggression. As William stumbled away from his house and down the street, he began to feel a slight sense of indignation. What, he thought to himself, did roses matter when compared to his happiness? Why did 20
she care more for what he had done to them than for what the thorny little horrors had done to him? He decided that he hated roses. He was almost inclined to turn round, return to his garden and rip the horrid things out of the ground once and for all. But he kept on walking. The ﬁfty dollars began to annoy him too. It was good money, ﬁfty spendable dollars. Wasn’t money the one thing she was always accusing him of not having enough of? Yet she threw it back in his face, as if it were something sordid and unpleasant. He couldn’t understand it at all. Finally, as if all this was not enough, she had locked him out of his own house. She had bolted the door from the inside. His house, a house he had paid for, partly with money won in drinking competitions. It was monstrous. He knocked on the door of his brother-in-law’s house. “Lock me out?” said William, miserably. “Why does she keep locking me out? I wish I knew.” “Good evening William,” said Aristid, who had just opened the door. “Maria has locked you out again, has she?”
Along the dark street walked Desmond Fisher. The ﬂat he shared with Colin was twenty minutes walk away from Cathy’s place, and he was almost there. His complete (if predictable) failure to ﬁnd even one unattached girl to talk to at the party had left him feeling depressed and lonely. Had he been a fan of Shakespeare he might have commented on how weary, stale, ﬂat and unproﬁtable seemed to him all the uses of this world. But he was not a fan of Shakespeare. He was a lonely young man with no sense of humour who worked in a bank. As he walked along the ill-lit streets of a suburb far too fashionable for his salary to comfortably pay the rent in, he thought about his ideal woman. This was not someone he had ever met, just someone he would like to. She was probably not even real. She was very patient, dark haired, reasonably good looking, smiled a lot, worked in a bank and was terribly interested in Star Wars ﬁlms rather than Shakespeare. Desmond, as previously mentioned, was not a fan of Shakespeare. Desmond wondered why this dream girl never showed up at any of the parties he went to. As he entered the less fashionable parts of his suburb and wandered past crumbling cement walls towards his ﬂat he thought about himself and his friend Colin, and how diﬀerent they both were. Colin was tall, dark and had a devil-may-care attitude to life. Desmond was shortish, with pale brown hair and had no sense of humour (or, as he put it, had a serious and thoughtful personality). There was also a diﬀerence in the number of women they had. Colin, it seemed, had a new woman 23
every week or so, while Desmond had no woman at all. This diﬀerence in degrees of success with women sometimes made Desmond a little bitter. It wasn’t that he was jealous of Colin, for Colin was a friend and he never felt jealous of his friends. The problem was that Colin had developed a system. When Desmond ﬁrst moved up from the country to work in the bank he found the city to be an awe inspiring place. It was not so much the size that worried him, nor the ridiculously large number of people. It was the noise. Desmond found that shortly after moving into the city he had completely forgotten what quiet sounded like. He needed a place to live, so he answered an advertisement in the newspaper. The advertisement sought someone to share a small ﬂat in a rather fashionable part of town. As a result of answering the advertisement he met Colin. “Hi,” said Colin, “I’m Colin.” “Hello,” said Desmond, “I’m Desmond.” Desmond entered Colin’s ﬂat for the ﬁrst time to size the place up. He needed a ﬂat-mate who would be either good company or not there, depending on how he felt at the time. Colin seemed all right to him at ﬁrst. He was tall and thin, with dark hair and brown eyes. He also had a rather crooked smile which made him look friendlier than a more conventional one would have done. Above all, he seemed to have the right ideas about privacy. “You know how it is,” said Colin, “when you don’t, for some reason, want to have a guy about, then, well, you get pretty uptight if you’ve got your ﬂat-mate wandering around. You know? So, I guess, the best sort of ﬂat-mate is one who agrees not to be around at times like that. Do you agree? I mean, when you don’t want me around, I shouldn’t be around, and when I don’t want you around, you shouldn’t be around.” “Yes,” said Desmond, “I agree with that. Sometimes you just want to be alone.” So Colin and Desmond agreed to share the ﬂat. Desmond was pleased to have found such a sensitive and understanding young man to share with. Desmond moved in. His few small suitcases ﬁtted easily into the 24
room which was to be his. Colin showed him how to use the toaster, the micro-wave, the washing machine, the television, the stereo and all the other gadgets in the ﬂat. Colin was the sort of man who didn’t mind sharing his gadgets with others. Where electronic gadgets were concerned his generosity knew no bounds. It seemed to Desmond that this was further proof of his good nature. The only gadget Desmond owned was a small electric pencil sharpener, but he at once gave Colin free access to it. From his frost free fridge Colin took two beers and gave one to Desmond. Desmond thanked him, and drank his slowly. Sharing a ﬂat with Colin, Desmond thought, would enable him to feel at home in the city at last. While drinking his beer he sat in one corner of Colin’s long, white sofa. It was the only item of furniture in the main room of Colin’s sparse ﬂat. The other rooms were two small bedrooms, a small bathroom and a small kitchen. There wasn’t a lot of furniture (after paying for the rent and the gadgets Colin didn’t have much left for furniture) but it was comfortable. He had only known Colin for a few days, but already he liked him. This was a man, he thought, who would be a friend as well as a ﬂat-mate. Then Colin explained his system. “I have a system,” he said, handing Desmond another beer. “A system?” “Yes. We talked about it before you moved in. It’s a system for what to do if you’ve got a girl in the ﬂat and you don’t want your ﬂat-mate barging in and spoiling everything.” “Oh,” said Desmond. “Yeah. If you bring a bird home and I’m not already here, just put this ‘Do not disturb’ sign on the door.” Colin held up a laminated card with a hook on one end. On one side of the card was written ‘Do not disturb’, and on the other ‘Please clean the room’. “See?” said Colin. “I stole it from a hotel in America. You put this on the door handle if you, er, how was it you put it? If you ‘just want to be alone’,” Colin grinned and winked, “and I won’t come in. I’ll stay the night with a friend.” 25
Desmond was confused. “Oh,” he said, “thanks.” “That’s okay,” said Colin. “And of course if I’ve got a girl here and I think my chances are good I’ll just stick the sign on the door and you’ll know to stay the night with a friend.” That, from Desmond’s point of view, was the problem with Colin. There were many things to like about him. He was friendly, cheerful, and open-handed with beer and gadgetry. But being tall, dark, thin and handsome as well, it was hardly any surprise that he managed to attract so many women into his bed. Thus it was hardly any surprise that Desmond often came home after a hard day at work to ﬁnd a ‘Do not disturb’ sign hanging on the door of the ﬂat. There were several reasons why this wasn’t fair on Desmond. Firstly, he didn’t have a girlfriend, so he never got an opportunity to use the sign himself. Sometimes when he got home from work before Colin he felt tempted to put the sign out anyway, but he never did. He was too honest. He could never put the sign out under false pretences. Secondly he didn’t have any friends he could spend the night with. Faced with Colin’s ‘Do not disturb sign’ he had no alternative but to sleep on the stairs. Colin’s ﬂat was on the second ﬂoor of a large building, and the concrete stairs were ill-lit and uncarpeted. But Desmond was quite used to sleeping on them by now. They held no new terrors for him. So as he wandered up these stairs again, tired and miserable after Cathy’s party, he was hardly surprised to see Colin’s sign on the door. Why else should Colin have sent him oﬀ to a party without going himself? He sighed deeply and curled up on the stairs to sleep. If he had known that very soon he would be in love he would have made the most of this moment of comparative happiness. But he did not know this. He thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse. He had not yet met Miranda Catarini.
A few miles east of where Desmond Fisher was sleeping on the stairs Miranda Catarini was wearing a very expensive cream coloured strapless ball gown and looking like an anxious fairy-tale princess. She had been waiting now for three hours, and there was still no sign of Morris. She sat on her bed and worried about him. Where was he? What had happened to him? Was he all right? Had he simply forgotten? Her ﬂat was in an even more fashionable part of town than Desmond’s, so, since she didn’t earn a lot more than him, it had to be a lot smaller. It had one large bedroom (hers), one small bedroom (her ﬂat-mate had recently moved out, and she hadn’t found a replacement), one very small living room, one small bathroom and a small kitchen. She had more furniture than Desmond and Colin, but fewer gadgets. Unless she found a new ﬂat-mate soon she would have to move out. She wanted to move in with Morris, but Morris said that living together would stiﬂe their independence. She didn’t agree with this, but she hid her feelings because she loved Morris so much. As a matter of fact, she worked for the same banking corporation as Desmond. She worked in a diﬀerent part of town, in the Electronic Data Processing (EDP) division. Next week, however, she would not be working in the main bank building as she usually did. Next week she would be part of a team visiting various bank branches to promote and test a new computer system designed to help bank customers to open cheque accounts. Next week she would be assigned to one of those branches. She would have to pretend to know far more about 27
computers than she really did. She would have to demonstrate a system she didn’t know much about to people who would be watching eagerly for any mistake she might make. She felt very nervous. The more she thought about the terrible unknown that constituted next week the more nervous she became. What she really needed was to go out to the ball with Morris and have her mind taken oﬀ things. Instead, Morris’s failure to turn up was concentrating her mind on things wonderfully. Of course she had told him how nervous she was. He simply told her that if she didn’t like working with computers she should resign, and if she didn’t intend to resign she should stop whinging. Miranda loved Morris very much, but she was no longer under any illusions about how understanding he was. Once more she tried to phone him. Once more his phone went unanswered. She suspected that he had probably just forgotten about the ball and gone out somewhere else. But she tried not to think those thoughts. If, in fact, Morris was lying in a gutter somewhere after having been mugged, stabbed, shot and run over by a Holden, she would feel awfully guilty for having doubted him. Her mind was now divided between two possible courses of action. She could fret about the non-appearance of Morris, or she could worry herself into a state of extreme nervous tension by thinking about work next week. Miranda was not looking forward to Monday morning. She would report, ﬁrst thing, to the main bank building where Mr Jameson would tell her how to behave when dealing with branch staﬀ and customers, for Miranda would be promoting Mr Jameson’s new computer system to members of the public as well as to branch level employees of the bank. She wondered what sort of impression she was going to make on the staﬀ of the branch assigned to her. Not a good one, she suspected. They would be busy actually running the bank, while she would just be standing around waiting for someone to use a computer. And they would know that she was earning more money than them for doing so. She was faced with a choice between worrying about Monday or 28
worrying about Morris. So she opted for a third choice and lay down on her bedclothes to be depressed. She should, no doubt, have taken her dress oﬀ ﬁrst, but it is very diﬃcult to do being depressed properly if you stop to make sensible plans about it ﬁrst. So she lay full length, and fully dressed, on her bed and felt miserable. She didn’t feel quite miserable enough to cry, but she felt a lot more miserable than she would have done if Morris had turned up to take her to the ball. After half an hour of being depressed she fell asleep. Her sleep was deep and dreamless. She slept for hours, the creases in her ball gown growing deeper and more interesting as she did so. At one o’clock in the morning she woke up and glanced vaguely at the luminous hands of her alarm clock. Suddenly she sat bolt upright. It was one o’clock and she still hadn’t heard from Morris. Quickly she rolled over towards the telephone extension. Her hand fumbled for the switch to her bedside lamp, and eventually she could see again. There was sleep in her eyes, but she could see the phone well enough to dial Morris’s number. She heard the phone ring. She heard it being answered. Morris’s voice spoke to her at last. “Yes, what?” it said. “Morris?” said Miranda. “Miranda?” said Morris. “It’s one o’clock in the morning. What are you phoning me for?” “Are you all right? Where were you this evening?” “I was at the Young Liberals’ Ball. You must have known I was going.” “I thought you were going to take me! You said you would.” “Did I?” “Yes. Last week. You said you’d pick me up at seven.” “I thought you were busy tonight. I thought on Thursday you said you were going out tonight.” “I said we were going out. To the ball.” “Oh, I see. Sorry, but you should have reminded me.” “You went without me!” 29
“Look, I said I was sorry. What do you think you’re doing phoning me up at one o’clock in the morning anyway?” “Who did you take to the ball? How could you possibly have forgotten to take me?” “Miranda, it’s one o’clock in the morning.” “How could you forget?” “Easy. You didn’t remind me. Now hang up and go to sleep. Jesus, you’d think we were married or something the way you go on.” “Oh Morris!” “Look stop it Miranda. You’re being too possessive. If you’re going to be this possessive at one o’clock in the morning I think you’ll probably ruin our relationship. So just have a bit of concern for my feelings, will you.” “Your feelings?” “Or do you want to ruin our relationship? You’re always saying you love me, but what you really mean is you want me running around after you like some feeble minded slave boy.” “What?” “Do you want to ruin our relationship or don’t you?” “No. Of course not. I just wanted to see you, that’s all . . . ” “Well if you keep ringing me up at one o’clock in the morning you will ruin our relationship. If you really do want to see me again you’ve got a funny way of showing it.” “Oh Morris, I’m sorry. I was worried about you . . . ” “God Miranda, don’t be pathetic. Go to sleep. Good night.” “Wait Morris, will I see you tomorrow?” “I don’t know. Maybe. You know how diﬃcult it is for me to make plans at one o’clock in the morning.” “Please. Come to lunch. I’ll make your favourite.” “Maybe. Good night Miranda.” Morris hung up. Miranda said good night to the engaged signal, then hung up too. She turned her light out and went back to sleep. She didn’t bother to take her ball gown oﬀ. She’d had better nights.
On Sunday morning William Pratt woke up with a mouth made of pebble-dash concrete and a head that seemed to have caved in at some stage during the night. There was also far too much light ﬁnding its way in from beyond the curtains. He was not in his own bed. Had Maria locked him out again, he wondered? Had she, once again, declared a general desire never to see him again? Memory came ﬂooding back, causing an intense pain just behind his eyes. He groaned, quietly. The room he was in was the guest room of Aristid’s little wooden house. The paint on the house was crumbling and the garden overgrown, but inside the house it was remarkably clean and tidy. This room was small, with only a single bed and a wardrobe, but it was still more comfortable to sleep in than Maria Pratt’s rose bushes. There was a gentle knocking on the door of the room, and William thought his head would explode with the sound. Into the room stepped his brother-in-law, Aristid, smiling tolerantly. “Good morning William,” said Aristid, “I have made you a mug of tea.” Aristid was dressed already in black trousers, white shirt and dark blue tie. Aristid always overdressed for the weekend. He was a man of only average height, which made him considerably shorter than William. He had jet black hair which he always wore plastered to his head with hair oil. His eyes were piercing and small, and when he 31
smiled (which he did often) his mouth formed the shape of a ‘v’ rather than a ‘u’. A smile like that when combined with eyes like those often served to make people who met Aristid feel very nervous. His voice had a middle European lilt to it, and he always spoke with a slow politeness which would cause anyone who hadn’t already succumbed to his eyes and his smile to break into a cold sweat. But William liked Aristid anyway. He thought his brother-in-law was both wise and profound. “Hello Aristid,” croaked William. “Thank you for letting me stay. Thank you also for the tea.” William took the mug of tea from Aristid’s hand and sipped it gratefully. Aristid smiled. “Do not mention it, my dear brother-in-law,” he said. “You know that my house is always open to you. Stay as long as you wish.” “You are very kind, Aristid. I wonder if I might ask you for some headache tablets?” “Feeling unwell? I will get you the tablets.” Aristid left for the tablets and William suppressed a moan. He was sure that his skull was too tight this morning, but how could he loosen it? Any movement caused something sharp and heavy to roll around the most sensitive areas of his brain. Most mornings at about this time he decided to give up drinking forever. He did it again as Aristid walked in with the headache tablets. “Here you are, William,” said Aristid, handing him the tablets. “Swallow these and you will soon feel quite recovered.” William swallowed. He sipped more tea to make the swallowing easier. “Now,” said Aristid, “how long will you wish to stay? Do you think Maria will soon forgive you?” “It is diﬃcult to say. She did seem rather angry when she bolted me out of the house.” “She has been angry before. Did you give her cause to be angry?” “Not at all. On the contrary, I gave her ﬁfty dollars. It was hard earned as well. I worked hard for that ﬁfty dollars.” 32
“I’m sure you did.” “This week we have a new tractor at work. It is powerful enough to pull twice as many trolleys as the old one. Now it is possible to collect all the shopping trolleys from around the car park in one journey rather than two. However, until yesterday we had some diﬃculty driving it. The steering wheel is adjustable, and no one realised this. Its positioning was not satisfactory. It made turning the machine diﬃcult. But once I had discovered how to alter the position all was well. Steering wheel positioning is of great importance in a job like mine.” “It is skilled work, William. Craftsmanship is required.” “It is, Aristid, it is indeed. A lot of young people starting out in the profession look upon it as mere manual labour, a foolish means of occupying time. They fail to appreciate the skills required, or the enormous responsibilities the work involves.” “Responsibilities indeed. To manoeuvre so many trolleys between so many parked cars, cars belonging to potential customers. Why, the possible damage . . . ” “That is a problem, no doubt Aristid, but I think you fail to understand the point.” “Forgive me, my dear William, for I have little experience of such things.” “Shopping trolley management is an art, and all art involves sacriﬁce. Of course our patrons’ vehicles are valuable to us, but we need not be overly concerned to protect them. The aisles in our car park are wide, and the tractor’s speed is not great. Besides, our patrons are advised by signs before they enter our car park that the management takes no responsibility for loss or damages sustained by vehicles whilst on the premises. No, our responsibility is to our art. We do not seek to harm our patrons’ vehicles, but their protection is not the criterion by which our success is judged. It is like a surgeon. Of course he hopes that his patient survives the operation, but it is not, fundamentally, what matters.” “I begin to see. The surgeon cares more for the neatness of his incisions. . . ” 33
“Precisely Aristid. Provided he has not actually caused his patient’s death he cares not whether that patient survives. What matters to him, and what determines his reputation, is how beautifully the operation is performed. So it is that, in the ﬁeld of shopping trolley management, the mathematical precision with which we divide up the car park prior to setting out in our tractor matters more than the damage caused to our patrons’ vehicles, or even than the number of trolleys actually collected. It is the path you choose around the car park, the way the tractor is driven, the way it is guided around the car park in tune with mathematical precision, artistically right, that matters. When I was a younger man the elegant simplicity of the path I followed around the car park was enough to bring tears to my superiors’ eyes.” “Your soul is one of great beauty, William. I am humbled by the sensitivity of your nature.” “Yet now, with our new tractor able, as it is, to pull twice the number of trolleys, a new path is needed. The old one, designed for a simpler type of tractor, no longer feels right. Yet the young men I work with do not appreciate this. They cannot see that we have a duty to our art to discover a new path.” “One whose mathematical form is better suited to the new tractor?” “Yes, Aristid, yes. The mathematical and the artistic are more nearly related than people think, and nowhere is this relationship more clearly seen than in the management of shopping trolleys.” “So you have been working hard on designing a new path?” “I have. All last week. As well as discovering how the steering wheel may best be adjusted for driving comfort, I succeeded in devising a new path around the car park that enables the new tractor to collect its trolleys with previously undreamed of elegance and beauty.” “Oh William! I am so proud of you.” “Thank you Aristid. I call it my algorithm. I employed it for the ﬁrst time yesterday morning, and the other driver, Mr Wymer, was most impressed.” “And for this you were awarded an extra ﬁfty dollars?” 34
“Well, no. Not for that.” “Ah,” said Aristid. “I thought that might be the case,” “No, in fact he said that, although artistically preferable, my path was not so special as I seemed to think it was. In fact, in discussing it between themselves, Mr Wymer and the other young men who work with us made my devotion to our art a subject of considerable mirth.” “They laughed at you?” “Yes Aristid. They laughed at me.” “Alas! True visionaries are always laughed at by lesser men, William.” “Indeed, and of course I am aware of that fact. At ﬁrst I treated their contempt philosophically, thinking that future ages would remember me as a pioneer of my art while their names would be utterly forgotten. But later, their scorn began to hurt. I fear I grew rather angry with them. I began to desire a test, a demonstration to prove at once that my worth was as great as theirs.” “Tell me William, when did this desire take hold of you?” “About half an hour after work. In the pub.” “And the test you devised to demonstrate your greater artistic worth? Was it, perhaps, a drinking competition?” “Alas Aristid, I fear it was.” “Hm,” said Aristid, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “I was most impressive,” said William, “I challenged them not in a group, but singly. One after the other.” “And won?” “Of course.” “My goodness. That certainly demonstrates something.” “Artistic worth?” “Possibly, William, possibly. Tell me, this ﬁfty dollars that you gave Maria, did you win that in the drinking competition?” “Yes, I did.” “And did you tell Maria where you got it from?” “Of course. Our marriage is based upon total honesty.” “Hm. That could have been your mistake. I fear that my sister might not altogether approve of this means of making money.” 35
“You think that is why she threw the money back in my face?” “It may well be.” “Ah. Then that could be in part why she is angry with me.” Aristid smiled sadly. “In part, William?” “Yes. She may also have been somewhat annoyed by my appearance upon arriving home.” “Was something wrong with your appearance upon arriving home?” “I might, possibly, have seemed a little drunk. I was not drunk in the pub, during the drinking competition, but I did begin to feel rather unwell as I went home. I fear that I fell over in Maria’s roses. She is fond of her roses.” “Yes, I remember.” “And of course, shortly after falling over in them I was violently ill on them. This also may have upset her.” “Ah. Yes. I can see how that might possibly be a source of annoyance.” “I begin to think,” said William, “that these circumstances may have combined to make her rather more angry with me than she would otherwise have been.” “Oh? Would she have been angry with you otherwise?” “I fear so.” Aristid sat down in the chair beside William’s bed. He placed a comforting hand on his brother-in-law’s shoulder. “Tell me,” he said, “why she would otherwise have been angry with you.” “Well,” said William, “before I went to work yesterday morning I promised Maria that I would speak to Mr Blenkham about my salary. Maria feels it is inadequate, you know.” “Did you speak to this Mr Blenkham?” “Well, no. I approached his oﬃce, and the door was slightly open. Looking in I saw that he was speaking on the telephone. He seemed extremely busy. I decided it would be best not to trouble him at that moment.” “So you have not spoken to him?” “No.” 36
“And you fear Maria would not have understood your failure in this regard?” “I fear she would not. I believe Maria feels I am not assertive enough with Mr Blenkham. I cannot understand this. She must know that I have often beaten him in drinking competitions.” Aristid nodded sympathetically. William looked towards him with hope. From the furrows in his brow it was clear that his brother-in-law was thinking deeply on the matter. William drank the last drops of his tea and wondered what plan the brilliant (if slightly warped) mind of Aristid would evolve to help him. In spite of his several artistic triumphs in the ﬁeld of shopping trolley management, William Pratt was not very good at coping with real life. Another indication of his failure to understand the world around him was the absolute trust he placed in the genius of Aristid. “I think,” said Aristid, “that in spite of your many artistic triumphs in the ﬁeld, shopping trolley management is not a career in which you can make a future for yourself. Do you agree?” “I don’t know. Certainly that is Maria’s opinion.” Aristid smiled and stared deep into William’s eyes. “Then William, my dear brother-in-law, I feel it is time that you bought yourself a water pistol.” And with that Aristid left the room to prepare breakfast.
“Morning Desmond,” said Colin. Desmond had a pain in his head. It was caused by the rusty iron railing pressing against the back of his neck. He was lying on the concrete stairs outside his ﬂat and using the iron railing as a pillow. He felt sweaty and cold at the same time, and very thirsty. Being forced to sleep on those wretched concrete stairs was not something Desmond enjoyed. Still, it was Colin’s ﬂat. The stairs were dusty and smelt of decay. Standing above him Desmond could see Colin and a shortish, plumpish, attractive looking girl with curly fair hair. She looked amused. In fact, she looked as if she was trying very hard not to giggle. Colin was smiling a bit too. “Desmond,” said Colin, “this is Angie. Angie, this is Desmond.” Desmond stood up to shake the girl’s hand. He had gone to the party the night before in a jacket and tie. These both looked rather crumpled now. So did his short brown hair. “How do you do?” said Desmond. Without saying anything the girl shook Desmond’s hand. But her smile grew broader even as she tried to keep her mouth closed. Colin grinned. “Did you have a good night Des?” he asked, and the girl burst out laughing. It was hard for Desmond to know quite what to say, so he just stood there looking as serious as possible. The girl laughed again. “I’m sorry,” she said, giggling mercilessly. “Really. Um, are you Colin’s professional doormat or something?” 39
Desmond didn’t understand the question. “Sorry?” he said. “He’s not a doormat,” Colin said. “He’s just sleeping out here until we have a catﬂap put in the front door.” Desmond was still baﬄed. “Catﬂap?” he said. This was too much for the girl, who burst into positive hysterics. Colin, laughing too, tried to calm her down. Her laughter temporarily subsiding, the girl shook Desmond’s hand again. “It’s been really, er, interesting meeting you,” she said. Then another ﬁt of the giggles overtook her. Colin took her down the stairs to the street, and Desmond wandered wearily into the ﬂat. He felt miserable. He felt as if the world had ended. Again. The ﬂat was sparsely furnished. There was no carpet, and the telephone stood on the ﬂoor by the front door. Desmond collapsed onto Colin’s sofa, and stared at the bare, white wall. In a minute, he knew, Colin would come back in, having said goodbye to his latest conquest, probably never to see her again. Until his return into the ﬂat Desmond was free to hate Colin as intensely as he could. After that it would be impossible. As soon as he returned Colin would start being nice to him again. Colin came in. “Oh mate,” he said, “you must have had a terrible time out there. All night! I really do appreciate it, you know. Every time I ﬁnd you out there in the mornings I think to myself: what a great friend Des is; he understands how important it is for a guy to be alone with the bird he’s after; he’s a really sensitive, understanding guy, is Des. It’s really great of you. You’re, well, you’re just the ideal ﬂat mate.” “It’s nothing, really,” said Desmond with a sigh, “I don’t mind.” “I’ll make you a mug of tea. And bacon and eggs. How about that? Sunday breakfast?” “Thanks.” The room next to the living room was a small kitchen, and Colin disappeared into it. Desmond wondered if suicide hurt. “Colin,” called Desmond. “Yes?” said Colin from the kitchen. 40
“Why are we getting a cat ﬂap? We don’t have a cat.” There was a pause. Then Colin’s voice came once more from the kitchen. “Did you say: ‘Why are we getting a cat ﬂap, we don’t have a cat’ ?” “Yes.” “Des, has anyone ever told you that you’re an incredibly stupid person?” “Sorry?” said Desmond. Colin appeared from the kitchen and handed Desmond a mug of tea. He was smiling aﬀectionately. “You’re a nice guy, Des,” he said, “a really good friend, but dumb. Very very dumb.” “Oh,” said Desmond. It was probably just his imagination, but sometimes he suspected that Colin was laughing at him. As Colin went back into the kitchen to start breakfast, Desmond sipped his tea. It tasted horrible. There were at least three teaspoons of sugar in it. Desmond didn’t like sugar in his tea. Colin always forgot this. Desmond drank the tea anyway, so as not to hurt his friend’s feelings. “Des,” called Colin from the kitchen, “could you possibly make the breakfast for me? I’m having a bit of trouble with the eggs.” Sighing deeply, Desmond rose to his feet. Colin never could manage eggs. Desmond didn’t know why his friend was always volunteering to do things for him and then not doing them. Perhaps Colin believed that it was only the thought that counted. The kitchen was small, but fairly well equipped with gadgets. There was a small microwave at one end by the door and a small cook top, with a little oven underneath it, at the other end. There was a large fridge by the cook top, and a single sink, embedded in the work bench under the window. Best of all, there was a kettle. There had been no kettle when Desmond ﬁrst moved in. Colin had bought it for him shortly afterwards, feeling guilty, perhaps, about the ﬁrst night Desmond had spent sleeping on the stairs. Since that night Colin had hardened his conscience rather. All Desmond got now for 41
his pains was a mug of sweet tea. “How was the party?” Colin asked as Desmond cracked a couple of eggs and eased their contents into the sizzling frying pan. “Good,” lied Desmond. Colin moved away from the frying pan and leant against the microwave. Desmond took over the cooking. “How’s Cathy?” Colin asked. “All right, I think,” said Desmond. “Do you want a beer with breakfast?” said Colin. “I’d rather have orange juice,” said Desmond. “So tell me about this party, Des, come on. What was it like?” “All right. Fun, I suppose.” The eggs and the bacon were sticking to the frying pan. Colin had not put enough oil in. Desmond wrestled with the spatula. “You don’t sound very enthusiastic. Any good birds there?” said Colin. “I think so. A few of the girls seemed nice.” “Get anywhere with any of them?” “No. I’m afraid not.” “Oh Des. You’re hopeless. You’ve got to try harder, mate. You don’t want to be a virgin all your life, do you?” Desmond blushed. How did Colin know he was a virgin? “Look,” said Colin, “maybe I could ﬁnd a bird for you? Would you like that? I know plenty.” “No,” said Desmond, “it’d be too much trouble for you.” “No it wouldn’t. Not for a mate.” “Oh, well, in that case . . . ” “Though I guess perhaps you’re right. It wouldn’t be very romantic for you, going out with someone I’d chosen, would it? No, I guess you’d better just try harder at the next party you go to. Call me when breakfast is ready, would you? And pour me a beer too, when you’ve ﬁnished that. Thanks mate.” Colin left the room.
The garden of Aristid’s house was quite large, considering that the house itself was so small, but it was very untidy. The paint was peeling oﬀ Aristid’s garden table and the lawn (which was mostly weeds) needed mowing. A few trees slumped beside the fence, and before them a murky green swimming pool stood deep and uninviting. Aristid set two wicker chairs on the cracked concrete paving stones of his weed infested patio. Aristid gestured elaborately towards one of the chairs. “Please, brother-in- law William,” he said, “sit with me and enjoy the sun.” It was in a state of some confusion that William followed his brother-in-law into the garden. He was still thinking about Aristid’s curious comment about a water pistol. On the one hand he didn’t know what his brother-in-law meant, and on the other hand he didn’t want to appear stupid by having to admit it. The possibility that Aristid had merely said what he said because he was a very strange person never occurred to William. But then he wasn’t altogether normal himself. The chair William sat in was surprisingly comfortable. Beside him Aristid sat in another chair, eyes closed, smiling at the sun. “Um, Aristid,” said William, “I hate to appear stupid. Appearing stupid is something I have always taken particular care to avoid.” “Of course,” said Aristid, “that is understandable. I take such care myself.” “Exactly,” said William, “So, in order not to look foolish, I have 43
avoided asking you a certain question.” “What question, William?” “This morning, when we were talking about Maria’s reasons for kicking me out, you said you though it was time I bought a water pistol.” “Yes. I remember.” “At the time, of course, in order not to appear stupid, I did not admit that I didn’t know what you were talking about. Since then I have racked my brains trying to discover what you could have meant, but I fear my imagination has let me down.” “A more common problem, William, than many are willing to admit.” “Indeed. What were you talking about?” “When I said it was time you bought a water pistol?” “Yes.” “I was talking about your future, William.” “Ah. You thought that Maria and I should have a child, and that in order to keep this child amused we should buy it a water pistol.” “No. That was not what I thought.” “Oh. If that had been what you thought, then I must say it is a good plan. A child would certainly bring Maria and me back together. In fact, separate, having a child might prove rather diﬃcult. However, we have been married for ﬁfteen years, and in all that time we have been quite unable to produce a child. I fear a water pistol would not be quite the same without one.” “Children were not the objects of my thoughts, William. No, I thought that you might ﬁnd a water pistol useful in furthering your career.” “Oh,” said William, feeling puzzled. “Good,” said Aristid, and sat back to continue enjoying the sun. For a few seconds William sat in silence, staring into the dark, mossy depths of the stagnant swimming pool. How, he thought to himself, could a water pistol contribute to the mechanics of shopping trolley management? “Aristid,” said William, after a pause. 44
“Yes William?” said Aristid, eyes still closed. “I hate to appear stupid, as I mentioned, but I’m afraid I must confess that I do not see how a water pistol could possibly help to further my career.” “It would have to be a very special sort of water pistol.” “Ah. Would it.” “Yes indeed. It would have to be a water pistol designed to appear, to the casual observer, to be a genuine ﬁrearm.” “You mean you think that a water pistol, designed to look like a real gun, would help me to manage the shopping trolleys? No doubt you are right. A man with a gun at his side is a more digniﬁed and powerful ﬁgure, even if that gun only squirts water. Possibly if I were to combine it with knee length jack boots and a peaked cap I would be even more impressive.” “No doubt, William, no doubt. But that is not quite what I had intended.” But William’s mind had already attached itself to the thought. He could almost see himself, a handsome, jack booted ﬁgure, mounting his powerful new tractor, chugging through the car park with a cart full of shopping trolleys trundling after him, pulling his gun out of his holster to squirt threateningly at Mr Wymer, or even Mr Blenkham. William was not quite sure how powerfully the modern water pistol could squirt, but he was sure the jet of water would be strong enough to show them he meant business. Yes, a water pistol was the weapon for him. Not lethal (for William would never wish to seriously hurt anyone) but dangerous enough to command respect. “William,” said Aristid, “are you still listening?” “Yes, of course. I was just wondering about something.” “What, my dear brother-in-law?” “What is a water pistol’s squirt like?” “What is a what?” “I mean, will a modern water pistol command respect?” “Oh yes. Provided it looks like a genuine ﬁrearm. And I have heard there are some made nowadays that look very much like genuine ﬁrearms.” 45
“So the ones that look like real guns are the most powerful?” “There is certainly power in them. They have the same threat value as genuine weapons, without being, according to law, ﬁrearms.” “So you think I should wear one of these marvellous new water pistols to work?” “Not exactly to work, no. I was thinking you might employ one for extra-curricular activities. William, you are a man ill-treated by life, are you not?” “I suppose so. Certainly things are not going well at the moment.” “You are, indeed, the sort of man who can achieve nothing by continuing along your current path.” “I suppose not. Though a pay rise is not altogether impossible.” “Yet other men, no more talented or able than you, gain much from life. For them there are rewards, ﬁnancial and social, that are denied to you.” “But I still have my art, Aristid.” “Art, William?” “Of shopping trolley management.” “Ah yes. But important as that is, William, other men have more. Do you know why other men have more?” “I cannot imagine.” “Because they are willing to take more.” “I am willing, under certain circumstances, to take. I have won much during the course of various drinking competitions.” “William, my dear brother-in-law, I have conceived a plan.” “Oh?” “Yes. And when the details of that plan have been completed I will explain it to you. It is a plan for your future, a plan that will win for you honour and glory.” “Will Maria approve of this plan?” “I hope so, William, I hope so.” “Good. Then I will trust you, Aristid.” “Excellent. I will tell you more when I have more to tell.”
That Monday morning Desmond Fisher went to work as usual. There were two doors to the bank branch where he worked. Neither of them was electronically operated. All the other branches of the bank in the city had automatic doors, but not this one. All it had was a sign on the outer door saying ‘PULL’, but it was the sort of door that people invariably pushed anyway. At half past nine the doors would be unlocked. Until then it didn’t matter that they weren’t electronic. Until then there was only one way for Desmond to get in. He pressed the button next to the doors and hoped that someone would come along to open them. From within the bank Sam, the security guard, appeared. He unlocked the door and, after Desmond had slipped inside, locked it again. He was a very big man, greying a little, but still formidable in his dark blue shirt and black trousers. Desmond didn’t know what sort of gun lurked in Sam’s large holster, nor did he want to. All guns made him nervous. The origin of the scar down Sam’s face was another mystery Desmond didn’t care to have solved. He had a square chin, a once broken nose and thick, stumpy ﬁngers. He was a cheerful fellow, though, even ﬁrst thing on a Monday morning. “G’day Desmond,” he said. “Have a good weekend?” “Yes thanks, Sam,” said Desmond, smiling feebly. “Get up to a bit of mischief, did you?” Sam asked, nudging him in the arm and grinning. “I bet you did. You young blokes today don’t waste any time, do you?” 47
“Er, no.” “You know how to spend a weekend. Eh? Partying, were you?” Desmond sighed. “Yes. Sort of.” Sam winked. “That’s the spirit. Make the most of your youth. Only young once, you are. Should have seen me when I was your age. I could have shown you a thing or two. Not now, of course. Now I’m married I never do nothing. Same story for thirty years. My weekends are spent mowing the lawn and watching TV. Bloody TV. You young blokes don’t know how lucky you are.” Desmond agreed that he wasn’t quite sure how lucky he was and went into the bank. The bank building itself contained one large rectangular room. There were a few oﬃces upstairs, where the manager and the assistant manager had their oﬃces, and some toilets downstairs near the car park. But basically the bank was just the rectangular room. Anyone walking through the doors would see the enquiry counter on his left and a wall of brochures, deposit slips, writing surfaces and seats on his right. At the moment this wall was covered with Easter pictures painted by children from the local primary school. They had been up there for a long time, and wouldn’t be seasonal again for even longer. The counter behind which the staﬀ members worked was ‘L’ shaped. The long arm of the ‘L’ was where Desmond worked. First there was the enquiry counter itself. This was where customers came to make enquiries, oﬀer advice or complaints, ask directions to the nearest restaurant, and so on. Behind this he had his own small desk, where he sat to ﬁll in forms, count deposit slips, mislay cheque books, answer telephones, and perform various other routine tasks. Several desk lengths away from this desk was the vault, with its huge, time locked door and wide range of ingenious alarms. The door was open now, but it would be thoroughly closed and locked by the time the bank opened at nine thirty. The bank had an automatic teller machine built into the outside wall, and the back of it extended into the branch. Desmond didn’t like to have anything to do with this machine. He had a horrible feeling it was trying to put him out of a job. 48
Further down the long arm of the counter were the tellers’ booths. When he wasn’t working behind the enquiry counter he worked in one of these. They were growing more and more computerised as the electronic machinery they held for the convenience of the tellers grew more sophisticated. Desmond, a part-time teller himself, would have been just as happy with a pocket calculator. In spite of being a member of the Star Wars Appreciation Society he didn’t trust computers at all. He wandered through the open gate in the enquiry counter and put his briefcase down behind his desk. He was the only person in the bank who had such a large briefcase. He had never needed half the things he kept in it, but, as he always said, the possibility remained. “Good morning Desmond,” said Anne Cameron. Of all the examiners behind the enquiry counter Anne was the most feared. She was about thirty ﬁve years old and the same height as he was. She wore tinted glasses and always had her dark brown hair tied in a severe bun at the back of her head. She was wearing the new dark grey uniform of the bank. Desmond’s uniform hadn’t arrived yet, so he wore light grey trousers and a business shirt, with the best cheap tie he owned. After saying good morning Anne returned to sorting out the application forms behind the enquiry counter. Marc was helping her. Marc was about Desmond’s age, and always looked tired and vaguely disgusted about something. He was quite tall and thin, and he walked with a stoop. He had long dark hair and a long thin nose. When he ﬁrst started working in the bank he had been nick-named ‘Speed’ because of the great length of time it took him to actually do anything. Desmond went to help Anne. “Go and help Julie with the cash, Desmond,” said Anne, with a scowl. “Marc’s going to learn how to do this, aren’t you Marc?” Marc shrugged his shoulders. “I know how to do it. Anyone can do it. It’s easy.” “You can’t do it apparently,” said Anne, “because you’re too careless. Last time I let you do this by yourself we ended up with a counter full of forms for the under-twelves’ poetry competition and 49
not a BankCard or Savings Account form in sight.” “I said I was sorry. Why do you always treat me like a three year old?” “Because if I treated you like a ﬁve year old you’d get confused. Now concentrate.” Anne had a reputation in the bank for being a bit ﬁerce, which was probably why so many people were afraid of her, but Desmond liked her. She had always been good to him. There were six desks in the enclosed space behind the enquiry counter , and another two behind the tellers booths. So, given that it was crowded already, Desmond could hardly fail to notice the pile of large sealed boxes with the letters ‘I.B.M.’ on them. “What are they?” Desmond said. Anne looked up. “They’re bits of a computer. This week we’re part of a ‘pilot test’ apparently. We’re going to be testing that computer on our customers. Stupid waste of time, if you ask me. As if we didn’t have enough to do already.” “Another computer?” said Desmond in alarm. “Yes Desmond. Another computer,” said Anne. “Worse than that, the EDP department’s going to assign us a ‘computer expert’ to show us how to use it. Now go and help Julie with the cash.” A computer expert. He was stunned. The only thing worse than a computer was a computer expert. He was sure he wouldn’t like this person at all.
Miranda woke up with a start. She reached over to her alarm clock, which was dancing angrily on her bedside table, and turned it oﬀ. She didn’t need it to ring anyway. She was wide awake. Normally it would take her quite a while to come to in the mornings. But not this morning. This morning was Monday morning, and it was to be her ﬁrst day visiting her bank branch to promote the new computer system. Of course Morris had not appeared on Sunday. She had tried telephoning him but no-one had answered his phone. So, since she hadn’t felt like seeing or talking to anyone else, she had spent Sunday alone. As a result of this, Sunday hadn’t been a lot more fun than Saturday. Now, however, it was Monday morning, and she would have to get up and face the awful ordeal of work. She didn’t want to. It suddenly seemed very cold outside her bedclothes, so she curled herself up into a warm ball and lay shivering under them. If only she had been taller. Tall women, Miranda believed, could always face the world with poise and conﬁdence. This was the other of the two big problems in her life, she decided. Fundamentally it was her inches and her boyfriend that were letting her down. When another three minutes had passed she got up to prepare for work. She managed to do this without thinking, but as she walked towards the bus stop thought processes began to start up in spite of all she tried to do to stop them. 51
One month ago she had started working in the EDP division of the bank. For three weeks she had been trained on the fourth ﬂoor of the main bank building in the city. This had told her (roughly) how to programme computers and how to cope with the simpler aspects of the computer processing of bank business. Before that she had been a student at the university, studying English Literature and reading lots of Shakespeare. Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot of call for Shakespeare in her new job. During a special week of interviews organised by the University Careers and Appointments Service she had been interviewed by representatives of the EDP division of the bank. They had been seeking to employ graduates with qualiﬁcations in a wider range of subjects than just computer science. They oﬀered her a second interview at the main bank building and then a job. They would train her thoroughly, they said, before they set her to do anything diﬃcult. She was about to do something diﬃcult, and she didn’t feel thoroughly trained at all. She had had three weeks of basic computer training, then one week assigned to the ECAS team. This was a small group of people who had developed the Electronic Cheque Account Service, a computer software system designed to help bank customers open cheque accounts. They had developed it and tested it under hypothetical conditions. Now they wanted to test it under real conditions, in real bank branches, with real bank customers. And they wanted her to be one of the people conducting this test. Personal computers had been sent out to various branches of the bank. Each member of the team would go out to one of these branches to help the staﬀ and customers use the system, to monitor its performance and to survey the staﬀ and customers on their attitudes towards the system. They might also be required to promote the system to branch management who (she had been told) were sometimes a little hostile to change. When the time for this ﬁnal test was drawing near, the team, led by Mr Jameson, had decided it needed two more members. They chose two of the newly trained graduates to join them. One was Russell, a 52
bright young mathematician. She was the other one. They had been given a week to familiarise themselves with the system. That week was over. Now they would have to be able to pass themselves oﬀ as experts, on their own, promoting and testing the system in distant, mysterious and, possibly, hostile bank branches. The system was not that complicated, but she didn’t know much about computers. After her week of trying to ﬁgure it out she didn’t feel she understood the ECAS system at all. If anyone in her bank branch asked her what it actually did she would probably just grin and look stupid. The sun shone brightly on the grey concrete of the street as she walked along. In spite of the cold morning it was going to be a warm day. Around her other people rushed towards their places of work. Some were as smartly dressed as her, others were not smartly dressed at all. Some, no doubt, were as nervous as she, for reasons of their own. Some, perhaps, were looking forward to their work. Probably most of them wished they were still in bed. That morning she had decided to wear a blue pleated skirt, a blue blazer and a white blouse. She was also wearing high heels. She didn’t like high heels very much. There is nothing, she thought, worse than wanting to run away from life while trapped in shoes that prevent you from running away from anything at all. The bus stop was at the end of Miranda’s road, just outside a chemist’s shop. On the opposite corner was a pub, and when the wind blew in the right direction the scent of concentrated beer rolled down the street. The other buildings were small blocks of expensive ﬂats that eﬀectively blocked out any view. There were grey bushes in front of them, and small ill looking trees. The road was dirty, and every time a heavy truck thundered down it dust blew in her eyes. Eventually the bus arrived, and at a quarter to nine, her usual time, she arrived at the main bank building. She waited patiently for the lift that would take her to the eleventh ﬂoor. It might well be the only time she visited the oﬃce this week. The rest of the time she would be out at her branch. she felt a sudden pang of terror. The oﬃce was where she had learned what little she knew about the ECAS 53
system. This week she would be out in branch land, facing the horrors of real bank customers, with only her thin disguise of computer expert to protect her. The sense of shrinking dread grew worse. At the eleventh ﬂoor she left the lift and walked down the corridor beyond. She would have liked to put a bit of authority into her stride, but she had never learnt how to do that in high heeled shoes. In the cramped oﬃce of the ECAS team Mr Jameson was waiting. There were several I.B.M. personal computers sitting on desks, and Mr Jameson was playing space invaders on one of them. He looked up and smiled as Miranda came in. “Common room, Miranda,” he said. “The others are there. Here’s a pile of survey forms for you. The questions are all laid out.” He pointed to a pile of photocopied sheets in one corner of the room. She picked them up and put them in her briefcase. Mr Jameson was about forty, and quite short. His hair was dark and his shoulders broad. Disconcertingly, he wore John Lennon glasses with his dark business suit. Miranda liked him. “Is everyone else here?” she asked. “No,” said Mr Jameson, “we’re still waiting for Angela. When she gets here I’ll come down to the common room and brief you. A bit of pre-pilot test pep-talk eh?” Miranda smiled. “Some of us need it,” she said. “Are you feeling nervous about visiting your branch?” Mr Jameson said. “A little, yes.” “Well, that’s understandable. Meeting the general public for the ﬁrst time, and having to deal with potentially hostile branch staﬀ all by yourself. I don’t blame you for being nervous. But don’t worry too much. I’m sure you’ll cope. You might even enjoy yourself.” “Do you think so?” “Of course. I have every conﬁdence in you. And you, I hope, have every conﬁdence in the ECAS system.” She had plenty of conﬁdence in the ECAS system, she just didn’t know how it worked. This was something she hoped the people in her branch wouldn’t notice. 54
The common room wasn’t really a room, it was more of a large windowed alcove set oﬀ from the main corridor of the tenth ﬂoor. It contained a large, ﬁtted lounge suite, and a couple of small tables, on which some polystyrene cups of coﬀee left over from last week could be seen. On one end of the sofa sat Russell, her fellow graduate. She sat down next to him to wait for the others. After a minute or two Mr Jameson arrived, with Angela Martin, the missing team member in tow. She was a very professional young woman who had been on the ECAS project for about a month. She thus knew the system very well. Miranda was of the opinion that everyone knew the system far better than she did. She’d had four weeks of computer training and she hadn’t even managed to kill her ﬁrst orc in Castles and Creatures yet. Some computer expert she was. Mr Jameson stood facing his team. “All right,” he said, “listen carefully. You’ve got four main areas of responsibility: ﬁrstly, care and maintenance of the computer; secondly, surveying staﬀ and customers; thirdly, answering queries; and, ﬁnally, supervising the ‘end of day’ routine. It will be the branch staﬀ who will actually use the computer when dealing with customers. You are not authorised to do their job. You must make sure they use the machines properly, without seeming too critical of them. Tact here is important. If something does go wrong with the system try to cope with the problem yourself. If you get into real diﬃculties call us here at base. Oh, and don’t try to alter the software. Any software changes we feel are required will be made here at base and then transferred to the branch computers. We want all the computers to be running the same programme. “As far as surveying staﬀ and customers goes, you have your survey forms now, and they tell you what questions to ask. Try to survey every customer who has an account opened by the computer. We want as many customer opinions of the system as possible. Also try to survey every member of staﬀ who uses the computer. Here diplomatic skill is important. I want you to get to know the people in your 55
branch, make them like you. That way they’ll be more forthcoming about the system. They’ll talk to you quite openly about its faults and advantages. They’ll feel that the survey is checking up on the computer rather than on them. Another point to consider if you can make some friends in the branches is what they tell you in casual conversation. They may well bring up points not covered by the survey questions. Similarly, when answering queries about the system, make a note of the questions branch staﬀ members ask you. These questions may help us to improve the system at a later date. Oh, but make sure staﬀ members don’t see you writing things down. We don’t want them to think they’re being spied on. “Finally, ‘end of day’ procedures. Just make sure that the diskettes from the computer containing the new account information, and the hardcopy summaries of the computer’s business for the day, get placed in the internal mail bag for overnight dispatch to us here at base. Any questions?” There were no questions. “Okay,” said Mr Jameson. “One ﬁnal point. Always look busy. The branch staﬀ will know that you get paid more than they do, and they’ll expect to see you working for your money. Take some training manuals with you for when you’ve nothing else to do, and when you’re reading them and writing in them make it look as if you’re doing vitally important work. No one is to sit around in their branch reading novels. Okay?” “What about lunch?” said Russell. “Of course you can take an hour oﬀ for lunch,” Mr Jameson said, “but try not to take it between one and two o’clock. That’s when the branches will be busiest, so that’s when the computer will be most in use. All right? I’ll assign you to your branches now, and oﬀ you go.” Mr Jameson handed cards to everyone. On Miranda’s card was her name and the address of her branch. She knew where it was. This was it. The responsibility had begun. She took a deep breath and popped the card into her blazer pocket. She picked up her briefcase. “Oh, Miranda?” said Mr Jameson, coming up to her, “you’re 56
assignment might be rather tricky, I’m afraid.” “Tricky? How?” “Well, we’ve assigned people to branches closest to where they live, of course, and I only met the senior branch staﬀ for the ﬁrst time at the meeting on Friday. One of the women from your branch might be a problem. She’s very aggressive and very hostile. She’s an examiner, so she carries a lot of weight in her branch. Her name’s Anne Cameron. She’ll give you a hard time. Try to win her over to our cause, if you can. That can be your special challenge.” Miranda felt miserable. The last thing she wanted her job to be right now was a challenge.
Behind the enquiry counter Desmond stood staring at the boxes of computer equipment. With him were Marc, Julie, Bruce and Andrei. Julie was a pleasant girl, with long blond hair and a friendly smile, but unfortunately not very bright. Even Desmond could speak to her without feeling intellectually threatened. Bruce was a big man, broad shouldered and fair haired. He had blue eyes and was friendly enough, in his way. Andrei was smaller, darker and rather less friendly. The bank was due to open in ten minutes, and they were all standing and staring at the boxes of computer equipment. “Bloody liberty, they are,” said Bruce. “Bloody computer getting in our way. What right have they to stick another computer in our bank without even consulting us?” “It’ll be put on the enquiry counter,” Andrei said, “you’ll see. I reckon management thinks we’re not crowded enough in here already.” “I wonder,” said Julie, “what the computer expert will be like. I bet he must be dead brainy, to be a computer expert.” “I hate ‘brains’,” said Marc. “They think they’re better than us. Just ’cause they go to balls instead of discos.” Bruce scowled. “They probably are better than you, Speed. What’re we going to do about this bloody ‘computer expert’ ?” “Why do we have to do anything about him?” Desmond said. “He might be all right. If he’s all right, we should help him.” “Don’t be stupid Desmond,” said Andrei. “Yeah Desmond, shut up,” said Bruce. “It doesn’t matter whether 59
he’s all right. It’s the principle of the thing. We didn’t ask for this computer. We’ve had it forced on us against our wills. It’s the principle of the thing that matters. Even if this computer expert’s the best bloke in the world, he won’t get any help from us. You heard what Anne said, they expect us to use the machine under the supervision of this ‘expert’. I reckon that’s not on.” “Too right,” said Andrei. “I reckon,” said Bruce, “that even if this ‘expert’ begs us for help we don’t help him. We treat him like he’s not there.” “Sounds good to me,” said Marc. “But he might need help with his computer,” said Desmond. “It’s all in pieces in those boxes. He might need help putting it together.” “Desmond,” said Andrei, “you help him and you’re dead.” “Yeah,” said Bruce, “we’ve got to stick together on this one. All right Desmond?” Desmond sighed. “All right,” he said. “Good,” said Bruce. “We treat him like he’s not there.” “I hope,” said Julie, “that he wears glasses. I reckon brainy men should wear glasses.” Anne appeared. She gazed levelly at the conference gathered around the boxes, then hissed loudly. “Work,” she said. “You’ll have enough time to worry about that computer later.” The doors of the bank opened. Customers poured in. Businesssuited executives, already late for work, were the ﬁrst in the queue for the tellers’ booths. Behind them came the mothers, on their way to the shops after delivering their children to school. Then came two school teachers, presumably with no classes to teach at that moment. Finally there were a couple of old aged pensioners. The enquiry counter was also pretty busy. Desmond had already taken one enquiry (from a woman wanting an entry form for the under twelves poetry competition) before Miranda arrived. The ﬁrst impressions Desmond had of Miranda were quite diﬀerent to the ones he was to develop later. He had returned to his desk, and looked up to see her standing on the other side of the enquiry counter. 60
Anne’s voice boomed loud and clear. “Enquiries please!” Being the only person free, Desmond stood up to take the enquiry. The girl he saw before him was very pretty. She was small and slim, with big blue eyes. She also looked slightly nervous about something, which brought out the protective instinct in Desmond (no stranger to nervousness himself). But he didn’t fall in love with her at ﬁrst sight. From the way she was dressed she was obviously some sort of young executive. Not the sort of person he would fall in love with at all. After placing his ‘customer being attended to’ marker on the counter before her, Desmond smiled his friendliest smile. “Can I help you?” he said. At once the girl started to look less nervous and returned his smile. “Yes,” she said. “I’m from EDP. I’m with the computer.” Desmond jumped in alarm. This was the computer expert. This pretty, nervous young woman was the person he had agreed to be nasty to. He was stuck for something to say. Being nasty to someone like this would be awful. But still he had to do what his friends had told him. His friends had noticed her. They were staring at her (particularly his male friends) with considerable interest. Anne was looking in his direction as well. “Anne,” said Desmond, nervously, “the computer expert’s here.” Anne came over to the counter and gazed imperiously down her nose at the girl. “You from EDP?” she said. “Yes,” said the girl, looking nervous again. “We’ve got to look after you and hold your hand, have we? Well, you’ve been a nuisance already. The blokes who delivered your box of tricks dumped it on our ﬂoor. My staﬀ members have been tripping over it all morning.” “Sorry,” said the girl, sheepishly. “Sorry!” snapped Anne. “Sorry’s no good to me. Get your stupid computer oﬀ my ﬂoor, and try to stay out of my way this week. I’ve got enough to do without having to wet nurse some EDP so-called expert fresh out of high school. If you have any problems, don’t come 61
crying to me about them. Desmond, let her in.” As Anne marched back to her desk Desmond opened the gate in the enquiry counter to let the EDP girl in. She didn’t look very happy, but Desmond tried to avoid her eyes. Whatever he might feel about the matter, it was his duty to be nasty to her. Between the crowded desks and fast moving enquiry staﬀ Desmond led her, to where the pile of I.B.M. boxes stood blocking a passageway between two desks. He pointed at them, carefully not saying anything. The girl stared at the boxes and looked desolate. Her shoulders slumped, and Desmond thought for one horrible moment that she was going to cry. The girl sighed. “Oh dear,” she said. “Mr Jameson told me the computer would already be set up. The delivery men must have forgotten to do it. Could you possibly help me to put it together?” Desmond ignored her. He avoided her eyes and tried not to blush. “Please,” said the girl. “I really don’t think I can do it by myself.” “Not my problem,” said Desmond, every inch of his generous nature struggling against the words. “Your job, not mine.” He went back to his desk and sat down. He tried to look busy, but his heart wasn’t in it. He stole a quick glance at the girl, who was staring hopelessly at the boxes of computer. He must not help her, he told himself, his friends would never forgive him. He had to think of her simply as a computer expert out to steal his job. He had to remember that she’d had far more advantages in life than he had, and was better paid than him as well. It wasn’t necessary for him to feel sorry for her. But he did feel sorry for her. He stared at the forms on his desk. The boxes were her problem, not his. From beyond the tellers’ booths Anne’s voice boomed loudly. “Computer girl!” she said, “Don’t just stand there, get on with unpacking those boxes!” Desmond watched as the girl ﬁddled halfheartedly with the corner of one of the boxes. He wanted to help her, wanted to open the boxes and unpack the computer for her, wanted to tell her that Anne was all right when you got used to her, but he couldn’t. She looked so lonely and so sad, but Desmond had his duty to his friends to consider. He 62
did nothing. It was obviously too much for the girl. She stopped ﬁddling with the corner of the box and stood up straight. She took a deep, nervous breath, then said loudly: “Could someone please help me with these boxes?” Desmond ignored her. The poor girl, he thought, no one would help her. She would probably lose her job. On both counts he was wrong. Bruce, Andrei and Marc, eyes shining brightly, stopped what they were doing and rushed to her assistance. “Hi,” said Bruce, “I’m Bruce.” “Hi,” said Andrei, “I’m Andrei.” “Hi,” said Marc, “I’m Speed.” “Can we help?” said Bruce. The girl smiled with relief. “Yes,” she said. “Thank you. I’m Miranda Catarini. If you could help me get the console out of its box we can pop it onto your counter and I can try to connect the rest up to it properly.” “Try?” said Bruce. “Yes. I’ve never actually put an AT together before.” “Don’t worry,” said Bruce, “I’m sure you’ll manage. We’ll help.” “Yes,” said Andrei, “we’ll help.” “Yes,” said Marc, “we’ll help.” They helped. Soon the large, heavy computer console was resting securely on the enquiry counter just in front of Desmond’s desk. Bruce spoke. “Some of us go out to lunch about twelve. Do you want to come too?” “Thank you,” said Miranda, “that would be nice.” So Bruce, Andrei and Marc helped Miranda to set up the computer. Half an hour later it was all completed, and Miranda produced a disk with which, she said, she would load the ECAS software onto the machine. Bruce pretended to be interested, but Desmond knew what was really on his mind. Thus the business of the bank continued. Everyone except Desmond gave Miranda all the help she needed. Bruce was particularly 63
attentive. Once ECAS was up and running several customers came over to look at the computer screen, which displayed brightly coloured advertisements for the bank’s services when the computer was not in use. Two customers actually used the machine to open cheque accounts. Bruce took the ﬁrst one, typing away at the computer keyboard while Miranda showed him what to do. The second customer was handled by Anne. Desmond could see that Miranda was a bit nervous about helping Anne, but all went well. When the customers had ﬁnished telling their personal details to the computer Miranda took some photocopied forms out of her briefcase and started asking them questions. Both customers said they liked the machine. “You’re doing well,” said Anne, when Miranda had ﬁnished with the customers. “That’s nothing,” said Miranda, “watch this.” She pressed a button on the computer keyboard, and the computer printer, previously silent, began to churn out pieces of paper. “What’s all this?” said Anne with a scowl. “New account forms,” said Miranda. “The computer records the customer’s details electronically for EDP, but it also prints out the ﬁlled in new account forms for you.” “Filled in? All the account forms?” “Yes. All of them.” “But that usually takes us ages! That’s marvellous.” Miranda grinned. “You really like it?” Anne’s scowl softened. “It’s not bad. Not bad at all. You EDP blokes aren’t as stupid as you look.” “No. Not all of us anyway.” Miranda’s morning was a great success. Desmond’s could have been better. At twelve o’clock Bruce, Andrei and Marc took Miranda out to lunch. Desmond was not invited.
At work William Pratt was trundling around a half empty car park in his new tractor trying to see if his new shopping trolley collecting algorithm worked. As far as he could tell it did. But of course the real test would come when he and it were faced with a full car park to navigate rather than a half empty one. On his travels William carried Alan and Jim, two sixteen year olds fresh out of high school, whose job it was to assist him. They were doing their best, hopping on and oﬀ the cart to collect the trolleys, but they were a problem factor in his calculations. His own behaviour, and the behaviour of his tractor, were constant factors, but the behaviour of Alan and Jim could not be predicted. They tended to vary their shopping trolley collection strategies from day to day, and William found it impossible to accurately account for them. The car park covered a large area, and sloped steeply downhill. This slope provided an extra challenge for William. If his cart was piled too high with shopping trolleys, or if he took an uphill bend too quickly, the whole train would fall over. Not that his tractor and cart ever did fall over. If nothing else, William was a craftsman. As well as the steep open air car park plastered ﬁrmly onto the side of the hill, William had to cope with the smaller, two storey covered car park which lay to one side of the main car park. There was no slope to contend with in this car park (except, of course, for the ramp between levels), but it could still be quite tricky. For one thing, during 65
summer, coming out of the bright sunlight of the open air car park into the relative gloom of the covered one could cause a few seconds of blindness. This might force the tractor driver to reduce his speed by a variable amount — another random factor in the calculations. Then there was the tightness of some of the bends, especially those leading up and down the ramp. It was vital not to miscalculate the approach to these bends. If it should become necessary to reverse and take the bend again in order to get round it, a further random factor would be introduced into the calculations. The lower ﬂoor of the indoor car park consisted of three rows of cars with two passageways between them. William’s plan of attack had him entering the lower ﬂoor at one end, making a half circuit of the parked cars, going up the ramp at the other end, making a complete circuit of the upper ﬂoor, coming down the same ramp and then ﬁnishing oﬀ the lower ﬂoor. It was a remarkably simple plan, but William felt its simplicity lent it extra beauty. This morning, just as he had ﬁnished his half circuit of the lower ﬂoor and was about to proceed up the ramp, he noticed Mr Blenkham standing by the pedestrian exit waving at him. He wondered what his employer wanted. “William,” Mr Blenkham yelled, “come here at once.” Mr Blenkham was a solidly built man of about ﬁfty. He was broad shouldered, but grey faced and continually out of breath, perhaps because he smoked too much. Everyone at the shopping centre had great respect for this man, a respect born of fear, for his wrath was terrible indeed. The fact that he had descended from his high oﬃce to the lower reaches of the car park indicated that something serious had happened. His reasons for wanting to see William must, therefore, have been important. William had as much respect for his employer as anyone, but his duty to his art came ﬁrst. “I’m sorry Mr Blenkham,” called William, “but my trolley collecting algorithm does not take me back to where you are standing for another forty minutes. If you move about ﬁfteen feet to your left, however, you will intersect with my path in ﬁve minutes and twelve 66
seconds. I will talk to you then.” William drove up the ramp to the upper ﬂoor. He caught a last glimpse of Mr Blenkham staring at him in disbelief, then carried on with his work. He hoped Mr Blenkham would understand that loyalty to one’s algorithm came before loyalty to one’s boss. In the cart behind him William could hear Alan and Jim laughing at him. “You’re really for it now, Mr Pratt,” said Jim. “Blenkham’ll have you for that.” “Collect your trolleys,” said William, “and do so quickly. Mr Blenkham expects us back on the lower ﬂoor in ﬁve minutes and twelve seconds. We must not disappoint him.” They did not disappoint him. William and his team ﬁnished their tour of the upper ﬂoor in exactly ﬁve minutes. In another eleven and a half seconds William’s tractor, with its cart in tow, was trundling along the ﬂoor to where Mr Blenkham’s grey suited ﬁgure was standing waiting for it. William was quite surprised by how angry Mr Blenkham looked. In fact, his employer was fuming visibly. “Hello Mr Blenkham,” said William, slowing down slightly as he passed, “what can I do for you?” He could hear Alan and Jim trying to suppress their laughter as he did so. “Stop that tractor at once!” Mr Blenkham thundered, wheezing violently. “But the algorithm . . . ” said William. “Just stop the bloody tractor!” said Mr Blenkham. William stopped the tractor. “Do you think you should use such language in front of younger employees, Mr Blenkham?” he said. “Shut up and listen William,” said Mr Blenkham. “Vegetable World has run out of shopping trolleys. Why haven’t you delivered any shopping trolleys to Vegetable World?” William was puzzled. “Run out? According to my calculations they should have enough to last for a further ﬁfteen minutes. Are you sure about this, Mr Blenkham?” “Of course I’m sure! Vegetable World’s manager phoned me in a panic ten minutes ago.” 67
“Oh. I suppose I must have miscalculated my algorithm. I will work on a new one tonight.” “Stuﬀ your algorithm William, just get some trolleys over to Vegetable World now.” “But I’m not due up at that end of the car park for another ten minutes. If I go there now I will violate the algorithm.” “Just do it.” “It will not be very eﬃcient, violating the algorithm.” “William, they’ve run out of trolleys. They’re losing customers.” “I still don’t understand it. I was sure the algorithm was perfect.” “Just go!” “Yes Mr Blenkham. Oh, Mr Blenkham?” “What?” “There are a couple of points I would like to raise with you.” “What? Now?” “Yes, if I may.” Mr Blenkham sighed deeply, coughing slightly as he did so. William could never understand why his superior always looked so exhausted when talking to him. “All right William,” said Mr Blenkham, “but be quick. Vegetable World is waiting.” “I will be quick. Firstly, do you think it would be possible for me to wear a ﬁrearm while working?” “What!?” “A gun. In a holster.” Mr Blenkham stared at him. Alan and Jim looked pretty surprised as well. “You want a gun?” said Mr Blenkham. “Yes,” said William, “in a holster. And possibly a pair of jack boots as well. They would give me an added air of authority.” “What do you mean? Are you planning to shoot at the customers?” “Only when absolutely necessary, sir.” Mr Blenkham stared at him. His mouth fell open. Jim spoke. “Can we have guns too, Mr Blenkham?” he said. “No. Shut up. William, you’re mad. Just go and deliver the trolleys. I think I need to lie down.” 68
“But the other point, Mr Blenkham?” “What other point?” “Do you think that you might consider giving me a pay rise?” “A pay rise? Bloody hell. Just deliver those trolleys. Pay rise? I don’t know why I bother to pay you at all.” Mr Blenkham stormed oﬀ in the direction of his oﬃce. William watched him go. It occurred to him that perhaps he would have to wait a bit longer for his pay rise. Jim and Alan were talking. “I reckon we should have guns,” said Jim. “We could shoot any customers who got in our way.” “Yeah,” said Alan, “and we could blow Mr Blenkham’s brains out.” “No we couldn’t,” said Jim, “you can’t hit targets that small.” Up to Vegetable World, the big greengrocer’s at the top of the hill, William drove. He was heartbroken. To perform such a huge violation of the algorithm was a terrible thing indeed. For the rest of the day nothing would work properly. The whole system would be thrown out of joint. The trolleys were delivered. As he continued working, trying to salvage as much of his beloved algorithm as he could, William’s unhappiness began to turn to anger. What right had Mr Blenkham to deprive him of his chosen path around the car park? What did Mr Blenkham, as general manager of the whole shopping centre, know about trolley management? As William drove along, growing more and more heated, even Alan and Jim didn’t dare to poke fun at him. In such a mood as this William might actually have opened ﬁre on a few customers, if he’d had a gun by his side. In fact, the principal result of his mood was that the morning rounds were completed in record time, in spite of the violation of the algorithm. All the time he tried to think of ways of getting back at Mr Blenkham. Then he remembered the pub. Mr Blenkham would be there after work. William would challenge him to a drinking competition. Then he would be sorry.
It had been a rather depressing sort of afternoon. There had been very little activity in the bank, and what activity there had been hadn’t concerned Desmond at all. He had done his shift in the tellers’ booths, and had answered one or two queries about term deposit accounts from behind the enquiry counter. He had even managed to avoid using the new computer. He simply watched while the EDP girl, Miranda, showed poor baﬄed Julie how to use it. Julie obviously didn’t understand it at all. Neither did Marc when he had a go. To Desmond the computer looked perfectly simple to use. Yet he didn’t dare go near it. After the way he had treated the EDP girl he felt far too embarrassed to ask her to show it to him. Early that afternoon Anne had told him that he had to use the machine. She didn’t want it said that members of her enquiry staﬀ had refused to participate in an EDP project. Everyone, Anne said, had to use the machine. Elizabeth, one of the older women who worked behind the enquiry counter, told Desmond that she quite understood how he felt. She was afraid of the machine too, she said. At half past one Marc used the machine. After this it didn’t see much activity. The EDP girl had explained her job to Bruce. “I’m not just here to show you how to use the machine and to survey people,” she said, “I’m also here to promote the software.” “Promote it?” said Bruce. “Yes, promote it to staﬀ and customers. Staﬀ members who are 71
worried by the machine should be encouraged by me to use it . . . ” “I’m not worried,” said Marc, who joined them at that moment, “I think the machine’s great.” Desmond wasn’t worried by the machine either. But he didn’t say anything. Even though the others were standing four feet in front of him he was trying to make it look as if he hadn’t noticed them. “Oh no,” said the EDP girl, “I didn’t mean to imply that any of you were worried by the machine. Not at all. You’ve all been very good. It’s just that if you had been worried, my job would have been to make you less so. And if you’re a member of the public, then I should try to encourage you to use the machine, to open a cheque account if you don’t already have one. That sort of thing.” “Sounds good,” said Bruce, “though I haven’t seen you doing any of that stuﬀ yet.” “No,” said the girl, “I haven’t, yet. I suppose I’d better go out onto the other side of the enquiry counter and mingle with the customers.” “If you can ﬁnd any,” said Marc. “Yes, if I can ﬁnd any. Also I’ve got some highly important manuals to read, so if I go and sit down on that seat out there and read them, I’ll be able to pounce on the ﬁrst customer who comes in. Also I’ll be out of your way.” “Don’t sit out there for too long,” said Bruce, “we’ll get lonely.” Marc opened the gate in the enquiry counter for her, and Miranda carried her small pile of books over to the customer courtesy chair that stood against the wall opposite the enquiry counter. It was a small chair, and Desmond could see that she would have diﬃculty balancing the books on her lap. But at least she had a clear view of the entrance. She could see all the customers who might come or go. “Jesus,” said Bruce, once she was out of earshot, “that little chick is so hot.” “Yeah,” said Marc. “Pity she’s only here for a week.” “A week’s enough,” said Bruce, “you’ll see. I’ll have her eating out of my hands by this time tomorrow. Chicks have a thing about me. It’s my easy charm that drives them wild.” “You reckon she fancies you?” 72
“I reckon. She’s got a fantastic pair of . . . ” This was too much for Desmond. “I don’t think you should talk about her like that,” he said. “She seems like a nice person, and you’re being cruel.” “I was only going to say she’s got a fantastic pair of eyes,” said Bruce. “Oh yes?” “Yes. Anyway, you’re being crueller than we are, not talking to her and treating her like she’s got AIDS or something.” Desmond bristled. “You said we were supposed to ignore her . . . ” “You can ignore her if you want to, mate,” said Bruce, “though I reckon that if you want to ignore a chick as hot as that there must be something wrong with you.” Marc spoke. “Hey Bruce, if you reckon you’ve got somewhere already, do you think I’d have a chance with her?” “Not much. More than Desmond, anyway. Look, you can try if you like. But I reckon she’ll only have eyes for me. Uh oh, look busy. Anne’s coming.” Anne was indeed coming, bearing down on them with the remorseless tread of a suspicious policemen on his beat. Only Desmond was sitting at his desk. The other two had no chance of looking busy. “You boys boasting about what you’re going to do with that EDP girl?” Anne said, humourlessly. “No,” said Bruce, “of course not.” “I don’t know,” said Anne, “sometimes I think you blokes really believe the things you boast about.” “We weren’t even talking about her,” said Bruce, “honest.” “Well let me tell you something,” said Anne, “I’ve been talking to that girl, and she’s a smart young lady, much too smart for the likes of you three. A pretty girl with brains like hers isn’t even going to look at boys like you.” “No?” said Bruce. “You reckon brainy chicks only like brainy blokes? Well you’re wrong. Brainy chicks don’t like brainy blokes at all.” “You hope! Now get back to work. Catch up on some paperwork, 73
and no more lusting after the EDP girl. She’s too good for the likes of you. And Desmond?” “Yes Anne?” “The next time a customer wants to open a cheque account you’re going to use that machine to help him. Clear?” “Yes Anne.” “Good. Because I’ll be watching you.” Even after Anne prowled oﬀ to her desk, Desmond could feel her eyes boring into the back of his head. The others ambled slowly oﬀ towards their own desks, when a sudden movement caught their attention. A customer was entering through the doors and making his way towards the enquiry counter. He was a big customer, large and physically dangerous in appearance, and the EDP girl, with an important looking clipboard clasped in her arms, was making her way towards him. Desmond could see from the look on her face that she was about to try promoting her computer to the customer. She looked nervous, of course, since this was the ﬁrst time she had tried this part of her job, but she also looked determined. What she didn’t know was that this was no ordinary customer. This was Mr Bailey. All the enquiry staﬀ moved rapidly towards their desks and tried to look busy. They knew Mr Bailey of old, and none of them dared to face him. None of them wanted to be the one forced to speak to him. Desmond didn’t look. He didn’t want to catch Mr Bailey’s eye so he buried his nose in his paperwork. Just the same, he listened with fascinated horror as the EDP girl accosted the terrible customer. She might be safe, he knew, as long as she didn’t mention cheque accounts. “Good afternoon,” she said. “My name is Miranda Catarini and I represent the EDP division of the bank. I am part of a team assigned to test a new computer system.” “You what?” said Mr Bailey, loudly. “I wonder,” said the EDP girl, “if you were considering opening a cheque account, and if so, if you would care to try using the machine?” Desmond felt a wave of terror pass through him. “Cheque account?” thundered Mr Bailey. “Cheque account? Bloody hell! I’ve already got a bloody cheque account!” 74
“Oh,” said the EDP girl, nervously, “well then . . . ” “Cheque account! I opened my bloody cheque account two bloody months ago with your bloody bank and every time my bloody pay goes into my bloody account you bloody idiots lose it. That’s every bloody fortnight. Are you listening to me?” “Er, yes . . . ” “Then what are you bloody going to do about it? It’s not good enough. Every bloody fortnight I come in here and you people say you’ll do something, but you never bloody do. I want my bloody money. What are you going to do about it? Well? Answer me, for God’s sake!” “Um, I’m, er, sorry to hear it . . . ” “You’re sorry to hear it! Christ Jesus, what do you bloody mean you’re sorry? If you’re sorry why do you keep doing it? Come on, tell me why. Tell me what you’re going to do about it. Well? Tell me!” At his desk Desmond cowered with terror. On the one hand, he was glad the EDP girl was taking the brunt of this attack rather than him, but on the other hand, well, it wasn’t fair. Desmond knew what he had to do, knew that no one else would move to help the EDP girl, not against Mr Bailey. But the fear Mr Bailey inspired was very powerful. Desmond took a deep breath, one of the deepest of his career, rose to his feet, picked up his ‘customer being attended to’ sign, and stepped up to the enquiry counter. Summoning up every last ounce of his courage he said: “Can I help you, Mr Bailey?” He could see where they were standing, the EDP girl, timid and frightened in her blue skirt and blazer, and Mr Bailey, in his singlet and shorts, beer belly and massive shoulders, towering over her. His eyes were small and ﬁerce, his face was red and unshaven, his dark hair (what remained of it) was greasy and unkempt. At Desmond’s words the terrible face turned towards him. “I was just talking,” he said, “to this bloody stupid young woman.” “Cheque account management is not one of Miss Catarini’s responsibilities,” Desmond said. “Then who do I bloody talk to?” Mr Bailey thundered, clenching 75
his ﬁsts until knotted veins stood out round his neck. Desmond swallowed. “You’d better talk to me,” he said, and his whole life ﬂashed before his eyes.
For nearly a quarter of an hour Desmond talked to Mr Bailey. For what seemed like an age he wrestled with the unfortunate customer’s problem. Why did Mr Bailey’s account keep emptying when it should have been ﬁlling up? Was there some terrible case of fraud going on, or was one of the bank’s computers going mad? More important to Desmond was this question: why couldn’t Mr Bailey be more relaxed about it? Just because he had been into the bank once every fortnight for the last two months with exactly the same complaint, and nothing had been done about the problem yet, was no reason to get excited. As time wore on, he began to fear the possibility of physical violence. It was hardly any wonder that everyone else in the bank tended to run away and hide whenever they saw Mr Bailey coming. If it hadn’t been for that EDP girl, Desmond would have been running and hiding with the best of them. In fact there was one person behind the enquiry counter who was not afraid of Mr Bailey. Before Desmond could suﬀer any serious damage she appeared by his side. “Hello Mr Bailey,” said Anne, “still having trouble with your account are you?” “Yes I bloody am,” Mr Bailey thundered, “and you better do something about it.” Anne’s facial expression grew slightly menacing. She was not a large woman, but she could be quite as intimidating as Mr Bailey. “We’re still investigating the matter,” she said, “as I told you last 77
time you came in. Until the problem is solved we are handling your account manually. You’re not losing any money, I promise you.” “According to my bloody bank statement I am . . . ” “The bank statements are handled by the central oﬃce computer. But we correct the information regularly from here. If you check your account balance with the automatic teller machine outside, you’ll ﬁnd it’s exactly what it should be.” Mr Bailey cooled down a bit. “I should hope so. But if I get another cock- eyed statement like the last one I’m closing my account and taking my business elsewhere.” “That is quite understandable, Mr Bailey,” said Anne, icily, “but the problem is well in hand. Goodbye Mr Bailey.” The customer was already walking out as she ﬁnished speaking. To Desmond she didn’t look the least bit rattled by the experience. He wished she had come to his assistance earlier, but understood why she had not. Since she was not afraid of Mr Bailey herself, Anne had no idea that other people might be. “What does central oﬃce make of his problem?” Desmond asked. “Beats them,” said Anne. “Some of them reckon it’s something to do with the way the computer stores the customer information. Something about Mr Bailey’s address or telephone number or whatever sets oﬀ a strange reaction in the central computer.” “Then perhaps he would be better oﬀ taking his money elsewhere?” “None of that talk,” said Anne. “We don’t want to lose a customer.” “But if his account keeps getting mixed up . . . ” Anne shrugged her shoulders. “That’s life, Desmond, or rather, it is now life’s run by stupid computers. Anyway, back to work. Fun and games are over for now.” They were indeed. What remained of the afternoon passed without incident. Desmond noticed that the EDP girl, in spite of having been badly shaken by her experience with Mr Bailey, was not afraid to continue promoting her computer to the customers. Desmond was impressed by her courage. He had been forced to sit down for ten minutes in order to recover from Mr Bailey, she just kept on working. 78
She spoke to three more customers that afternoon before she gave up and came back behind the enquiry counter. None of the customers had wished to use the computer, but on the other hand, none of them had wished to shout at her either. Eventually it was time for the bank to close. Doug, one of the security men, locked the front doors and stood by them to let the last of the customers out. Packing up, sending oﬀ and stowing away commenced as the bank staﬀ hurried to ﬁnish their ﬁnal chores. All the younger members of staﬀ wanted to get home in time to watch the latest episode of Neighbours. In all this rush the EDP girl and her computer were forgotten. Yet she stood patiently by it, waiting for someone to come and be shown how to switch it oﬀ. For a moment Desmond wondered if he should volunteer to be this person. It would show Anne he was not afraid of the computer. But he had too much last minute paperwork to do. Before he had ﬁnished, Anne herself was being shown the technical details of what the EDP girl called the ‘end of day’ procedure. Anne had to put a diskette into the slot in the ‘console’ part of the machine and press a button on the computer keyboard. After a few whirring noises from the depths of the computer, a message appeared on the screen instructing Anne to take the diskette out. As she did so the computer printer started churning out sheets of paper. “What’s all this?” said Anne. “Hardcopy summary of the day’s business on the computer,” said the EDP girl. “You keep one copy and dispatch the other oﬀ to central oﬃce with the diskette.” “Keep one copy?” said Anne, “where? Are we going to get one of these every day?” “Yes.” “Well where are we going to keep the stupid things? I’m not having them lying around here making my enquiry area look untidy.” “Oh, well, haven’t you got a spare manila folder somewhere you could use?” Anne scowled. “I’m not using one of my manila folders for your 79
pieces of paper. If you want your stupid pieces of paper kept you can keep them in your own manila folder.” “Oh. Right. Sorry. I’ll bring one tomorrow.” “Good,” said Anne, still scowling, “we’ve got enough pieces of paper littering this place as it is without you EDP blokes giving us more of it. I suppose you’ll be wanting to go home now? All ﬁnished for the night?” “Um, yes.” “So you get to sneak oﬀ early while we’re still working? And get paid more than most of us as well, I expect.” “Oh, I, er, don’t know . . . ” “Well, you’ve earned it today at any rate. You’ve done a good job girl. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow. Get one of the security blokes to let you out.” Anne wandered back oﬀ to the tellers’ booths and the EDP girl watched her with her mouth hanging open. Desmond knew how she felt. Anne had that eﬀect on him too from time to time. As the EDP girl made her way towards the gate in the enquiry counter, Desmond tried to avoid her gaze. He still felt too embarrassed to talk to her, but she stopped as she passed his desk. He didn’t look at her face, just at the belt of her skirt. He could see her hands clenched by her sides. “Um,” said the EDP girl to Desmond, “I just wanted to thank you for, er, rescuing me from that man this afternoon. It was very very kind of you.” “Oh,” mumbled Desmond, “it was nothing. It was just my job.” “It was everyone else’s job as well, but they didn’t do it, you did. I just wanted to say thank you. I think you must be a really nice person.” This was not an opinion Desmond had expected her to have. It took him rather by surprise. He looked up from his desk and was even more surprised to see that she was smiling at him. He grinned back, and was pleased to see her smile broaden. “Bye bye,” she said to him, “see you tomorrow.” She picked up her briefcase and left. 80
The grin on his face continued to grow as he watched her go, though he wasn’t quite sure why. He saw Sam, the security man, open the door for her, and he watched her brush through onto the street. Then she was gone, but she would be back tomorrow. He would see her again then. Two desks away Bruce was scowling resentfully at him. “I bet it’s still me she likes really,” he said. Desmond didn’t say anything, but he still couldn’t stop grinning. When he ﬁnally left the bank and started on the route for home his grin was still with him. He kept thinking about the EDP girl. Miranda Catarini, she was called. Miranda was such a lovely name, and she was such a wonderful person. Not that he was going to get too carried away by all this thinking about her, Desmond decided. He knew from past experience that getting carried away could only lead to heartbreak. So as he walked along he determined to think about her, and about her good qualities, only as one might think of a potential friend. Ten minutes later he was in love with her, and no power on earth could save him.
Sitting in his favourite battered green armchair, smiling fondly at the book he was reading (Dracula, by Bram Stoker, Oxford Classics paperback edition), Aristid was not the least bit surprised to hear a human body fall over his doorstep and bang its head on his front door. In fact, Aristid had half expected that something like this might happen. That morning he had advised William to try going home to Maria after work. He had also advised him not to get drunk again, as this might prejudice Maria against him. William had told Aristid that he would only get drunk if it was absolutely necessary to do so. Evidently it had been absolutely necessary to do so. The very short passage that led to Aristid’s front door was oﬀ to the left of his lounge room. Aristid picked up his bookmark and placed it carefully in his book (so as not to damage the spine). Then he stood up, straightened his tie, and ambled towards the front door. Before he could reach it the front door bell rang. Aristid was relieved. If William was capable of ringing the front door bell then he had obviously not yet succeeded in knocking himself out. Aristid opened the front door. William was lying on the doormat, one long arm reaching up towards the door bell button. “Good evening William,” said Aristid. “Hello Aristid,” said William, groggily. “I did remember that there was a concrete step leading up to your door, but I’m afraid I thought it was six inches further up the path than in fact it is. I think it was probably that that I fell over.” 83
“That seems most likely,” said Aristid. “You haven’t had the step moved recently? It’s always been where it is?” “Yes William, it has always been where it is. I suspect it is your memory that is at fault here, not the doorstep.” “You’re right, of course. The step is probably not to blame. Tell me, Aristid, do you suppose I could be drunk? It would explain why I have so thoroughly fallen over your step.” “It would indeed. Have you been drinking at all?” “Yes.” “Then your being drunk is probably the explanation. Would you like to come in, and if so, do you feel you can perform the operation without aid?” As an experiment, William tried to untangle his long legs from Aristid’s doormat, then, with Aristid’s help, he succeeded in rising to his feet and stumbling through the front door. Wobbling precariously towards Aristid’s other green armchair (the non-battered one, not Aristid’s favourite), William made his way into the sitting room. He managed to avoid tripping over the television, and only banged his shin once on the coﬀee table before collapsing into the chair. He pointed his slightly bloodshot eyes at Aristid’s faded print of Dali’s Swans reﬂecting Elephants and looked as if he was concentrating ﬁercely on it. Aristid looked too. He loved that painting with its grey leathery swans and weird twisted trees. He loved the way the swans and the trees were reﬂected unnaturally by the water into the shapes of elephants. He loved the mismatched rocks with their ﬁery outcrops, and he loved the tall thin clouds that hovered at the edge of the sky. The painting fascinated William too. He was the only one of Aristid’s friends who couldn’t see anything odd about it. Once more Aristid sat down in his favourite armchair. He glanced towards his book. Would it be more interesting to continue reading or to start talking to William? Aristid’s plans for William’s future success were still not completely formulated, though he was sure that the answer lay in water pistols. “Tell me, William,” said Aristid, “did you go home to Maria after 84
work?” “Not immediately after,” said William. “First I went to the pub to challenge Mr Blenkham to a drinking competition, then, after I had beaten Mr Blenkham and one or two other people, I went home to Maria. She hasn’t forgiven me yet Aristid. She kicked me out again.” “You don’t think that it was perhaps a mistake to go home drunk again?” William looked puzzled. “Maria’s complaint on Saturday was that I had won ﬁfty dollars in a drinking competition and failed to ask Mr Blenkham for a pay rise. Today I did neither.” “But William, you said you had won a drinking competition . . . ” “I did. But this time I did not drink for money. Today I drank only for honour, as a true sportsman should. Therefore I won nothing, although I am still something of a champion. But I am an amateur now, no longer a professional. I thought Maria would be proud.” “It is possible, my dear William, that you still fail to appreciate the objections of your wife. While it is no doubt better to enter these competitions for honour rather than for money, it is possible that Maria would rather you did not enter them at all. My sister has always taken a dim view of those who drink to excess.” “Do you think I drink to excess, Aristid?” “I think that perhaps you spend rather more of your life in gutters than Maria would like. I am quite sure that it was your paralytic condition rather than your status as a professional that caused Maria to throw you out in the ﬁrst place.” “Hm. I hadn’t thought of that. In future I had better challenge people to competitions drinking non-alcoholic substances.” “You could try that, William, yes, but I think it might have less appeal for your drinking companions.” William looked depressed. It was obvious to Aristid that he needed cheering up. “Tell me,” said Aristid, “how was your request for a pay rise treated? Has Mr Blenkham agreed to increase your salary?” “No, I’m afraid he hasn’t. But I did ask him. And I told Maria that I asked him.” 85
“Did he say why he wouldn’t give you a pay rise?” “No. Nor did he say why he wouldn’t let me wear jack boots or carry a gun. Sometimes I don’t understand Mr Blenkham at all.” “So you did ask him if you could carry a gun at work?” “Yes. Well, it seemed like such an excellent idea.” “Perhaps he feels that if anyone should be armed it should be him.” “He should be armed also, of course. In fact, he should be armed with a more powerful weapon than mine, as beﬁts his superior station.” Aristid smiled to himself. “Alas William, I fear that Mr Blenkham lacks your creative imagination. Tell me, did you ask him about the gun before or after you asked him for the pay rise?” “Before, I think.” “Ah. Did you also tell Maria that you had asked about a gun and failed to gain the pay rise?” “Of course. It was at that point she told me to go away. Odd, don’t you think?” “Women are notoriously strange in their opinions, William, and in their behaviour. I would not worry about it if I were you. But in future I would not discuss armaments with Mr Blenkham, nor with Maria. Possibly they do not appreciate these things as you do.” “No. The prophet is never appreciated in his own land. They do say that, don’t they Aristid?” “It’s in the Bible, William, or words to that eﬀect.” “In the Bible, eh? Well, it’s true. Even my algorithm is not appreciated by Mr Blenkham.” “This is your new algorithm for picking up shopping trolleys, is it not?” “Yes, that’s right. Mr Blenkham does not appreciate it.” “Why ever not?” “It doesn’t work.” “Ah.” William sighed. “I can see why he should object to that, of course, and I have promised faithfully to design a new algorithm for him that does work, but he’s not satisﬁed.” 86
“Is he not? That seems strange. Can he not accept that any new algorithm is bound to have teething problems?” “Oh these are not teething problems, Aristid, far from it. The algorithm is totally useless and will have to be abandoned. Mr Blenkham is right about that. What is really distressing is that he doesn’t want me to use the algorithm at all.” “Well if it doesn’t work . . . ” “But what will I do until I’ve designed a new algorithm? I must use something. An algorithm is required.” “What does Mr Blenkham say you should do?” “He says I don’t need an algorithm at all. He says my job is to drive around the car park collecting the trolleys for the shops and making sure that none of the shops run out. He says the car park area isn’t big enough to require all the thought I give to it.” “Well, perhaps the job could be done more simply if . . . ” “It’s not just a case of collecting trolleys, Aristid!” “Ah. No. Of course not.” “There is far more to it than that, there must be more to it than that. If I thought that all my job consisted of was collecting shopping trolleys, well, I’d have gone mad by now. No no. What matters is the elegance with which the job is done. It’s so hard to explain to someone else, to make them understand. Have you ever heard of Tai Chi Aristid?” Aristid looked vaguely surprised. “Yes. I believe it is some sort of Chinese dance.” “I know all about it. It was on the television some nights ago. What is important is the concept of ﬂow. Tai Chi is not just dance steps. It’s movements must ﬂow from a sense of inner calm, and ﬂow spontaneously from that sense. My job is like that. The algorithm ﬂows outwards from my sense of inner calm. I transmit my sense of inner calm to the tractor, which then ﬂows outwards from the centre of the car park and engulfs the trolleys in its wake. There is the beauty of my work. There is its joy. Yet Mr Blenkham cannot see it.” “Poor Mr Blenkham. Perhaps he is more to be pitied than censured.” 87
“Perhaps. But I think it is tragic for society when incompetent people rise to positions of power.” “Indeed it is, William, indeed it is.” Now more than ever, Aristid thought to himself, William has need of a water pistol.
It was Tuesday morning. Colin had been out the previous night, so Desmond had not been able to tell him about the truly wonderful girl he had met at work. During the night Desmond had dreamed about Miranda. In his dream they had been walking together towards a small thatched cottage. It was a sunny day, and the sun shone brightly oﬀ the cottage’s yellow roof and white walls. Beyond the cottage gentle green hills rolled on beneath the blue of the sky. Wispy white clouds could be glimpsed hugging the horizon. A silver stream sparkled and bubbled beside the path on which Desmond and Miranda were walking. As they walked, Desmond put his arm around Miranda, and she rested her head on his shoulder. Desmond felt more contented than he ever had in his life. “You must be a really nice person,” said Miranda. Then Desmond’s alarm clock went oﬀ and he woke up. It was time to get up and go to work. Work was the same as ever when Desmond arrived. Anne was there, ordering everyone around, and Marc was sitting at his desk pulling elastic bands oﬀ deposit slips, and looking both exhausted and fed up at the same time. Bruce was trying to chat up Julie, presumably making do with her until the EDP girl arrived. Andrei was scowling furiously at the back of the Automatic teller machine. Desmond wondered what was wrong with it this time, but he didn’t ask in case he got roped into trying to ﬁx it. There was no sign of 89
Miranda. His desk was unusually full of paperwork when Desmond arrived at it. With a deep sigh he placed his over-full briefcase on the ﬂoor behind it and sat down. Anne appeared behind him and scowled. “Why are you looking so glum?” she said. “It’s all these forms,” said Desmond. “Where did they come from?” “Dumped there by all your friends no doubt,” said Anne. “If you’re going to be ten minutes late you must expect to be landed with everyone else’s paperwork. Now hurry up. Fifty minutes and we’re opening. That lot’s got to be ﬁnished by then.” Desmond stared at the pile. Working at his normal pace it would take at least an hour to ﬁll in and ﬁle so many forms, and some of them would have to be countersigned by Anne. It was going to be a hard morning. “Anne,” said Desmond, “do you know if Miranda’s coming in today?” Anne looked at him. “Miranda? Our computer girl? As far as I know she is. Probably stopping oﬀ at central oﬃce ﬁrst. Why do you ask?” “Oh, just wondering.” “Hm. I suppose we’d better get her computer working. She told me how to do it yesterday. If you didn’t have so much work to do I’d show you how to do it.” Anne moved to the side of the computer and rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “Which bit did she say to turn on ﬁrst?” she said to herself. “Marc!” she added, “come here and learn how to do this.” The computer was on the enquiry counter just in front of Desmond’s desk, and Marc’s desk was the one next to his on the right. Marc pulled oﬀ the last of the elastic bands and looked warily towards the computer. “Do I have to?” he said. “Yes,” said Anne. “Come here. I don’t know what’s wrong with you. Sometimes I think we should call in a vet to put you out of your misery.” Marc rose to his feet and lurched towards the computer. “Can’t 90
Desmond learn it instead?” “No,” said Anne, “he’s busy.” “Yes,” said Desmond, “busy doing your paperwork.” Marc looked hurt. “It’s not mine,” he said. “Bruce said we should all dump our forms on your desk, but I’d already done mine.” “Thanks Speed,” said Bruce from the other end of the room. “Just tell everyone about it.” “All right,” said Anne, “back to work. I don’t know what it is with you people. All this team work and group loyalty. Desmond, give half those forms to Bruce, then get back to work.” “Ah, no!” said Bruce, “I’ve got too much other stuﬀ to do.” “Well now you’ve got even more, and only three quarters of an hour to do it in. Congratulations. You’re going for the record.” Desmond got up and handed half his papers to Bruce. “Sorry mate,” he said. “Not your fault,” said Bruce, and he glowered resentfully at Anne. “Oh, and Desmond,” said Anne, “stop looking so glum. Your computer girl will be here soon, don’t you worry.” So work resumed. Marc tried to understand how to turn the computer on, and Bruce and Desmond struggled through their piles of forms. All the time Desmond thought of Miranda. All the time he realised how futile it was to like her so much. She must have a boyfriend. She couldn’t possibly be interested in someone like him. Yet she had said he was a nice person. Perhaps there was a chance for him after all. This faint glimmer of hope kept his mind thoroughly concentrated on the subject of Miranda Catarini, in spite of all the other things going on around him. The doors of the bank opened, and the morning customers poured in. Desmond’s last form was ﬁnished, and the ﬁrst customer needing his attention had appeared. It was Mrs Simons, an elderly woman who came into the bank every other Tuesday in order to be told that pension day was on Thursday. Then Miranda arrived. The ﬁrst thing Desmond did was rush to the gate in the enquiry counter to let her in. She smiled at him and his heart leapt. She didn’t stay to talk, however. Placing her small briefcase next to his she made 91
straight for the computer. Desmond couldn’t go with her because he had another customer to see to. This customer wanted to apply for a MasterCard. He looked semiliterate and impoverished, not the sort of person whose MasterCard application could possibly be accepted, but Desmond helped him ﬁll in the form anyway. Sometime soon he was going to have to confront Miranda. Desmond had conceived a desperate plan. He was going to ask her out to lunch. He didn’t quite know how he should go about this. Should he try to start a conversation on some other topic and then work up to a lunch date, or should he just blurt it out? Probably just blurting it out would be disastrous. Desmond had tried that sort of approach to the problem with other girls and it had never got him anywhere. But the more subtle approach was fraught with dangers of its own. For one thing, Desmond wasn’t very good at subtlety. Then, even assuming he could start a conversation on some other topic, how could he possibly bring it round to a lunch invitation afterwards? The subtle approach was impossible for him, yet it was the only one that had the slightest chance of working. The customer gone, Desmond prepared to meet his doom. Miranda was still ﬁddling with her computer. He had to go and be subtle to her, and he had to do it quickly before Bruce or Andrei or one of the others beat him to it. Desmond had made his decision. He felt a sense of creeping dread ﬂow up from his chest through his neck and into his brain. He took a deep breath and strode over to Miranda and her computer. A voice came from the other side of the enquiry counter. “Er, excuse me,” it said. Desmond and Miranda looked round. There was a customer, a little man with glasses and slightly thinning grey hair. He was wearing a brown suit, several sizes too large for him, and a brown tie made of some corrugated material. He had his little hands up on the enquiry counter, and his little eyes were darting nervously between Desmond and Miranda, obviously unsure which to talk to. “Er, excuse me,” he said to Miranda, “I wonder if perhaps you can 92
help me? If it’s not too much trouble, of course.” Desmond felt strangely relieved. He had a customer to deal with. He wouldn’t be able to talk to Miranda after all, at least not for a while. “I’m sure I can help you,” said Desmond, “if you’ll just tell me what the problem is.” The man turned his attention to Desmond. “Ah,” he said. “Yes. Thank you. I, er, I wonder if it might be possible for me to open a cheque account?” Miranda grinned. “It certainly is possible,” she said. “Do you mind using a computer?” The man looked suspicious. “Er, no.” Miranda’s grin broadened. “And after you’ve opened your account, perhaps you’d like to answer a few questions for me on your attitude towards computers in banking.” The man started. “Questions? Oh. Ah. Er, all right, I suppose.” “Good,” said Miranda. She turned towards Desmond. “Would you like to learn how to use the computer?” Desmond nodded. “Good,” said Miranda. “We’ll change places. I’ll tell you which buttons to press and you stand here and press them.” Desmond was overjoyed. His attempt at subtlety was working brilliantly and he hadn’t even said anything yet. The space between the enquiry counter and Desmond’s desk was very narrow. In order to change places it was necessary for Desmond and Miranda to squeeze past each other. Desmond had never expected today to be the best day of his life. After a brief moment of secret happiness Desmond reached the computer. On Miranda’s instructions he pressed the button labelled ‘F10’. The advertising pictures that had been appearing one after the other on the computer screen suddenly disappeared, and in their place appeared a series of questions written in bright green letters on a dark background. Next to each question were a number of labelled boxes, and in the ﬁrst box was a ﬂashing dash. “Ask the customer the ﬁrst question,” said Miranda, “and type in 93
the answer.” “What is your name?” Desmond said. The man looked round nervously. “Thomas Smith,” he ﬁnally said. “Right,” said Miranda. “The ﬁrst box after the question is labelled ‘First Name’, so type in ‘Thomas’.” Desmond typed in ‘Thomas’. The word appeared in the ﬁrst box. “Now press ‘Return’,” said Miranda. “Sorry?” “The big button with the bent arrow on it.” Desmond pressed it. The ﬂashing dash moved to the second box, the box labelled ‘Surname’. Desmond, ever ingenious, typed in ‘Smith’ without even being told to. He pressed the large button with the bent arrow again, and the ﬂashing dash moved into the third box, the box labelled ‘Title’. “Good,” said Miranda, “you’re doing well.” And so they carried on, Desmond questioning the customer and typing in his answers, and Miranda watching him carefully and telling him what to do. Soon all was ﬁnished. The customer had, somewhat reluctantly, answered all the questions the computer asked, and Miranda showed Desmond which button to press in order to store the information and print oﬀ the ﬁlled in forms. Then, retrieving her clipboard from her briefcase, she turned to ask the customer some questions of her own. Paper poured out of the computer printer. As he watched it, Desmond listened to Miranda questioning the customer. She had a lovely voice, quiet and slow and gentle. She spoke so beautifully, and had such charm. Even the nervous customer was not disturbed by her. Desmond thought she was wonderful. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more wonderful he thought she was. It was quite clear that she was not merely the most wonderful person he had ever met but the most wonderful person he was ever going to meet. He had to tell her that. He had to ﬁnd a way to tell her at least that he really liked her. The ﬁnal question asked, the customer turned to go. He was directed towards the tellers’ booths where Desmond would have to go to 94
take his money for the account. Miranda bent down to put her clipboard away, and Desmond knew that he would have to say something. It was now or never. “Um,” he said. She looked up at him and smiled. Her eyes were so lovely. “Your eyes . . . ” said Desmond. “Oh God,” said Miranda, “I know. Aren’t they dreadful?” “Are they?” “Yes. It’s called hyperthyroid or something. Very ugly.” “Oh,” said Desmond. “Sorry.” “It doesn’t really matter,” said Miranda. “Some men don’t mind, or so I’m told.” “I don’t mind,” said Desmond. “I don’t think your eyes look ugly. In fact, I quite like them, really. I suppose.” Miranda’s smile broadened. “You are nice,” she said. “You say such kind things. Would you like to go out to lunch with me today?” “What?” “Lunch. About two o’clock? I mean, if you’re not doing anything.” Desmond was stunned. “Did you say lunch?” “Yes.” “Oh! I’m not doing anything. Lunch sounds, er, great.” “Good. I’ll come and ﬁnd you at two o’clock.” With that Miranda went back to her computer. Desmond, in something of a daze, stumbled over to the tellers’ booths to ﬁnish opening the new account. He decided not to sing a happy song, in spite of the enormous temptation to do so.
It was half past one. Miranda Catarini was sitting on the customer side of the enquiry counter reading her training manual and listening to her stomach rumbling. She was very hungry. Before her a line of customers, waited to be served by the tellers. Beyond the customers, cut oﬀ from them by their enquiry counter, were the people who worked in the bank. They weren’t quite what she had expected before coming to the bank branch. The only people she had really met so far were the obviously sleazy Bruce (and his friends) and the dominant and domineering Anne. But there was also the shy young man who had saved her from the homicidal customer the day before. He was odd, but kindly, and she was determined that he should be her friend. She would get to know him over lunch and see if she could make him less shy. Meanwhile there was still half an hour to go until lunch time, and her empty stomach was dropping loud hints. She wished it would be more patient. It would get fed soon. The bank was indeed full of customers. The hour between one and two was a very busy time indeed. So perhaps it was sensible to obey Mr Jameson’s instructions and wait until the rush died down before leaving for lunch. But on the other hand, although there were a lot of customers, none of them seemed to want to open an account. Her computer was lying idle and she was reduced to reading her training manual. She decided to have a go at doing some promoting. She put her training manual back into her briefcase and pulled out her clip 97
board. Looking both competent and professional she approached a customer who had just walked in. The customer was a small Eurasian woman in a dark dress. Miranda smiled what she hoped was a friendly smile. “Good afternoon,” she said. “My name is Miranda Catarini, and I represent the EDP division of the bank. I am part of a team testing a new computer system . . . ” “Hello,” said the woman, “I don’t speak English.” “Oh,” said Miranda. The woman shrugged her shoulders. “Hello,” she said again, then turned away. Undaunted, Miranda approached another customer who had just arrived. He was a tall, good looking young man in a blue suit. He joined the end of the queue. “Good afternoon,” said Miranda. “My name is Miranda Catarini, and I represent the EDP division of the bank. I am part of a team assigned to test a new computer system . . . ” “Computer system?” said the man. “Don’t tell me about computer systems. I work with computer systems all the time. Computer systems stink.” He turned away. Another customer came in, a middle aged, dark haired lady in a plain dress. Miranda squared her shoulders for a last try. “Good afternoon,” she said. “My name is Miranda Catarini . . . ” “Hello, my name’s Liz, Liz Campbell. I like your clipboard. Are you selling something?” “Oh. No, not really. I’m promoting computers in banking.” “I’m all for that. Do you mean like that automatic teller machine outside?” “Yes. That sort of thing.” “Thought so. Yes, I’m all for that. Not much point in it at this time of day though.” “Oh? Why not?” “Everyone’s oﬀ work for their lunch hour, love.” “So?” 98
“So there’s a longer queue out there than there is in here.” Thanking the woman for her time, Miranda went back to her seat. At least she now had something to write on her report sheet: ‘Need more automatic teller machines’. But she still had nothing to write about ECAS. Customers who had used the system thought it was a good idea, but those who hadn’t didn’t seem the least bit interested. It was only the second day of the pilot test, and already Miranda felt things were not going as well as they should. Hers was not the only branch at which the computer had not been assembled by the delivery men. In fact, none of the computers at any of the branches had been. Every member of the ECAS team had thus, like her, been faced with the task of assembling one. Mr Jameson had told her this that morning when she had come into the central oﬃce to get a manila folder. He thought it was probably a good thing in the long run, since every team member had been forced to display competence to branch staﬀ by putting a computer together. The real problem, from Miranda’s point of view, was the lack of work. If things kept up at their current rate she would have read the last of her training manuals by ten o’clock on Thursday. When that happened she would have nothing else to do but sit around and wait for the computer to be used. What she needed was a sudden rush on the computer, or, failing that, more training manuals. Then, of course, there was Morris. She had tried to phone him again the night before. Again she got no answer. It was hard for her to avoid considering the possibility that he was deliberately avoiding her. If something bad had happened to him she would have heard by now. With a brief sigh, Miranda turned her attention back to the training manual on her lap. She managed to read two pages in record time before she remembered that she was supposed to be slowing down. Someone was approaching the computer. She stood up and walked towards him. “Good afternoon,” she said. “My name is Miranda Catarini, and I represent. . . ” “Is this your computer?” said the customer. He was a tall, middle 99
aged man in a dark suit. He looked vaguely amused. “It’s the bank’s computer,” said Miranda, “but I’m responsible for it, yes.” “You really want to take full responsibility for it?” “Why do you ask? Shouldn’t I? Is there something wrong with the computer?” The man grinned. “Just a little something. I’ve been watching it for the last couple of minutes. It’s just ﬂashing through a sequence of advertising slides for the bank at the moment. Does it do anything else?” “You can use it to open a cheque account.” “Oh? Well, I’ve already got a cheque account. The slide that interests me is the one that says: ‘Better terms of interest for your savings? Apply at the conter for further details’.” “The what?” “The conter. I think it should be counter. It’s rather funny, don’t you think, that you highly trained computer people can’t spell? You should employ someone who knows something about the English language.” Miranda smiled faintly. She decided not to mention her degree in English Literature. When the customer had gone Miranda ran to the gate in the enquiry counter and called for someone to let her in. The slow moving Marc dragged himself up to it and pulled the catch. “What’s wrong?” he said. “Nothing,” said Miranda, trying to hide her panic. “Do you have a phone I could use?” Marc glanced at the phone on his desk. “Use mine,” he said, “I won’t disturb you. I’ve got an enquiry to deal with. Dial ‘0’ for an outside line.” Quickly thanking him, Miranda dashed for the phone. She dialled ‘0’, then the number of the ECAS oﬃce on the eleventh ﬂoor of the main bank building. She heard the phone ring. “Hello?” said the voice of Mr Jameson. “Mr Jameson?” said Miranda. “Miranda here. Something terrible 100
has happened. You know the slide show the computer displays when it’s not in use? Well one of the slides has a spelling mistake in it.” “Whoops,” said Mr Jameson. “Which slide is it?” “The one about higher interest savings accounts. It spells ‘counter’ with no ‘u’.” “‘Conter’. Oh dear. We’ll get working on it right away. When we’ve ﬁxed the problem we’ll send you a diskette with the programme changes on it, and you can load it onto the hard disk.” “It’ll be the same at the other branches . . . ” “And we’ll send diskettes to them too. Don’t worry. All will be well. Oh, and Miranda?” “Yes Mr Jameson?” “Good work. I knew it was wise to have a literature graduate on our team.” Miranda put the phone down and sat on the side of the desk. She breathed deeply. After that little panic she very much wanted a break. It was two o’clock. Time for her lunch appointment. She looked around for the shy young man she was due to go to lunch with. When she spotted him she smiled. He smiled back and came over to her. “Lunch?” she said. “Yes please,” he said. “Do you have a favourite place to go for lunch?” The young man looked slightly embarrassed. “I usually just take my sandwiches to the park and eat them there.” “That sounds like fun, but I don’t have any sandwiches. Let’s ﬁnd a caf´ or a tea shop or something instead. Okay?” e The young man smiled shyly. “Okay,” he said, and together they left the bank.
It was two o’clock, lunchtime, and for once Desmond was not going to eat sandwiches in the park. Out into the bright street Desmond Fisher walked with a beautiful girl by his side. He felt a strange mixture of contentment and pure terror well up inside him. The EDP girl, Miranda, turned to him and smiled. Her smile was so lovely that Desmond felt his knees going weak. But he couldn’t help smiling back. “I think I know somewhere we could go,” said Miranda, “I saw it on the way to work. Come on.” Oﬀ up the street Miranda went, leading the way. Desmond tried to walk beside her, but it was hard when she was the only one who really knew where they were going. She wasn’t dressed as she had been on Monday. Today she was wearing a grey chequered skirt with a black blazer. She still looked good though, professional, poised, businesslike and neat. The sun sparkled oﬀ her golden hair, and Desmond wondered if there might, possibly, be a chance that someone like her might fall for someone like him. Walking down the street Desmond noticed that Miranda didn’t walk very elegantly in her high heeled shoes, but he didn’t hold that against her. No one was perfect, and he didn’t expect that he would walk very elegantly in high heeled shoes either. The tea shop Miranda led them to was small and suﬃciently dark 103
on the inside to qualify as a restaurant. It was called Elevenses, and Desmond had never noticed it before. He was not a very observant individual, as a rule. Miranda smiled. “All right with you?” she said. “Fine,” said Desmond. “It looks great.” Miranda slid open the tea shop’s door (it looked like a door that was designed to open automatically, but at some stage the mechanism had broken down) and they stepped inside. Inside was a large number of small tables, all of them occupied. The walls of the tea shop were decorated with fake oak-panelling. It didn’t look nearly as bad inside as it might have done. “There are more tables downstairs,” said a passing waitress. Desmond thanked her, and he and Miranda sought a way down. There was a narrow, steep staircase leading down at one side of the room, and they made their way towards it. At the top of the staircase Desmond paused to allow Miranda to pass. “After you,” he said. “Coward,” she said, with a smile. “I wonder what it’s like down there?” After descending the stairs, they emerged into a slightly more tacky version of the room upstairs. Here the walls were decorated with black and white posters, some of ﬁlm stars like of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and some copies of faded turn-of-the century photographs. Only half of the tables here were occupied. They selected a very small one, with only two place settings, and sat down opposite each other. Miranda smiled sweetly, and Desmond scanned the area in a desperate search for something to talk about. He had to get the conversation started somehow. It was more important than it had ever been before in his life. Miranda looked at him. “I’ve just thought of something,” she said. “Here I am, out to lunch with you, and I don’t even know your name.” “Oh?” said Desmond. “Yes,” said Miranda. Desmond tried to think of something to say. “Well?” said Miranda. 104
“Sorry?” said Desmond. “What’s your name?” said Miranda. “Oh! Er . . . Um . . . Desmond. Desmond Fisher,” said Desmond. Miranda’s smile turned into a grin. “Are you sure about that?” Desmond was puzzled. “Yes,” he said, seriously, “of course I’m sure.” Miranda started to giggle. Desmond was even more puzzled. “Is something funny?” he asked. Miranda’s face straightened for a moment. “No no,” she said, “nothing,” then started giggling again. “I’m sorry,” she said, when the giggle had settled back down into a grin. “Really. By the way, my name’s Miranda, Miranda Catarini.” “I know,” said Desmond. Miranda arched an eyebrow. “Oh?” she said. “So you have the advantage of me.” Desmond was puzzled again. “Do I?” “Yes.” “Oh?” Desmond scratched his head. “How?” “By knowing my name before I know yours.” “But I just told you my name.” “Yes, but. . . Oh, never mind.” Desmond concentrated. He tried to look as if he understood what Miranda was talking about and agreed with it. The result of his concentration was not encouraging. Miranda started giggling again. “You are funny,” she said. “Shall we see what there is to eat?” This sounded like a good plan to Desmond. He picked up the menu card from his place and started hunting for something he might recognise, like ﬁsh and chips. Miranda glanced brieﬂy at her card. “I think I’ll have a wiener schnitzel,” she said, “and a cappuccino. How about you?” “Oh,” said Desmond, “I’ll have the same.” He hoped he wasn’t letting himself in for anything unpleasant. A waitress appeared and Miranda gave her their order. When the waitress had gone she turned back to Desmond with a smile. 105
“I wonder how many hours it’ll take them to bring us the food,” she said. “Hours?” said Desmond, in some alarm. “I have to be back at the bank by three.” “Don’t worry,” said Miranda, “I was only joking. I’m sure we’ll be back at the bank by three.” It occurred to Desmond that he might not be making a very good impression. He looked desperately round the restaurant for something to talk about. The situation had to be saved somehow. A picture hanging on the opposite wall caught his gaze. It was a copy of a photograph taken about a hundred years ago. It showed a nude woman, rather more plump than would be considered attractive nowadays, reclining on a couch. She was lying back and smiling wistfully at the camera. She was just the sort of woman Desmond would have thought beautiful, before present company caused him to completely change his idea of female beauty. Miranda followed his gaze and smiled. “She’s a big girl,” she said. “Yes,” said Desmond. “Do you like your women with big breasts?” “Yes,” said Desmond, without thinking. “Oh,” he added in alarm, “well, of course, I prefer women with medium sized breasts . . . Ah, no, er, actually I’m not interested in breasts at all and . . . oh dear. I’m sorry.” Desmond hung his head in embarrassment, but Miranda was not oﬀended. She smiled and reached out her hand to touch his arm. “Desmond,” she said quietly, “you don’t have to try so hard. Just relax.” “I’m sorry,” said Desmond, without looking up. “And stop apologising. I’m the one who should apologise if I’m making you nervous.” “Oh no,” said Desmond, “it’s not you. Women always make me nervous. I thought maybe I wouldn’t be so nervous with you, but I am. Sorry. It’s just me.” “I understand. You don’t have many female friends, I guess. Is that right?” 106
“Yes. I think I get so nervous I frighten them away.” “Well, you won’t frighten me away. I know you’re nice, even if you are behaving like an idiot at the moment. That business with the mad customer yesterday was a pretty impressive piece of courage.” “It was just my job . . . ” “Come on Desmond, you wouldn’t have gone near that customer if he hadn’t been picking on me. You were rescuing me, not just being a loyal enquiries oﬃcer.” Desmond blushed. “Don’t think I don’t know that,” said Miranda, “and don’t think I don’t appreciate it. I think it was a very kind, selﬂess thing to do. And to show how grateful I am, I’ll even pay for lunch.” “Oh no . . . ” “No, I insist. I probably earn more than you. It’s only fair. Especially since I chose the restaurant.” Desmond shrugged his shoulders. “All right,” he said, “if you insist,” but he still couldn’t meet her gaze. Miranda laughed gently. “You really are shy, aren’t you?” she said. “Never mind. I’m sure you’ll get used to me.” Desmond looked up and tried to smile. “You’ll like me too,” he said, “when you get to know me. I hope.” “I’m sure I will.” A waitress arrived with their drinks. She put a cup in front of Desmond that contained what looked like a melted chocolate sundae on top of which someone had sprinkled some brown granules. Miranda thanked the waitress and turned back to Desmond. “First cappuccino?” she said. Desmond nodded. “You’re in for a pleasant surprise then,” said Miranda. “You’ll like it.” She sipped at her cup. Desmond copied her with his. The drink didn’t taste too awful, no worse than coﬀee in fact. Desmond thought he might survive his lunch hour after all. “My advice to you,” said Miranda, “when dealing with women, is to be yourself.” 107
“That’s easy enough for you to say,” said Desmond, “but when I’m being myself I never concentrate hard enough to know how to be it when I’m not. I mean, it’s easy enough to be myself when I’m in an ordinary situation, but when I’m not in an ordinary situation I can never remember what myself is.” “But this is an ordinary situation.” “Not for me it isn’t.” “Oh Desmond. You get on well enough with that Anne Cameron woman. She doesn’t seem to make you nervous at all, but she terriﬁes me.” “Anne’s diﬀerent. Anne makes everyone nervous, but when you realise she’s all right underneath you stop being afraid of her.” “But every young man is nervous the ﬁrst time he’s alone with a young woman . . . ” “This is not the ﬁrst time I’ve been alone with a young woman. I’ve been alone with young women before. My previous record was ﬁve minutes continuously with the same one.” Miranda laughed. “You do have a sense of humour after all! I knew you’d start being yourself eventually.” But Desmond had not been joking. The food arrived, and Desmond was pleasantly surprised to see that the wiener schnitzel, in spite of its strange name, was really quite a normal looking dish. He could embark on his meal free from terror. “Yum yum,” said Miranda, “food. And we’ve still got thirty ﬁve minutes to eat it and get back to the bank in.” Desmond smiled. Things were beginning to go properly at last.
For William Pratt lunch had been less than enjoyable. In the continued absence of sandwiches from Maria, he had been reduced to having a meat pie and a beer at the local pub. It was hardly the lunch for a grown man, but he had no alternative. He had tried making himself sandwiches at Aristid’s house before leaving for work that morning, but his eﬀorts had been in vain. In spite of being a very creative man William Pratt was quite incapable of making sandwiches. At least the meat pie provided him with protein. The barbecue sauce he spread on it provided him with something as well, though he wasn’t quite sure what. The beer was good for him too. In fact, beer was his favourite drink. So all in all, things could have been worse. Of course, William’s real concern was for his tractor, buzzing around the car park collecting trolleys with Mr Wymer at the controls. Mr Wymer was the other tractor driver, and his job was to drive the tractor one half of the time, while William drove it the other. He felt that Mr Wymer did not fully appreciate the responsibilities of shopping trolley management. Normally he had sandwiches for lunch, so he could sit and eat them in the car park where he could keep an eye on Mr Wymer to make sure he didn’t do anything too drastic. But for the last two days he had been unable to keep his lunch time vigil. The strain of all this worry was making him decidedly nervous and irritable. He was glad when he ﬁnished the meat pie and the beer. It meant he could get back to his beloved car park. Walking down the road to the car park William hoped that Mr 109
Wymer had not done too bad a job while he had been away. Mr Wymer wasn’t totally incompetent, of course, but he did lack conviction. William was seriously worried about the state he might ﬁnd the car park in when he arrived. Yet his concern did not show in his stride, which was as digniﬁed and carefully measured as ever. As he reached the car park a terrible sight met William’s eyes. A worse disaster had occurred during his absence than he could ever have imagined. All the trolleys in the car park were gathered together at the end of the car park furthest from the shops. Mr Wymer and the lads Alan and Jim had spent the time while he was away gathering all the trolleys together at this obscure point. As he approached them they stood by the trolleys smiling mischievous smiles. He stormed towards them, waving his arms about furiously. “What have you done?” he cried. Mr Wymer grinned and folded his arms. He was a short man, fat bellied and balding, but with a fairly thick beard to compensate. He didn’t seem at all dismayed by William’s display of anger. “Hi mate,” he said, “just thought I’d make your job a bit easier for you.” “How?” thundered William. “We’ve collected all the trolleys into this one spot for you, all the trolleys from around the car park. And here’s your tractor and cart standing right next to them. All you’ve got to do is load the trolleys up onto the cart and you can have them delivered to the shops in no time at all. Good thing that, because the shops are going to be crying out for trolleys soon. You know how it is after the lunch time rush.” William knew how it was, but he had a problem. The tractor, with its cart, was indeed standing right next to the trolleys, but it was positioned in such a way that in order to satisfy his algorithm he would have to drive all the way round the car park, stop the tractor ten feet behind where it now was, and then load up the trolleys. Sticking to his algorithm in this case would cause huge delays to the smooth running of the shopping centre, while breaking it would cause no trouble at all. He was torn by doubt. What should he do? 110
The problem was also of interest to Mr Wymer, Alan and Jim. They stood watching him carefully, the expressions on their faces only slightly evil. William scowled ferociously at them, then marched towards his tractor. He climbed into the seat, and noticed that the engine was still running. If he violated his algorithm now he could have all the trolleys delivered to their correct shops within ﬁve minutes. On the other hand, if he stuck to his algorithm it could take up to half an hour. William made his decision. “Alan, Jim,” he said, “get into the cart.” “Don’t you want us to load up the trolleys ﬁrst Mr Pratt?” said Alan. “No,” said William, “we must stick to the algorithm.” Mr Wymer grinned. Alan and Jim both looked shocked. “All right lads,” said Mr Wymer, “that’s ﬁve bucks each you owe me.” Alan turned back to William. “Are you sure we shouldn’t just load up the trolleys now?” “No Alan,” said William, “that would violate the algorithm. We must complete a circuit of the car park before we pick up the trolleys. The position of the tractor demands it.” “But Mr Pratt . . . ” “I’m sorry Alan. We have our duty to the algorithm. But at least with all the trolleys here we will be able to complete our circuit of the car park without stopping. We should be back here quite quickly.” “But if you just backed up the tractor ten feet it would have the same eﬀect. . . ” “The algorithm, Alan.” Mr Wymer laughed out loud. “It’s no good lads,” he said, “pay up.” Alan and Jim reached into their pockets and each produced a ﬁve dollar note. “You’re a bloody lunatic, Mr Pratt,” said Alan. Jim agreed. “Into the cart,” ordered William. “And no more insolence. You 111
shouldn’t mock your elders and betters just because you’re too young to appreciate the importance of algorithms.” Alan and Jim dragged themselves into the cart, and William drove oﬀ at full speed. As he headed away up the hill of the car park, he heard Mr Wymer calling after him. “You are a bloody lunatic, William mate,” he said, “and so am I for not putting more money on you.” Up to the top of the car park (where all the shops were) William drove, in accordance with his algorithm. There were no trolleys up here (since they were all at the bottom of the hill) so he was able to drive his tractor around at break-neck speed. Once he almost hit a woman and her young son, but they jumped out of the way in time. The top of the car park was covered in two minutes. If he’d had to stop for trolleys it would have taken him twice as long. Next he hurtled towards the undercover car park. Its two ﬂoors were also covered in record time because again there were no trolleys to collect. But on emerging from the covered car park he still could not head down to the bottom of the hill to pick up the trolleys. His algorithm had been designed on the assumption that trolleys collected more quickly at the top of the hill, where the shops were, and in the undercover car park, where people preferred to park, than they did at the bottom of the hill, where as a matter of fact they all were. So his algorithm’s circuit of the car park covered the top of the hill and the undercover sections three times for every time it covered the bottom. Each time William passed the shops, empty of shopping trolleys, with his equally empty cart, assistant managers and packers stared out at him in disbelief. But he still stuck to his algorithm. He was nothing if not loyal. When he ﬁnally did return to the trolleys at the bottom of the car park he had completed the whole algorithm in a little less than ﬁfteen minutes. This was, he felt, a truly remarkable achievement. The small crowd of people who had gathered around Mr Wymer and the trolleys seemed less than impressed, however. The crowd included managers and assistant managers from several of the shops William was supposed to deliver trolleys to, as well as one 112
or two curious bystanders. Prominent in the crowd was Mr Blenkham, wheezing and puﬃng ﬁt to burst. His face was also an extremely bright shade of purple. Beside him William’s colleague Mr Wymer was smiling amiably. Mr Blenkham rushed forwards towards William. “My God William, what the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” “Collecting trolleys, Mr Blenkham,” said William. “Alan, Jim,” he added, “load up the cart.” Alan and Jim leapt from the cart and began grabbing trolleys. But Mr Blenkham was not satisﬁed. “You’ve been driving backwards and forwards up there like a demented school kid playing trains!” “It’s my job, Mr Blenkham,” said William. “But your cart was empty William.” “Yes Mr Blenkham. My cart was, as you said, empty.” Mr Blenkham clutched his sides and coughed painfully. “Why was your cart empty, William?” “Because all the trolleys were down here.” “Then why didn’t you come down to get them?” “It would have violated the algorithm.” “What?” “The algorithm, Mr Blenkham. It would have violated the algorithm. Mr Wymer brought all the trolleys down here, and left the tractor near them, to see if he could tempt me into breaking the algorithm. But my will was too strong for him, too strong for temptation.” “It’s true,” Mr Wymer said, helpfully. “William drove oﬀ and left all the trolleys down here. He is truly a man of iron will.” “Iron will?” wheezed Mr Blenkham. “Lead brains more like. What in God’s name were you thinking of William?” “As always,” said William, “I was thinking only of my algorithm.” Mr Blenkham staggered slightly. “Oh,” said William, “speaking of the algorithm, I have just completed it in record time. I was wondering if perhaps you might consider that worthy of a pay rise?” 113
“Record time, William, record time? You didn’t deliver any trolleys!” “True, but the algorithm . . . ” “No William, I am not giving you a pay rise. You’re a waste of air, a waste of petrol, a waste of space and deﬁnitely a waste of money. On top of all that you’re a bloody lunatic!” “That’s what I said,” said Alan. “You shut up,” said Mr Blenkham. “William, you’re ﬁred. Report to me tomorrow morning for your outstanding pay and your contributions to the superannuation fund. For now, go away.” William stared at him in disbelief. “But Mr Blenkham, the trolleys ...” “Wymer will deliver the trolleys. You go away.” Now Mr Wymer looked surprised. “Not me,” he said, “I’ve ﬁnished my shift for today.” “You’ll work two shifts until William’s been replaced,” said Mr Blenkham. “But it’s not fair,” said Mr Wymer. “Tough,” said Mr Blenkham. “The way you’ve behaved you’re lucky I don’t ﬁre you too. William, you’re still sitting on the tractor. Get oﬀ it and go away.” “But Mr Blenkham,” said William, “Mr Wymer is quite incapable of replacing me.” “Why?” said Mr Blenkham. “He never follows the algorithm,” said William. Mr Blenkham took a large metal fountain pen out of his pocket and threw it at William.
After their meal Desmond and Miranda left the tea shop and headed towards the bank. During the meal Desmond, after his initial false start, had found himself able to talk to Miranda. He had chatted about the various things, good and bad, that had happened to him at the bank, about Anne Cameron and Mr Bailey’s account, about the automatic teller machine and why Marc was called ‘Speed’. All the time Miranda seemed genuinely interested, and sometimes amused, by descriptions of events that had never struck him as being funny before. She even contributed one or two anecdotes of her own about her experiences being trained by the EDP division of the bank. As she spoke he realised that he was in the presence of someone of great intelligence. Miranda, he discovered, had even been known to read Shakespeare, He felt humbled, and even more in love than he would ever have thought possible. So they walked along the busy street towards the little bank branch. In Desmond’s happy mind the traﬃc noise was transformed into bird song. It would have been better, perhaps, to have had real bird song, but in an emergency the noise of an Urban Transit Authority bus letting out diesel fumes was better than nothing. At last he had met a human being he would gladly have spent the rest of his life with. At last he had met that someone really special he kept hearing about in songs. Now the purpose of his existence was clear. The next step, of course, was to ask for her telephone number, but Desmond was far too shy to do that. 115
They went into the bank. Anne, who had watched them come in, opened the gate in the enquiry counter for them. Desmond went back to his desk, and Miranda returned to her computer. Bruce came up to them. “Good lunch?” he asked. “Yes thanks,” said Miranda, “you should have come. It’s always more fun with more people.” Desmond’s heart fell. He stared in some disbelief. “Hey, Miranda,” said Bruce, “you were going to give me your telephone number, weren’t you?” Miranda cocked an eyebrow. “Was I?” she said. Bruce grinned. “You sure were. The deal was that you’d give me yours, and I’d give you mine.” Miranda smiled, slightly, at him. “All right,” she said. She turned to Desmond. “Have you got a piece of paper we could borrow?” In a shocked daze, Desmond handed her a piece of paper, and she exchanged phone numbers with Bruce. Then Bruce opened the gate for her to pass out of the enquiry area back to her seat on the other side of the counter. There she sat down and returned to the perusal of her important looking manual, waiting for the next customer who might appear to need the computer. Bruce took his half of the piece of paper, folded it, and placed it in his wallet. Andrei and Marc gathered round and stared admiringly at him. He grinned back, and leaned casually on Desmond’s desk. “Well,” he said, “what do you reckon?” Andrei shook his head. “I don’t understand it mate,” he said. “What does she see in you?” Bruce shrugged his shoulders. “Natural charm, I guess.” “You must have something pretty good,” said Marc. “Don’t worry about it, Speed,” said Bruce. “It’s like I told you, Chicks only have eyes for me.” “Bird like that,” said Marc, “I reckon you’ve got something good there. I reckon you ought to make the most of her.” Bruce shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll have ﬁnished with her by Thursday,” he said. He took a quick look at Miranda. “Maybe,” he added. 116
Desmond felt like death. He buried his head in his paperwork and just tried to concentrate on bank work for the rest of the day. His desk-bound afternoon was interrupted only by two enquiries he had to answer, and by Anne, who appeared behind him. “You all right, Desmond?” she said, in a gruﬀ but friendly voice. Desmond sighed deeply. “Yes thanks, Anne,” he said. “Come on, Desmond,” she said, “snap out of it. You look as if your budgie just died.” Desmond sighed again. “Have you got a budgie, Desmond?” she said. “No.” “Then cheer up! It’s a lovely day.” “There’s not much sunshine in here,” Desmond said. “That’s too deep for me,” said Anne. “Come on, have a break from all that paperwork. Take some account statements down to the service branch in the shopping centre for me. A bit of fresh air will do you good.” “I’d rather stay here.” “What, and do more paperwork?” “Yes.” Anne stared at him in disbelief. “You having a nervous breakdown or something?” “Can’t you send Marc?” “Send Marc? Don’t be stupid. He’d never ﬁnd his way back.” “Well send Andrei then. But please, leave me to my paperwork.” “You should see a doctor, you should. You’re going mad. I’ll send Andrei, but if that paperwork gets too much for you come and see me. I’ll give you something else to do. I don’t want you becoming a martyr to new account forms. I’ve got enough problems to deal with round here already, without stupid martyrs getting under my feet.” So Desmond was left to ﬁnish his paperwork alone. He got quite a lot done that afternoon before the doors of the bank closed and he had to attend to the tidying up. Money had to be counted and blank forms placed in cupboards and draws. Articles for mailing had to be put in the overnight bag, articles to be kept in the branch had to be 117
ﬁled away correctly. And now, of course, Miranda’s computer had to be shut down properly as well. Desmond watched while Marc, under the supervision of Anne and Miranda, performed the ‘end of day’ procedure. A diskette was removed and placed, with some computer print-outs, in the overnight bag. More computer print-outs were ﬁled away in the manila folder Miranda had brought with her that morning. Then it was time for her to leave. The task of opening the front doors for Miranda was assigned to Desmond by Anne. He did as he was told and opened them. As he held the doors open for her, Miranda smiled at him. “Bye bye, Desmond,” she said, “see you tomorrow.” “Bye,” said Desmond, but his heart wasn’t in it. A short while later Desmond left too. He walked down the streets towards his ﬂat, the dazed look still on his face. A gang of hideous muggers, escapees from a Mad Max movie, could have leapt out at him with machine guns blazing, and he wouldn’t have batted an eye lid. Without bothering to look, Desmond crossed the road to his ﬂat. No cars ran him down. He listened to the noise of the traﬃc. Its horrible howling suited his mood perfectly. One thing Desmond was really beginning to appreciate about living in the city was the constant sound of motor vehicles. Someone in the city was always going somewhere, even if it was never him. The steps to his ﬂat were before him. He dragged himself up them. Desmond hated these steps, not merely because he often found himself sleeping on them. They were grey and cracked and old, and the rust covered railings beside them smelt of garbage. Desmond put his key in the lock of the door and opened it. He lumbered into the ﬂat and collapsed onto the sofa. He heard movement coming from the kitchen. The tall, thin ﬁgure of Colin appeared, a beer in each hand. “Hi Des,” said Colin, “fancy a beer?” Desmond stared miserably at his own feet. “Yes please,” he said. Colin handed him one of the beers and sat next to him on the sofa. 118
He grinned. “Had a hard day at the oﬃce?” he said. Desmond looked at him. He envied Colin. With his soft brown eyes and thick brown hair he was the sort of man any woman would fall for. “Come on mate,” said Colin, “tell me what’s up.” “I’m in love,” said Desmond. “Not again!” said Colin, laughing slightly. Desmond bristled. “What do you mean, ‘not again’ ? I’ve never been in love before.” “What about that Julie you were getting depressed about a few weeks ago, or that girl Angelica, or Sheila, or whatever her name was, at Christmas?” “That was diﬀerent,” said Desmond. “That was just attraction. This is love.” “Oh yeah? What’s this one’s name?” “She’s the only one. Her name’s Miranda.” “Nice name. Have you known her long?” “I met her yesterday.” Colin burst out laughing. “I wish you wouldn’t keep laughing at me,” said Desmond. “I’m sorry mate, really,” said Colin, “but you’re just so . . . well, you’re incredible. How can you be in love with a girl you only met yesterday? Was it love at ﬁrst sight?” “No,” said Desmond. “I wasn’t even interested when I ﬁrst saw her. I fell in love with her when I got to know her. I love her for her mind.” Colin laughed again. “You met her yesterday, got to know her, and fell in love with her for her mind?” Desmond started to blush. He could feel his face heating up. “I shouldn’t tell you things,” he said, “you always laugh at me.” “Hey, stop being so paranoid, mate,” said Colin. “Tell me what happened. Did she ask you out to lunch or something?” “Yes. How did you know?” “I bet you hardly even talked to her before that. Jesus, Des, you’d fall in love with a female hippopotamus if it asked you out to lunch.” 119
“It’s not like that Colin, you just don’t understand. Miranda is someone very special. I mean she’s lovely, and kind, and clever. Just talking to her’s like reading a really complicated book.” “She can’t be that bright if she’s working in a bank.” “She’s from the EDP division. She a graduate, like you. Anyway, lots of bright people work in banks . . . ” “But Des, you always say you have nothing in common with educated women, why do you . . . ” “She works in the bank Colin, so I do have something in common with her. She’s really clever and she works in the bank. She’s perfect. What’s more, she even said she thought I was a nice person.” “She said she thought you were a nice person and you’re sitting here as if you’ve already lost her!” “I have already lost her. Remember my friend Bruce? Well he’s interested in her as well.” “Des, your friend Bruce has got the shoulders of an African mountain gorilla and the brains to match. If this girl’s as bright as you say, she won’t be interested in him.” “But she is interested. She gave him her phone number.” “Did she? Bad sign, I agree. Did she give you her phone number too?” “No.” “Did you ask her for it?” “No.” Colin laughed again. “Des, when a girl takes you out to lunch and tells you you’re a nice person, ask for her phone number.” “I couldn’t do that. It might oﬀend her.” “It won’t oﬀend her Des. You already said she thinks you’re nice. Even if she’s not interested in you she won’t be oﬀended that you’re interested in her. Trust me, I know about these things.” “You don’t, Colin, you don’t know what it’s like to be rejected all the time.” “Rejected all the time? How many girls have you actually asked out in your vast experience of life?” “About ﬁve,” said Desmond. 120
“I thought it was more like three.” “All right then, three. But I get rejections, you don’t.” “Listen mate, I’ve had more than three rejections in my time. But I don’t let it worry me. If a girl says ‘no’ to me I just say ‘goodbye’ and move on to the next one. You just don’t try hard enough. You always assume a girl won’t like you and then get really depressed about it. By the time you get around to actually asking her out you’ve made yourself so miserable that the poor girl thinks there’s something wrong with you. She thinks you’re going to ask her to marry you or try to rape her or something.” “Miranda won’t think that. She understands that I’m shy and nervous around women. She said so.” “Jesus, Des, and you haven’t even got her phone number. Sounds to me like you’ve actually found someone who’s keen on you, and you’re too stupid to see it.” “But Bruce . . . ” “Bruce is just moving more quickly than you. But it’s still not too late. Sounds like she’s more interested in you than Bruce. You’ve got to get her phone number and ask her out. You’ve got to move fast. If you do, she’ll forget all about Bruce. But you’ve got to move fast, Des.” Desmond sighed. “It really is no use,” he said. “None of that talk. Get her phone number. I shall check up on you tomorrow evening, and if you haven’t got her phone number by then I’ll want to know the reason why.” “But . . . ” “No buts Des. Remember what they say: ‘Faint heart never won fair lady’. Go to work tomorrow, my son, and be a man.”
After another surprisingly successful day at work, Miranda Catarini arrived home. No disasters had occurred, the branch staﬀ were helpful, the customers had been reasonably friendly and co-operative, and even the food she had had for lunch had not been unpleasant. The only things wrong with the day had been the spelling mistake in the slide show and the speed with which she was getting through her training manuals. Now she was at home, alone in her ﬂat. Any moment now, she knew, she would start to think about Morris. It was time for dinner. Miranda decided that making dinner would keep her mind from working. But she didn’t want to cook anything diﬃcult. A frozen lasagna in the oven, and some carrots, beans and boiled potatoes on the stove would do for today. She turned the oven on to heat up, then went to her bedroom to take oﬀ her work clothes and put on a pair of jeans and a jumper. Dinner was dull and lonely for Miranda. She wondered why Morris had not phoned her for so long. Was he really just annoyed with her about her little display of petulance at the weekend, or was something else the matter? She knew Morris to be very strong willed. If she had oﬀended him on some minor point he would never forgive her until she had ﬁgured out what it was and apologised very thoroughly for it. After dinner she had a cup of coﬀee and went to the telephone. Once more she dialled Morris’s number. She waited, listening to the phone ringing at the other end of the line. “Hello?” said Morris’s voice. 123
Her heart leapt. Morris was at least alive. “Morris?” she said. “Are you all right?” “What do you mean? Is that you Miranda?” She was so happy to hear his voice again. “Of course it’s me! I’m so glad you’re all right. I was worried about you when you didn’t come round on Sunday, and then when I tried to phone you I got no answer ...” “Are you being possessive again Miranda? Because if you are . . . ” “Oh no, nothing like that Morris, really. I mean, I’m not saying you should have come round on Sunday, because after all, you never said you deﬁnitely would, and I’m not saying you should have been home to answer the phone, because that would be unreasonable. It’s just that, well, I’m glad to hear your voice because I was worried about you. I guess it’s just that I love you so much.” “Yes? Well I’m not all right, actually.” Miranda’s happiness paused brieﬂy. “You did have an accident!” “Accident? No I didn’t have an accident. Jesus Miranda, you’re getting weird. I’ve just got a bit of a cold, that’s all.” “A cold? Oh, poor you. Shall I come round and nurse you? I could bring you a bunch of ﬂowers or something.” “No, I don’t think you should. Thanks for the thought, and all that, but I’d rather you didn’t come round. You might catch whatever it is I’ve got. You wouldn’t want that would you?” “Don’t be silly Morris. If you’re ill I want to come and comfort you . . . ” “Christ Miranda, we’re not going to have an argument about this, are we?” “I . . . ” “I’m only thinking of you, for God’s sake. I don’t want you catching this cold and blaming me for it.” “I wouldn’t . . . ” “Just stay away, Miranda. Understand?” “Yes Morris. Sorry Morris.” “Right. Sometimes I just don’t understand you Miranda.” “How long for, Morris?” 124
“What?” “How long do you want me to stay away for?” “I don’t know. About a week, I suppose.” “Okay. Well, I’ll think about you all the time and hope you get well. I’ll phone you tomorrow to see how you are.” “No, don’t phone me either.” “What?” “Don’t phone me either, until next week.” “Oh Morris, why not?” “There’s no point, that’s why not. Jesus Miranda, you’re starting to make arguments out of everything.” “I’m sorry Morris. It’s just that I miss you and . . . ” “Don’t be such a wimp. I can’t stand it. Bye Miranda.” Morris hung up. Miranda said goodbye to the engaged signal and hung up too. She decided to have another cup of coﬀee. Returning to her kitchen she brieﬂy considered the possibility of going to see Morris anyway. She could take him a box of chocolates or something that might cheer him up. Being ill, he might appreciate a friendly cuddle and a chat. She could talk to him, make him cups of coﬀee, bring a sandwich or two to his bedside, maybe even do his washing for him. That way he could just lie back and relax, knowing that she was looking after him. Actually, Morris’s illness was more likely to be ﬂu than just a cold, because he hadn’t sounded at all ill on the phone. His voice hadn’t changed in the least. But Miranda could look after a boyfriend with the ﬂu just as well as she could look after a boyfriend with a cold. She was ﬂexible that way. Then she thought again. Her scheme was doomed from the outset. Morris had ordered her not to come and see him. If she disobeyed him, even with the best of intentions, he would be very angry with her. He probably wouldn’t let her into his ﬂat anyway, being Morris. He would just shout at her through the closed door and tell her how awful she was for disturbing him when he was ill. She could see extreme misery for her lurking round every corner. 125
The phone rang. She picked up the receiver. “Hello?” she said. “Miranda? Morris here.” “Morris?” “Just wanted to say sorry for being a bit rude just now. Really, it’s just that I’m not well, and, well, you know how it is.” “Of course. I understand.” “But still, I’d rather you didn’t come round or phone me, at least until next week. If I start to feel a bit better I’ll phone you. All right?” “Yes. All right.” “Good girl. I do love you, you know.” “I know.” Morris hung up. Miranda said goodbye to the engaged signal again, now at least reasonably happy. Morris’s love tended to display itself in rather unusual ways, but at least he did love her. That was all she cared about. That was all she really wanted to know.
In one of his brother-in-law’s green armchairs William Pratt sat and stared at the ﬂoor. Deprived of livelihood and wife in the same week, things were starting to get him down. Into the room came Aristid, carrying a tray. On the tray were two steaming mugs of tea and some chocolate biscuits. “I have made us some supper, William,” said Aristid. “Thank you, Aristid,” said William. “I think I need something.” He took a mug of tea and a chocolate biscuit. Aristid sat down in his own chair and smiled benignly at William. “You are stone cold sober tonight, William,” he said. “What is the reason for this?” “I was feeling extremely miserable and depressed, Aristid. I never touch alcohol when I am feeling miserable and depressed.” “Indeed? Most people would.” “But I am not like most people.” Aristid sipped his tea and nibbled a biscuit. “True, William. Very true. So tell me why you are feeling miserable and depressed.” “I fear, Aristid, that I am simply growing paranoid in my old age.” “Paranoid William? Why do you think that?” “I keep imagining that people dislike me.” “Which people William?” “Mr Blenkham, for example. I keep imagining that he ﬁnds me disagreeable.” 127
“Nonsense William. He has worked with you for years. Why do you think he ﬁnds you disagreeable?” “Oh it’s just one or two things that happened today, and, of course, my overactive imagination.” “Tell me about the things that happened today. Perhaps I will be able to tell you if they are as bad as you imagine them to be.” “Well, Mr Blenkham did say he thought I was a bloody lunatic.” “Perhaps he was just a bit cross, William. These things pass.” “He also said I was a waste of air, a waste of petrol, a waste of space and a waste of money.” “Hm. Not good, I agree. Did he say anything else?” “Yes. He said that in the performance of my duties I was like a demented school kid playing trains, and that I had lead brains.” “Ah. I see. It does sound as if he might have been rather upset with you about something.” “Then he gave me the sack. I know it is quite irrational of me to become paranoid under these circumstances, but somehow I just cannot help imagining that perhaps Mr Blenkham doesn’t like me.” “Yes, well, in fact William, I am afraid that it does seem, in this particular, isolated case, that you might be right. Weighing carefully the evidence you have presented to me, it does indeed seem possible that perhaps Mr Blenkham does not like you. But maybe it will pass.” “So you think I am right to believe that everyone hates me?” said William, glumly. “Oh no, William, you are far from being universally disliked.” “But sometimes I feel I am universally disliked. Mr Wymer also said he thought I was a bloody lunatic, as did Alan and Jim on separate occasions. And every time I go home to Maria she shouts at me and throws me out.” “But you are not universally disliked, William.” “No?” “No,” said Aristid. “I like you.” “Do you Aristid?” Aristid smiled. “Of course,” he said. 128
“Ah,” said William, feeling better already, “then I have nothing to worry about.” Aristid leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. He placed the tips of his ﬁngers together, and appeared to be immersed in deep thought. William watched him closely. He greatly admired Aristid’s intelligence, and as his brother-in-law sat there in his neat suit with his ﬁnger tips together, calmly staring at the ceiling, he felt sure that the great mind before him would somehow ﬁnd a solution to his problems. “Tell me,” said Aristid, “have you considered further the conversation we had on Sunday morning?” “Which conversation was that?” said William. “The one in which I suggested you should purchase a water pistol.” “Yes Aristid, I recall it. But now that I’ve lost my job I can’t possibly have a use for a water pistol.” “You are still missing the point I was trying to make, William. I never meant to suggest that a water pistol might aid you in your task of shopping trolley management.” “Ah. What did you mean to suggest, Aristid?” “Tell me, William, what sort of men are most admired by society in this day and age?” “Oh, well, er . . . I have great admiration for Mr Blenkham of course ...” “No no. I mean the sort of men commonly admired. I am sure you admire Mr Blenkham, but then you are not an ordinary man.” “Hm. I don’t really know, Aristid. What sort of men are commonly admired?” “Would you say that society in this day and age favoured intellectual men, such as yourself, or men of violence?” William thought carefully. “Well, great philosophers such as Mike Carlton and John Laws are admired, as are others such as Richard Attenborough and, of course, Mr Blenkham . . . ” “But are these men more or less admired than, say, a man of violence such as Sylvester Stallone’s character of Rambo? Or the characters portrayed on screen by Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson?” 129
“Hm. I suppose that, on the radio and the television, one does hear rather more about Rambo than about Mr Blenkham, but . . . ” “It was, William, with thoughts such as these in mind that I suggested you should purchase a water pistol.” William understood at last. “So,” he said, “you think I should purchase a water pistol, travel to the jungles of Vietnam and, using my water pistol, endeavour to rid the world of communism? It is a good plan, and a noble ambition. Yes, I think I will do it. There will not be, perhaps, the artistic satisfaction of shopping trolley management, but I’m sure that, in other respects . . . ” “No no, William, you misunderstand me still . . . ” “But Aristid, the plan is a good one. Communism is still a major threat to the world today. I heard a gentleman say so on the radio only last week. It is a threat that decent, ordinary people, such as you or I, should make every eﬀort to defeat.” “Yes William, but . . . ” “For example, did you know that in China they do not have shopping trolley management?” “Are you sure about that, William? Where ever did you hear such a thing?” “I forget, but I am assured that it is true. Such stiﬂing of individual creative achievement is not to be encouraged.” “No indeed, but . . . ” “Perhaps it would be better if I took my water pistol to China, rather than to Vietnam. I could do battle with the Chinese Army and ﬁght for the freedom to manage shopping trolleys.” “Quite so,” said Aristid, “but . . . ” “Ah!” cried William, “wait! There is a ﬂaw in the plan!” “A ﬂaw? Indeed?” “Yes,” said William. “How will I get to Vietnam or to China? I expect the air fare will be quite expensive, and then the immigration authorities might be suspicious of my carrying a water pistol . . . ” “Indeed they might. Perhaps this is a plan best postponed for now.” William felt sad again. A whole future of great achievements in 130
the cause of freedom seemed to have disappeared. “Yes,” he agreed. “I suppose the plan had better be postponed. A pity, as it was an excellent plan.” “Perhaps you will like my real plan as much, William,” said Aristid. “You have another plan Aristid?” “Well, yes, though in fact the other plan was yours, not mine. From the very beginning this has been my only plan.” William sat forward. “Tell me this plan, Aristid. I am eager to hear it.” “You have agreed that ﬁctional characters of violence are very popular in society.” “Yes indeed. Figures of violence are popular. And golfers.” “Golfers?” “Yes. Greg Norman is very popular.” “Yes yes,” said Aristid, “I’m sure he is, but . . . ” “Perhaps,” said William, “I should become a golfer . . . ” “William!” “Yes Aristid?” “Can we please return to the topic of my plan?” “Of course. As I said, I am very eager to hear it.” “We have agreed,” said Aristid, “that men of violence are more popular than men of intellect.” “We have indeed,” said William. “And, in the newspapers, are not the real men of violence more dashing and romantic ﬁgures than the real men of intellect?” “Which real men of violence do you mean, Aristid?” “Gangsters, William. Organised criminals. ‘Prominent business men’ and ‘racing identities’, as they are euphemistically called. It is the exploits of these men that sell the most newspapers.” “I agree, Aristid, that these individuals have a certain fascination for the public, but are they altogether approved of?” “Approved of? Does that matter, as long as they are popular?” “Perhaps not, Aristid, perhaps not. But I had always thought that gangsters, in their own way, were just as bad as communists. Even if 131
they are popular, I’m not sure that we should support them, or use our water pistol to become like them.” “It is true that the disagreeable nature of these individuals reﬂects badly upon them, but what if their natures were not so disagreeable?” “What do you mean, Aristid?” “The robber who robs from the rich to give to the poor is not merely popular, he is approved of.” “Like Robin Hood?” “Exactly. Like Robin Hood. We will become modern gangster versions of Robin Hood, performing violent crimes in the service of our fellow men.” This sounded quite exciting to William. “So you think we should buy ourselves a water pistol, use it to commit armed robbery, then donate the proceeds to our favourite charity?” “Well yes, essentially, except that we must keep enough of the money to cover our operating costs and individual expenses.” “So what proportion of the money we steal do we actually keep?” “Well William, I was thinking that, at ﬁrst at least, we should keep all of it. Then, when we become established, we can start donating to charity.” “We could also use the money we stole to ﬁnance our trip to Vietnam to rid the world of communism.” “We could certainly think about it . . . ” “It would be acceptable behaviour, because ridding the world of communism would be a sort of charity. Keeping the money in order to ﬁnance our expedition against the communists would be equivalent to donating it to charity.” “Well, yes . . . ” “Just so long as we only rob rich people.” “Of course William.” “Rich people are wicked and use their wealth to exploit the rest of us. A man on the radio said so only the week before last. It’s time something was done about them.” “Yes William. And perhaps we are the people to do it.” “We will become very popular, Aristid.” 132
“And glamorous. Men with guns are always glamorous.” William agreed. Fame and glory, and, of course, a place in the history books, awaited him. He began to feel more conﬁdent. Already the glamour and power of the water pistol were beginning to aﬀect him. He would become truly important for the ﬁrst time in his life, famous for ridding the world of communism. And all thanks to Aristid’s marvellous plan. William Pratt had decided to buy himself a water pistol.
Wednesday morning found Miranda Catarini and Desmond Fisher in quite diﬀerent moods. Miranda was happy that Morris, if not willing to see her, did at least still love her. Desmond, meanwhile, was nervous and desperate about his plan to ask Miranda for her phone number. Desmond’s morning began with him feeling anxious and developed to the stage where he was feeling miserable. Then it was time for him to go to work. As he walked to work he became convinced of the futility of his plan, and grew more and more certain that he would be sensible to forget the whole thing. If he did ask Miranda for her phone number she would only be disgusted with him and probably tell him to drop dead. At the moment she at least liked him. Did he want to jeopardise that by making a fool of himself in front of her? Perhaps it would be best if he didn’t ask for her phone number. Perhaps he should just be friendly towards her and not presume too much. At the outer door of the bank Desmond stood waiting for Sam the security guard to let him in. He had almost decided not to ask Miranda for her telephone number, but always one fascinating possibility lurked in his mind. What if he asked for her telephone number and she, with a smile, gave it to him? What if he asked her out and she, with an even bigger smile, said yes? What if he leant over to kiss her and she, grinning like a Cheshire cat, leant over to kiss him back? If he never attempted any of these things he would never know. On the other hand, what if he asked for her telephone number and she, snarling like an angry werewolf, spat in his face and told him to get lost? 135
Sam opened the doors and grinned at him. “G’day, Desmond,” he said. “You all right mate?” “Yes thanks, Sam. How’re you?” “You look shattered mate. Hard night, was it?” “Not really, no.” Desmond entered the bank, went through the gate in the enquiry counter and made his way to his desk. He dumped his bulging briefcase behind it and sat down to begin pulling elastic bands oﬀ deposit slips. The tall, handsome, well built and irritatingly blond ﬁgure of Bruce appeared behind him. Bruce was smiling. “G’day Desmond,” he said, “how’re you going mate?” “Good,” said Desmond, wishing that either he or Bruce would drop dead. “How’re you?” “I’m good too,” said Bruce. “I haven’t phoned that EDP bird yet. Don’t want her to think I’m desperate, do I?” “Don’t you?” “I’ll probably phone her tonight or tomorrow, ask her out. Really casual, like. I told Speed I’d have ﬁnished with her by Thursday, but now I think I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to linger over her, really enjoy her before I get rid of her.” “Bruce,” said Desmond, “will you do something for me?” “Sure, mate.” “Get lost. Go away. Die. Kill yourself. Kick your own bloody head in. Throw yourself oﬀ a bridge. Shoot yourself. Get lost!” “You can get lost too, you little creep!” “Morning boys,” said a grim voice behind them. It was Anne, arms folded, dark hair tied back in its usual bun, scowling at them through tinted glasses. “Hello Anne,” said Desmond. “Hello Anne,” said Bruce. “Morale at an all time high this morning, is it?” said Anne. “I want you two working hard, and no more swearing behind my enquiry counter. You can swear outside working hours, even kill each other for all I care, but not in here, and not when there’s work to be done. Oh 136
yes, you two can see to the automatic teller machine. It needs some more cash.” “Oh no,” said Bruce. “Not the automatic teller machine. That’s not fair.” “Fair?” said Anne. “Fair? You stand there having ﬁghts with young Desmond over a girl who wouldn’t look twice at either of you and accuse me of not being fair? Life isn’t fair.” “She would look twice at me,” said Bruce, “she gave me her telephone number.” “Good with numbers, are you?” said Anne. “Yes.” “Then you’ll be good at loading more cash into the automatic teller machine. Oﬀ you go.” So Bruce and Desmond found themselves wrestling with the automatic teller machine. The huge, ungainly metal back of the machine contained many secret compartments, all cunningly locked, and weird, unexpected springs and catches. One wrong move on the part of the people loading the cash could cause the whole machine to have a ﬁt of hysterics. Many a customer complaint concerned the weird idiosyncrasies of the automatic teller machine. After a brief struggle, Bruce managed to pull open the slot for adding extra money. The noise it made as it opened was far louder than it should have been. Bruce and Desmond looked nervously at each other. This noise did not auger well for the future. “This is all your fault,” said Bruce. “Just because you fancy my bird.” “It’s nothing to do with that,” said Desmond. “I just don’t like you talking about her as if she was some sort of object. It’s cruel. She happens to be a really nice person, and I don’t want you hurting her.” “I didn’t say she wasn’t a nice person, did I? I just think she’s hot and I bet she thinks I’m hot too. What’s wrong with that?” “Bastard,” said Desmond. “Boys!” came Anne’s voice from far away. “No more bloody swearing.” Bruce and Desmond put the money in the machine, then closed 137
and locked the slot. As they did so they thought they heard a rattling sound from inside the machine, as if some small metal component had come loose and fallen through the inner workings of the device. This was something else that did not auger well for the future. “I think that automatic teller machine’s broken,” said Desmond to Anne. “You and every other person in this bank,” said Anne. “But until it actually falls apart management won’t do anything about it. Typical that, because we’re the ones who have to deal with the stupid thing. I want to see withdrawal forms and deposit forms on the enquiry counter in ﬁfteen seconds. Oﬀ you go.” Oﬀ Desmond went. He removed the last elastic bands from the forms, and placed the forms in their slots in the counter. He put the elastic bands back in his drawer. Andrei and Marc came up to him. “You and Bruce having a ﬁght over that EDP girl?” said Andrei. “No,” said Desmond. “Bruce says he’s frightened you oﬀ her,” said Marc. “Bruce,” said Desmond, “has the shoulders of an African mountain gorilla and the brains to match.” Marc grinned, but Andrei scowled. “Bruce is all right,” said Andrei. “You’re just jealous because you fancy his bird.” “It’s not that . . . ” said Desmond, but Andrei had gone. “I like that bit about Bruce’s brains,” said Marc. “I’m going to remember that. I reckon it would be good if you got the EDP bird to fancy you. It’d make Bruce less of a poseur.” “It’s not a question of birds and fancying,” said Desmond. “Sure,” said Marc, and with a quick wink he went back to his work. Desmond sighed. The next person to raise the issue with Desmond was Julie. She also thought it would be a good thing if Desmond won Miranda away from Bruce. But this, Desmond suspected, was largely because she fancied Bruce herself. When the customers ﬁrst came in that morning Desmond was doing his bit in the tellers’ booths, handing out cash and punching informa138
tion into the little computer terminal that lived in his teller’s booth. Desmond couldn’t see the computer that really mattered, the one over which Miranda had jurisdiction, and he heard Miranda’s voice before he actually saw that she had arrived. “Can I have it in tens and ﬁves?” said the customer he was attending to, a stout, middle aged woman who had come in to withdraw some money. But Desmond was not listening. All he was aware of was the sound of Miranda Catarini’s voice, coming from somewhere beyond his range of vision. Someone had opened the gate in the enquiry counter to let her in, and now she was ﬁddling with her computer and talking to Bruce. He was asking her how her evening had been, and telling her about a new disco he had discovered. She was replying to him with enthusiasm and what might have been aﬀection. Desmond could feel his chances slipping away. Desmond moaned, weakly. “Sorry?” said his customer. Desmond was startled. “What?” he said. “I want it in tens and ﬁves,” said the customer, “or I shall want to speak to the manager.” Desmond gave it to her in tens and ﬁves, but still he listened to Miranda and Bruce. “How about tonight?” said Bruce. “That disco’s something special.” “Oh I’m not really into discos,” said Miranda. “Sorry.” “That’s okay,” said Bruce. “We’ll just go out some other night.” “Well . . . ” “There’s no problem,” said Bruce, “I’ll give you a call.” Desmond greatly admired Bruce’s charming way with women. When the morning rush was over and he was no longer needed at the tellers’ booths, Desmond moved despondently back to his desk. Bruce was nowhere to be seen, but Miranda was there, standing on the other side of his desk, checking her computer. 139
Desmond sat down, and the movement attracted Miranda’s attention. She turned round, saw him and smiled. “There you are!” she said. “I was worried you might not be coming in today.” “No,” said Desmond. “I’m in today. I have a day oﬀ next week though.” “Good,” said Miranda. “Have you noticed this spelling mistake in the computer slide show? See, it says ‘conter’ instead of ‘counter’.” Desmond looked at the computer screen. The slide soon changed to another picture, with diﬀerent text, but he had noticed the error. “Oh yes,” he said. “Can you do anything about that?” “Central Oﬃce is going to send me a diskette with the correction on it. Until then there’s nothing I can do about it, except wait and hope that nobody notices.” “I won’t tell anyone,” said Desmond, loyally. “Shall we go to that caf´ again for lunch?” Miranda said. e “Oh, yes please,” said Desmond, in some surprise. “Good,” said Miranda, “we can carry on curing you of your woman nervousness.” Desmond grinned. “You tease me, don’t you?” Miranda nodded and grinned back. “Do you mind? I can be a bit rude some times.” “I don’t mind,” said Desmond. “Good,” said Miranda. “We’ll sneak oﬀ at about two o’clock again.” “Sneak oﬀ?” said Desmond, “why ‘sneak oﬀ’ ?” “We don’t want that Bruce person seeing us go,” said Miranda, “he might want to come with us.” Desmond was surprised. “I thought you liked Bruce!” “God no! Oh, perhaps he’s not too bad if you get to know him. But I for one don’t want to get to know him. That makes me sound awful, doesn’t it? Have I oﬀended you?” “No,” said Desmond, trying not to smile. “I think I understand. We’ll sneak oﬀ at about two then.” “Good,” said Miranda. “I’ll come and ﬁnd you.” 140
Miranda asked Desmond to open the gate in the enquiry counter for her so she could go and sit on the other side. Desmond returned to his desk and smiled happily to himself. Perhaps he would ask Miranda for her telephone number after all.
In his rather rickety chair behind his ancient, coﬀee stained, chipboard desk, Mr Blenkham sat, wheezing painfully. William Pratt, sitting opposite, watched him. They were in Mr Blenkham’s small oﬃce on the ﬁrst ﬂoor of the shopping centre. Untidy piles of paper overﬂowed from the small ﬁling cabinet by the door, and Mr Blenkham himself looked as rumpled and disorganised as ever. The blinds on the windows overlooking the shoppers were down, and it was very gloomy in the oﬃce. William didn’t care. Losing his job was simply not something that mattered any more. After coughing violently for a few seconds, Mr Blenkham lit another cigarette. Fumes wafted around William’s head, and he felt a moment of fear. Could passive smoking spoil his chances of ridding the world of communism? He decided it could not, and felt relaxed again. Mr Blenkham was hunting through the papers on his desk. William didn’t know what he was looking for, nor did he care. “Thanks for getting here so promptly, William,” said Mr Blenkham. “I’ve got your ﬁnal pay cheque here somewhere, and a cheque to return your contributions to the superannuation fund.” William didn’t say anything. “You do understand, don’t you William?” said Mr Blenkham sadly. “You’ve worked for me for a very long time, but enough is enough. You do see, don’t you?” 143
“Not really,” said William. “But I am sure you have your reasons. I have always respected and admired your wisdom. It is not for me to question it.” “Oh William, I’m only the manager of a shopping centre . . . ” “And, of course, your modesty.” “What?” “I have always admired your modesty.” Mr Blenkham looked miserable. “You’re a decent man, William,” he said. “You’re polite, gentle and digniﬁed. I don’t know anyone else like you. But you’re also a raving lunatic. I am sorry, but I can’t keep you. I’ve got to have someone who actually does the job.” William was baﬄed. “As I said, I will not question your wisdom. If you can ﬁnd someone more dedicated to shopping trolley management than I, then of course you must employ him.” “Don’t be silly, William. No one could be more dedicated to shopping trolley management than you. Normal people aren’t dedicated to it at all.” “I have always considered it to be among the highest of art forms.” Mr Blenkham coughed again, then drew deeply on his cigarette. “I know you have William. God knows why or how, but you always have.” “It is an art form, Mr Blenkham. What more perfect tribute could there be to order and harmony than the passage of a tractor around a car park? Even the fascination of randomness is represented by the uneven distribution of the trolleys.” “No William, that’s just stupid. Can’t you see it’s stupid?” William thought very carefully. “No,” he said. “For all my working life I have been paid to manage shopping trolleys. How could it be stupid?” “I didn’t say managing shopping trolleys was stupid. I said your attitude to managing shopping trolleys was stupid.” “My attitude is stupid?” said William. “Have I not always excelled in my art?” “Excelled in it? No of course you bloody haven’t. Yesterday you left all the trolleys in the car park at the bottom of the hill while you 144
went trundling backwards and forwards across the top with an empty cart.” “So?” “So how could you have been excelling at your job when you weren’t even doing it?” “I was excelling in my art, Mr Blenkham. Free expression is too important to be abandoned for mere pragmatic devotion to the shopping trolley.” “Oh yes?” “Yes. Shopping trolley management isn’t really about shopping trolleys in the same way that War and Peace isn’t really about the Russian revolution.” “William, War and Peace is about the Napoleonic wars.” “Exactly. So you do understand.” Mr Blenkham sighed deeply and began to cough again. He had another look for the cheque he was supposed to sign for William. “I could re-employ you,” said Mr Blenkham, “if you just promised to devote yourself to the needs of the shops rather than to your stupid ‘algorithm’.” “What?” said William. “Betray my art? I could never do that.” “But William, can’t you see any artistic excellence in actually delivering shopping trolleys to shops that need them, when they need them?” William thought about this. “No,” he said. “Think about it William, think of how artistically right it would be to actually manage shopping trolleys as your contribution to the art of shopping trolley management. Wouldn’t that give you a sense of achievement?” “Well, it might Mr Blenkham. But wouldn’t it be rather like painting a picture of a man that actually looked like that man, or writing a poem that scanned and rhymed?” “Er, yes,” said Mr Blenkham. “What’s wrong with that?” “Nothing,” said William, “except that it’s too old fashioned. No one does it any more.” 145
“My God!” cried Mr Blenkham. “You’re not just an artist you’re a bloody modern artist!” William smiled proudly. “Thank you, Mr Blenkham,” he said. “I knew that one day you would notice.” Mr Blenkham collapsed back in his seat in despair. “I’m trying to help you, for God’s sake,” he said. “But how can I help you? I don’t want to give you the sack. Who else would employ you? But I can’t keep you if you won’t do the job. Just say you’ll do the job and you can carry on doing it.” “But Mr Blenkham . . . ” “It’s a very easy job, William, really. You’re warped, but you’re not that stupid. You must be able to do this job, you must. Even an idiot like Wymer can do the job.” “But not with my ﬂair . . . ” “You don’t have ﬂair, William. You don’t even do the job properly. But you could do it properly if you tried, it’s not that hard. Please say you’ll try. Please say you’ll just concentrate on collecting trolleys from now on, and I’ll give you your job back. I’ll even give you that pay rise you’ve been asking for. Just say you’ll try to do the job properly from now on.” “Well, I don’t know . . . ” “Come on, William, please.” William thought. He was suddenly faced with two immensely exciting possible futures. On the one hand, there was the future career outlined by Aristid, that of crusading avenger robbing the rich to give to the poor. He very much wanted to try his hand at ridding the world of communism, and at saving it in general. With a water pistol in his hand he would be another John Wayne, albeit a rather thin, stooped and short of breath John Wayne. Adventure and excitement, he thought, could be his. Then he looked at Mr Blenkham, gazing earnestly up at him from behind his battered desk. Surely Mr Blenkham deserved something. Mr Blenkham had always been good to him, and even now, after a fashion, was trying his best. Shopping trolley management was, after all, William’s life. He had devoted all of his energy to pursuing his 146
art. Could he give it up now? Mr Blenkham wanted him to change his approach to his art. Would that be any less diﬃcult than giving it up altogether? “Tell me, Mr Blenkham,” said William, “how much would you require me to change my algorithm in order for me to come back to work for you?” “Just as long as you actually collect the trolleys and deliver them as needed,” said Mr Blenkham. “For example,” said William, “during one point in the algorithm I stop to pick up trolleys by the entrance to the undercover car park. Now, the most mathematically pleasing place for me to stop is right in front of the entrance, thus preventing customers’ vehicles from getting in or out, though only until I have loaded up my cart. I have been doing this for a considerable number of weeks now . . . ” “My God, have you?” “Yes. Would you require me to stop doing it?” “Yes of course I would. Why can’t you stop outside?” “Well, I suppose I could. But somehow it wouldn’t feel quite right.” “You are a bloody lunatic, William, aren’t you? If you come back to work you have to stop doing that.” “Ah.” “Customers have to come ﬁrst. And trolleys. Customers and trolleys have to come ﬁrst.” “And art? Where does art come?” said William. “Art,” said Mr Blenkham, “doesn’t come anywhere at all.” “Ah,” said William, “I see.” “Well?” said Mr Blenkham. “Well what?” said William. “Will you come back to work?” “Under the conditions you outlined?” “Yes. Under the conditions I outlined.” “No,” said William, “I’m afraid I can’t. It would be betraying my art.” “Oh William!” 147
“If you could allow me to come back to work under the old conditions I would return . . . ” “No, I’m not bargaining with you. It’s either my way or not at all.” “Then I’m afraid it will be not at all. Do you have those cheques for me yet?” Mr Blenkham had found the cheques at last, but he hesitated before signing them. “What will you do, William?” he said. “Where will you go?” “I plan to go into, er, business with my brother-in-law. We have worked out some fairly advanced plans.” “What sort of business, William?” “Oh, this and that. Charitable works, ridding the world of communism and other little things like that.” “What?” “In fact, how much money are those cheques for?” “Everything that you’re owed . . . ” “Do you think, Mr Blenkham, that it might be enough to pay my air fare to Vietnam?” “It might be, just. Why do you want to go to Vietnam?” “I thought I might imitate the actions of the ﬁctional character Rambo and rid the jungles of Vietnam of communism.” Mr Blenkham stared at William’s thin, bony ﬁgure in disbelief. William’s hollow chest and greying hair had never made him look much like Rambo. “Are you serious William?” said Mr Blenkham, “or are you just trying to frighten me into giving you your old job back under any conditions?” “You don’t have to be frightened of me,” said William, “you’re not a communist.” “Oh William,” said Mr Blenkham, “you won’t . . . you won’t do anything stupid, will you?” William was baﬄed by the question. “Of course not,” he said. “When have I ever done anything stupid?” 148
With a slight shudder, Mr Blenkham signed William’s cheques. He had a horrible feeling that something bad might happen as a result of his ﬁring of William, but he didn’t like to think too hard about it. Thinking about William was dangerous at the best of times, and this was not, Mr Blenkham suspected, one of the best of times. Mr Blenkham handed the cheques to William. “Good luck,” he said. “Use the money wisely.” William opened the door to leave. “I will,” he said, “and when I’m ridding the world of communism, I’ll think of you.”
The morning wore on, until, strictly speaking, it was afternoon. But to Miranda and Desmond, who had not yet eaten lunch, it still felt more like late morning than anything else. When two o’clock came Desmond was sitting at his desk. The bank was usually at its busiest between half past twelve and half past one, but today hardly any customers had come in. Desmond, poring over some new account forms, was in danger of falling asleep. Then he heard a quiet voice from beyond the enquiry counter saying: “Psst”. Desmond looked up. It was Miranda, her face illuminated by a conspiratorial smile. “It’s two o’clock,” she whispered, “and Bruce isn’t looking. Let’s go.” “Right,” whispered Desmond. He quickly tidied his desk and made for the gate in the enquiry counter. Beyond the enquiry counter Miranda took his arm. “Last minute dash to freedom,” she said, and winked at him. They ran quietly from the building and into the street, Miranda hiding behind the ﬁrst available lamp-post and looking back to see if they were being followed. Desmond had noticed her behaving in a slightly manic way all morning. He wasn’t sure why, but he smiled anyway. “You seem happy today,” said Desmond. “I am,” said Miranda, “but only on the grounds that life is pretty wonderful. Aren’t you happy?” 151
“Yes. I suppose I am. I like going to lunch with you.” “Good. Then let’s ﬁnd our tea shop.” Miranda, with Desmond in tow, found the tea shop, and in they went. Again the ground ﬂoor was full, so they had to go down to the lower section. They sat at the same table as before and, just to be on the safe side, Desmond ordered the same meal for himself. Having found something he knew he could eat he didn’t want to abandon it too quickly. “Coward,” said Miranda, when Desmond had placed his order. The waitress, hovering over them with her pad and biro, smiled indulgently. Miranda ordered something that sounded rather odd to Desmond, but which, according to the menu card, was largely chicken and mushrooms. They each ordered a pot of herbal tea (Miranda’s idea) and waited for the food to arrive. “Tell me,” said Miranda, “why is your briefcase so huge? I mean, I noticed it bulging behind your desk before we left the bank. I wondered what could possibly be in it.” “Oh,” said Desmond, “well, this and that. You know.” “Yes,” said Miranda, with a grin, “go on. What, exactly?” “Well,” said Desmond, “er, a rain coat, in case it rains. An umbrella too . . . ” “In case it rains twice?” said Miranda. “What?” Miranda laughed gently. “Sorry Desmond. Go on.” “Well, a rain coat and an umbrella . . . ” “In case it rains . . . ” “Yes. Er, a street directory, in case I get lost. A set of train and bus timetables, in case I need a train or bus. Writing paper, in case I run out at work. Pens, pencils and rulers . . . ” “In case you run out of those too?” “Yes. Sandwiches, of course, and a ﬂask of water . . . ” “In case there’s a drought?” “Sorry?” “Only joking,” said Miranda, “go on.” 152
“Well, I also have a pocket calculator, in case I need one, and an Oxford dictionary, because my spelling’s not very good. Oh, and an encyclopaedia.” “What? No, you’re joking!” Desmond was not joking. “No, I do have an encyclopaedia in my briefcase. I might want to look something up at work.” Miranda grinned. “Britannica? Or something with only twenty volumes?” “No, don’t be silly. It’s a little one, one volume and quite small at that. It doesn’t have as much in as a proper encyclopaedia, of course, but it’s better than nothing.” “Oh Desmond, you’re serious! You really do have an encyclopaedia in your briefcase!” “Yes. Is there something wrong with that?” “Do you have the phone book too?” “No, there wasn’t room. Anyway, we’ve got several at the bank. Are you all right, Miranda?” Miranda was laughing. “Oh Desmond,” she said, “you are funny.” “Am I?” said Desmond. “Yes, I’m afraid you are. In a nice way, of course.” “Everyone in the bank thinks I’m strange for having so much in my briefcase,” said Desmond, “but they always come to me when they want to ﬁnd something out.” “Of course,” said Miranda, “your briefcase knows a lot more than most people.” “It does,” said Desmond, “it really does.” Miranda was still laughing slightly. “And it’s quite sensible of you too, in a way. But don’t you get tired of always carrying it backwards and forwards from home?” “Yes,” Desmond confessed, “I do. Sometimes I think to myself that I can’t possibly need all that at work, that I should leave some of it at home. But every time I try to take some of it out, I can’t bear to do it. What if I need an encyclopaedia at work and I haven’t got it? I’d feel really stupid then, wouldn’t I?” The tea arrived, and shortly after that, the food. Desmond ate 153
slowly. He had two things he wanted to ask, and he still wasn’t sure that he should ask either of them. “Er, Miranda,” said Desmond. “Yes, Desmond?” said Miranda, chewing on a mushroom. “If, er, if you don’t like Bruce, um, why did you give him your telephone number?” Miranda giggled. “Did I?” “Yes. Why?” “Oh, well, my boss told me to make friends at your bank branch, so I can win people’s conﬁdence and ﬁnd out what they really think of the computer.” Desmond was shocked. His face fell. “Is that why you’re having lunch with me?” Miranda grinned. “Got you worried now, haven’t I? No, you’re too shy to tell me what you really think of the computer. I’m having lunch with you because I like you, because you’re funny and you were really kind to me on Monday. Happy now?” “Um, yes. Except I don’t think you should have given your phone number to Bruce.” “Why not? It won his conﬁdence, didn’t it? Anyway, it wasn’t my phone number I gave him. It was very nearly my phone number, though. Only one of the digits was wrong.” “You gave him someone else’s phone number? What if he tries to use it?” Miranda shrugged her shoulders. “He won’t. He knows I’m not interested in him. He only wanted my number to show oﬀ in front of the rest of you. Don’t worry about Bruce. He probably hasn’t even kept the piece of paper I wrote it on.” “But what if he has kept it? And what if he does try to use it?” “Well, maybe he’ll get a chance to speak to some really interesting new person. I don’t know. And I don’t really care.” “But he might just look you up in the phone book.” “I’m not in the phone book. My number’s ex-directory.” Desmond smiled. “Poor old Bruce,” he said. Miranda smiled too. “Do you think I’m evil?” she said. 154
“Not really,” said Desmond. “It’s only Bruce, after all.” Miranda laughed and they carried on eating. The other question Desmond wanted to ask was the really important one. He took a deep breath, had a sip of tea, and started to ask. “Er, Miranda?” “Yes Desmond?” “Um, could I, er, have your telephone number, perhaps?” Miranda grinned. “My real one?” “Yes please. I mean, if I may.” Miranda pulled a piece of paper and a biro out of her handbag. She tore the piece of paper in half and wrote a phone number on one of the halves. “There you are,” she said to Desmond, handing him both halves of the paper. “Now you give me yours.” Desmond wrote his number on the blank piece and handed it back to Miranda. His heart was racing. Everything was going right. Could it be, was it possible, that he had a chance with her? Might she like him enough to want to be his girlfriend? “Er, Miranda?” said Desmond. “Yes Desmond?” said Miranda. “Thanks very much.” “For the phone number? Don’t mention it.” “No, for being you.” “Oh, that’s nothing,” said Miranda, “I do it all the time.” “I mean, I really like you.” Miranda smiled. “And I really like you too,” she said. “I, er, I’ve never had a girlfriend, or anything like that, so I was wondering if, er . . . ” Miranda started. “Would, er,” said Desmond, “would you like to go out with me?” “Oh, Desmond,” said Miranda, in some confusion, “you shouldn’t have said that. I do like you, really, but . . . ” “Yes?” said Desmond, his mouth suddenly dry in spite of the tea. “I can’t go out with you,” said Miranda, “I really can’t. Sorry.” 155
Desmond’s eyes drooped. “I guess I expected you to say that,” he said. “Sorry for asking. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot or anything . . . ” “Oh, you didn’t do that.” Miranda put out her hand and gently touched Desmond’s arm. “It’s not that I don’t like you or anything. I do. It’s just that I’ve got a prior attachment. I already have a boyfriend. His name’s Morris, and he’s a medical student.” “Oh?” said Desmond, staring into his lunch and trying to sound interested. “Is he nice?” Miranda smiled gently. “Well, I like him,” she said. “Oh, poor Desmond. I am sorry, really.” “That’s okay,” said Desmond, still concentrating on his plate, “I don’t mind.” “If I didn’t have a boyfriend I’d love to go out with you,” said Miranda, “really I would. And I am ﬂattered that you asked, I really am.” “It must be embarrassing for you,” said Desmond, looking embarrassed, “and I am sorry.” Miranda laughed an aﬀectionate sort of laugh. “You don’t have to apologise, you really don’t. I am sincerely and genuinely ﬂattered.” Desmond blushed. “You say such kind things,” he said, still staring at his half empty plate. “Shall we go now?” “You haven’t ﬁnished your lunch . . . ” “I know,” said Desmond, “but you’ve ﬁnished yours. And I suddenly don’t feel hungry.” “Okay,” said Miranda, “we’ll get the bill. I’ll pay again.” “Oh no . . . ” said Desmond. “Oh yes,” said Miranda. “I still earn more than you, and you’ve had a bit of a disappointment.” Miranda paid the bill and they walked out into the street together. Desmond tried to seem happy and cheerful, but it was hard. He felt as if someone had just pulled the world out from under him, and he didn’t care where he fell to.
It was not the best of afternoons for Desmond Fisher. Somehow, since he had met Miranda Catarini, his life seemed to consist of moments of great happiness and hope alternating with moments of great misery and despair. It was very unsettling for the poor young man. He had a vague memory of being unhappy just before meeting Miranda for the ﬁrst time, but he couldn’t, he felt, have been more unhappy than he was now. Throughout the afternoon Miranda had been particularly attentive to him, in a concerned, maternal sort of way. She was obviously worried about him, and concerned for the feelings she might have hurt. In a way this made things worse. Now Desmond was acutely aware of how kind she really was, and of what he had lost in losing her. Several times during the afternoon Miranda came up to him to make sure he was all right. He tried to be friendly and charming towards her, he didn’t want her to think he resented her for not wanting to go out with him. It was not as if it was her fault that he had fallen in love with her. But he could tell from her continued concern that he must still have been looking badly hurt. This made him feel more miserable still. Once she asked if she could see his encyclopaedia, and he fetched it from his briefcase to show her. She had a brief look at it and laughed at him for having it at all, but even being teased by her failed to cheer him up. They had to hide the encyclopaedia away when Anne appeared, 157
prowling around looking for people not working hard enough. “You keeping my staﬀ away from their paperwork?” said Anne to Miranda. “No, really,” said Miranda. “Good,” said Anne, holding up a small plastic container, “because this plastic thing’s arrived through the internal mail. It’s addressed to you. I don’t know what it is, what it does, why it’s addressed to you rather than to someone important, or why I have to carry it around for you like some stupid messenger boy . . . ” Miranda took the container from Anne’s hand. Inside was the diskette Mr Jameson had promised her. “Thank you very much,” said Miranda, then turned back to Desmond. “This is the update diskette,” she said. “I told you about it this morning. I have to load the information on it into the computer.” “That’s interesting,” said Desmond, miserably. “Come on, Desmond,” said Anne, “try to show a bit more enthusiasm.” “It’s not Desmond’s fault,” said Miranda, “he’s just had a rather unpleasant experience, that’s all.” Anne cocked an eyebrow. “Shows how much you know,” she said. “Desmond’s always getting depressed about something. Just getting up in the morning’s an unpleasant enough experience for Desmond.” “Poor Desmond,” said Miranda. “Never mind poor Desmond,” said Anne. “If you’ve got something to do with that piece of plastic and your computer then I wish you’d just do it instead of disturbing Desmond.” Miranda went to work. “Come on, Desmond,” said Anne, “cheer up. It’s not the end of the world.” This was true, but of little importance to Desmond. After today, he thought, the end of the world might make a pleasant change. Later that afternoon Desmond did another shift in the tellers’ booths. He tried very hard to look cheerful, but still several of his customers asked him if he was feeling ill. Once, just before Desmond went home, Bruce came up to him looking genuinely concerned and 158
asked him if there was anything he could do to help. Finally Desmond went home. His feet dragged on the pavement and his shoulders slumped (partly under the weight of his briefcase). The darkening sky above him seemed to be ﬁlled with vast contempt, all of it for him, and he was sure the bustling people who hurried past him in the street were staring at him, intimately aware of the futility of his existence. As he passed the tea shop he glanced miserably through its windows. It was a place he would never forget, but also a place he could never bear to visit again. Its dark, but cosy interior would always remind him of lunch with Miranda. Even if he had lunch with Miranda again it would never be the same, not now that all hope was dead. The worst thing for Desmond was the knowledge that he had made poor Miranda unhappy. He had expected her to be mildly annoyed at worst, but in fact she had been deeply concerned for him. Being friends with him must have meant something to her after all, and now he’d gone and ruined it. She’d been so happy in the morning, but he’d managed to change that by lunch time. The concrete of the pavement seemed an even less pleasant shade of grey than it usual. Suddenly the cracks in it had come to symbolise the utter futility of life. And one of his shoelaces was coming undone. This was typical of his shoelaces. They had no respect for his feelings. Desmond didn’t bother to bend down to tie it. Outside the building that contained his ﬂat stood two small green trees. Once they had been sources of hope to Desmond, as they grew strongly and vigorously amid the crumbling oppression of the city. Now their cheerful green just seemed oﬀensive. Desmond began to hate the little showoﬀs. If he’d had an axe just then he would have shown them a thing or two. Desmond pulled himself up the stairs to his ﬂat. The door opened even before he could put his key in it, and there was Colin staring eagerly out at him. “Hi Des,” said Colin, “how did it go?” “Hello Colin,” said Desmond. Desmond went into the ﬂat and collapsed on the sofa. He dropped 159
his briefcase on the ﬂoor in front of him and stared miserably at it. Colin handed him an open can of beer and sat down next to him. “Well?” said Colin. “Well what?” said Desmond. “This girl of yours . . . ” “Miranda.” “Yes, this girl of yours, Miranda. Did you ask her for her phone number?” “Yes,” said Desmond. Colin slapped him on the shoulder. “Good lad,” he said. “Did she give it to you?” “Yes,” said Desmond. “Excellent!” said Colin. “Progress! One in the eye for old Bruce. Anything else? Did you ask her out?” “Yes. We went out to lunch together and I asked her if she’d like to be my girlfriend.” “You didn’t!” “I did.” “You idiot! Brave, but dumb. You meet a girl on Monday and by Wednesday you’re asking her to marry you!” “I didn’t ask her to marry me. I just, you know, asked her out and told her I’d never had a girlfriend before.” “What did she say?” “She said she already has a boyfriend. His name’s Morris and he’s a medical student.” “So she’s not going out with you?” “No.” “Oh well. At least that ﬁxes Bruce as well.” Desmond was exasperated. “That’s not the point, Colin, and you know it’s not.” “No, of course,” said Colin. “You were interested in this Miranda person for yourself, not just to get her away from Bruce. Was she cross with you when you asked her out?” “No. She was quite sympathetic really. I think I made her sad for me rather than angry.” 160
Colin grinned. “So she actually likes you?” “Yes,” said Desmond, “and I was so ungrateful I made her unhappy.” “Don’t be silly. She’s probably happy rather than unhappy. Think about it. If a girl you liked, even if you didn’t fancy her, told you she fancied you, you’d feel pretty good about it, wouldn’t you?” “Not if I had to hurt her feelings.” “Sure, you’d have to be careful about that. But, basically, you’d be ﬂattered, wouldn’t you?” Desmond considered this. “I suppose so,” he said. Colin slapped him on the shoulder again. “That’s the spirit, look on the bright side. So, she doesn’t fancy you, but she does like you. That proves you’ve got something to oﬀer a girl. Now you go on to the next one armed with that knowledge.” “What next one?” “The next girl. You want a girlfriend don’t you? Well, go out and ﬁnd one. There are all sorts out there Desmond, all sorts. You’ve already found one willing to like you. The next step is to ﬁnd one willing to love you.” Desmond sighed. “It’s not just a girlfriend I want, it’s Miranda.” “I know you fancy her . . . ” “It’s more than that. I love her.” “It’s the real thing then, is it?” “Yes.” Colin grinned. “I suppose it must be. After all, you’ve been out to lunch with her twice now.” “I am in love. Really. You don’t know Miranda, so you don’t know what it’s like. Until I met her I never really understood love, I never really knew why so many men felt they needed a woman in their lives. You could almost say Miranda awakened my interest in women for the ﬁrst time.” “Desmond, you’re always going on about women. You fall in unrequited love with a diﬀerent woman every other week.” “But not like this. The others have just been infatuations. This is love. This is something worth living for and, yes, something worth 161
dying for.” “Again.” “No, this is the ﬁrst time.” “If this is the ﬁrst time, why do you say it about every girl who takes your fancy?” “That’s just making conversation.” Colin laughed. “Pretty boring conversation. Face it Des, this is just the same old Desmond-in-love behaviour as it usually is. Even the hang-dog expression’s the same.” Desmond bristled. “All right,” he said, “maybe the behaviour’s the same, but the motive’s not. In the past I’ve behaved this way because I was a bit sad about a girl and I thought this was the way people are supposed to behave in those circumstances. But this time it’s diﬀerent. This time I feel the way I’m behaving. This time I understand the pain of heart-break. This time I couldn’t behave diﬀerently even if I wanted to.” “You always say that as well,” said Colin. “Drink your beer.” Desmond sighed. How could he make Colin understand? Colin was right that he did always say he had discovered love for the ﬁrst time, so what words could he use to describe how he felt now that he really had discovered love for the ﬁrst time? “Perhaps,” said Desmond, “I do always say that as well. But that was only because it was what I thought people were supposed to say. But this time I really do feel . . . ” “Desmond,” said Colin, “shut up and drink your beer.” Desmond shut up and drank his beer. Talking to Colin was completely failing to cheer him up. Colin stood up and wandered round the room. “Des,” he said, “I think I know what would take your mind oﬀ things.” “What?” “A party! I’ve been invited to one on Friday night. You could come with me.” Desmond shook his head. “No, I only get in the way at parties. You go by yourself. It’ll be more fun for you that way.” 162
“Don’t be silly. I’ll make a special eﬀort to ﬁnd you a nice, single girl to talk to.” “You’re very kind, Colin, but I’m not interested in girls now, not after Miranda. No girl could ever replace her in my aﬀections.” “Remember Liz Abbot, the rather cute little girl you were going to throw yourself in front of a train for as a token of undying love? Well, I heard today that she’s just split up with her boyfriend. She’ll be at the party.” “You just don’t understand, do you Colin? You just don’t understand love.” “So you don’t want to come?” Desmond paused. “I’ll think about it,” he said. “Thought you’d say that,” said Colin, and he and his grin left the room.
When Miranda got home there was no one there to give her a beer or ask her how her day had gone. She had no ﬂat mate. She was planning to advertise for one, but Morris kept telling her not to. He said he didn’t want her sharing with anyone. She could aﬀord the place by herself, he said, without having to invite strangers in to live with her. Morris didn’t want to live with her either, because he felt that living together would stiﬂe their independence. It was time for her to start cooking dinner, because once again dinner with Morris was impossible. Morris was too ill to see her, and too mean to let her come and comfort him. She took oﬀ her blazer and dumped her bag on the ﬂoor of her ﬂat. Since she was sick of frozen lasagna, she decided to stick a pork chop in the frying pan. First she took oﬀ her hated high heeled shoes. She was too tired to get changed tonight. She would just have to cook and eat her dinner wearing her work clothes. At that moment her mind contained a bewildering mixture of feelings. On the one hand, Morris had told her he loved her, so she should have been happy. But on the other hand he had told her not to see him, so being happy was going to be diﬃcult. Then there was poor little Desmond at work. He was such a shy, sincere young man. She had wanted to be friends with him, because he looked like he needed a friend. But she had given him the wrong idea, and had been forced to hurt his feelings. Sometimes it occurred to her that life was just too complicated to be lived peacefully. What she needed was a lot less of 165
most people and a lot more of Morris. As she watched her chop sizzling, she nibbled a raw carrot. She had decided not to bother with other vegetables today. Just peeling this single, solitary carrot used up all her available energy. Anyway, carrots were nicer raw. They helped people to see in the dark, Morris said. One good thing had happened today. The update disk for ECAS had arrived. Miranda had been able to ﬁx the spelling mistake in the slide show simply by sticking the diskette in the computer console and pressing three buttons. The other people in the bank branch had been most impressed. She was grateful for these computer short-cuts that enabled her to seem competent without having to actually know anything. Of course the real problem would occur tomorrow when her training manual ran out of steam. That would be the moment for her to start worrying. She would have to ﬁnd something else to do while waiting for the computer to be used, something other than reading a novel. On the other hand, what Mr Jameson didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. Dinner ready, Miranda carried it to her tiny dining table. She cut the fat of the chop and popped the tiny morsel of meat that remained into her mouth. Once this was gone she began to regret her decision to have such a small meal. She thought about Morris, at home feeling ill and, probably, lonely. If they were both lonely there was surely no reason why she shouldn’t go round to visit him. She decided that what she needed to cheer her up was to see Morris. It was probably what he needed too. In fact, if Morris had been asked what he most needed at that moment he would probably not have said it was a visit from Miranda. He was not, in fact, ill. He wanted Miranda to keep away from him that week because he was attempting to seduce a fellow medical student. The student’s name was Virginia, and she was a tall, red headed girl with long legs and a dazzling mind. Morris didn’t want to replace Miranda with her, but he had no objections to a brief change, just for a week or two. 166
That very moment Morris and Virginia were having dinner at his ﬂat. He had fed his visitor lots of champagne in the belief that champagne was an aphrodisiac. “I like the champagne,” said Virginia, with a knowing smile, “I can’t imagine why you’re giving me so much.” Morris found Virginia very diﬀerent to Miranda. Miranda, after three glasses of champagne, simply fell asleep. “Can’t you?” said Morris. “Shall I pour you some more anyway?” “If you like,” said Virginia, “though I hope you won’t expect me to become too abandoned after this.” “Do you?” “Yes. I probably will become too abandoned, but I’d hate you to be expecting it. I think you’ll prefer it if it’s a surprise.” Morris grinned. “I like surprises,” he said. “You’d better have some more.” Neither Morris nor Virginia were terribly inhibited people, and by the time they ﬁnally made it to Morris’s bed they were feeling less inhibited still. They found themselves having so much fun that if Miranda had come to visit she would probably have been quite upset. Fortunately for her, Miranda decided to phone ﬁrst. From Morris’s point of view it was one of the worst moments of his life. There he was, lying in increasingly excited happiness under Virginia’s most intimate caresses, when the phone started to ring. By the third ring he found his manhood, normally a source of great pride, diminishing rapidly. Sex, for Morris, was quite impossible when the telephone was ringing. Virginia laughed. “I’ll answer it for you,” she said. Morris watched her dismount to reach for the phone. He was a little angry with himself, but very angry with whoever was telephoning. The telephone was by the bed, and he listened as Virginia spoke into the receiver. “Hello,” said Virginia, “this is Morris Atkins’s personal sex therapist speaking.” Morris watched Virginia’s face as the unheard telephoner answered. Virginia’s already broad grin broadened. She cocked a quizzical eye167
brow as she handed the phone to Morris. “It sounds like one of your girl friends,” said Virginia, “and you said you only had eyes for me. Naughty Morris . Says her name’s Miranda. Do you know her?” Morris’s heart leapt. He grabbed the phone from Virginia. “Hello,” said Morris. “You bastard!” said Miranda. “Hi Sis,” said Morris. “Nice to hear from you. Hope to make it up there to see you and Mum and Dad soon.” “Oh?” said Virginia, “it’s your sister is it?” “Yes,” said Morris. “Tell that woman I’m not your sister!” said Miranda. “That is good news,” said Morris, “Mum must be very proud of you.” “Morris!” said Miranda. “You bastard! I don’t . . . I don’t understand how you could . . . ” “Oh do you?” said Morris. “That might be interesting for you. Let me know how it goes.” “Family reunion’s take ages, don’t they?” said Virginia, “shall I put the kettle on?” “No no,” said Morris, “I’ve almost ﬁnished.” “I heard all that,” said Miranda, “you bastard!” “Well,” said Morris, “good to hear from you. Bye.” “No Morris!” cried Miranda. “Please don’t hang up. I just want ...” Virginia grabbed the phone. “Bye Morris’s sister,” she said, “he’ll have to call you back. He’s sort of busy now.” Virginia hung up. It occurred to Morris that the last bit probably wouldn’t go down very well with Miranda. It was possible that he had just sacriﬁced unlimited sex with Miranda for what might possibly turn out to be only a one night stand with Virginia. “Now then,” said Virginia, “where were we? Ah yes, I remember. I was going to show you another little trick of mine, wasn’t I?” On the other hand, thought Morris, Virginia was probably worth a one night stand. As Virginia’s expert guidance helped his manhood 168
to re-assert itself, Morris felt his doubts slip away. Virginia was certainly worth it. And what of Miranda? He knew her perfectly well by now. He could bring her back to her senses at any time he liked. He would work out an apology for her and use it when required. For now, Virginia was all he needed. Thirty seconds after that Morris wasn’t thinking about Miranda at all. Some miles away in Miranda Catarini’s ﬂat things were very different. Miranda sat with the telephone receiver in her hand listening to the engaged signal and staring at the telephone dial in horror. She suddenly knew how the eggs she’d had for breakfast must have felt when, shortly after being split in half, they had been emptied of everything they contained and then thrown into the bin. Miranda even tried phoning Morris back, but someone had very sensibly taken his phone oﬀ the hook. Miranda decided that instead of going to bed that night she would just sit in an armchair and cry. It seemed under the circumstances to be the most sensible thing to do.
Aristid poured William another glass of champagne. “Here, William,” he said. “More drink for you. We have much to celebrate.” It was after dinner, and William and Aristid were sitting at Aristid’s dinner table. Aristid had served chicken, in an ingenious sauce of his own invention, and they were now onto their second bottle of champagne. Now that William had severed his connections with the shopping centre they considered themselves to be genuine adventurers at last. All they needed was a water pistol, and their life of crime could begin in earnest. To William, a seasoned beer drinker, the champagne came as a rare and pleasant surprise. Aristid had warned him not to devour it at his usual beer drinking rate, and William had halved his speed to oblige him. So the pair sat, drinking to future success, in Aristid’s darkened dining room, the rounded light shade casting strange shadows on the walls. William drained another glass, and tried to generate a celebratory feeling. It was hard. For William, the real time for celebration would be shortly after ridding the world of communism. “You will not appreciate the taste if you drink it so fast,” said Aristid. “Sorry Aristid,” said William, as his brother-in-law poured another glass. “Now then,” said Aristid, “have you absorbed the ﬁne points of 171
the plan?” “Yes Aristid,” said William. He moved to drain his glass, then remembered not to. He drained half of it instead. “Well William?” said Aristid. “Repeat them to me.” “The plan,” said William, “is to buy a water pistol and rob somewhere with it.” “Yes,” said Aristid, “but the ﬁne points? You remember them, surely?” “Fine points, Aristid?” said William, drinking the rest of his glass. “My dear William, we have been discussing them! You could not have forgotten already.” “No no. Of course I haven’t forgotten.” “Good.” “But, er, could you remind me anyway? Also, my glass seems to have become empty again.” Aristid sighed. “Oh William,” he said, as he ﬁlled the glass once more. “Sorry Aristid,” said William. “The plan,” said Aristid, “is as follows. Tomorrow morning you will go to a toy shop . . . ” “Which toy shop, Aristid?” “It doesn’t matter William.” “But which shop is best for water pistols? Surely only the best will do . . . ” “You could try K-Mart, William.” “K-Mart is very general, Aristid, it may not have the range. I think perhaps it would be better if I studied the yellow pages before embarking on my expedition.” “No doubt, William. Now, at this toy shop . . . ” “Do you have a copy, Aristid?” “What William?” “Do you have a copy. Of the yellow pages, I mean.” “Of course. At this toy shop . . . ” “Where is it? The copy of the yellow pages, I mean.” 172
“It is by the telephone, William. I keep all my telephone directories by the telephone. In anticipation of your next question, the telephone itself is in the hall, beside the front door.” “Thank you, Aristid. That will be most helpful.” “Not at all, William. Now, once in the toy shop you must purchase a water pistol. Not any water pistol, mind you, but a very carefully chosen one. Do you remember what sort of water pistol you are supposed to be buying?” “Er, I suppose I should buy the one with the most powerful squirt.” Aristid blinked. “The what?” “The most powerful squirt. I should buy the water pistol capable of producing the strongest jet of water, though not so strong that it might hurt anyone, of course.” “No William, I don’t think we need to consider the water pistol’s ability to squirt water.” “But Aristid, we want a water pistol that will frighten people without hurting them. You said so yourself . . . ” “No William, you are missing the point. We do not plan to shoot anyone with the water pistol.” “Ah!” “We merely plan to frighten them.” “Oh. So we merely tell them the water pistol has a powerful squirt?” “No no. We don’t mention the squirt at all.” “Oh?” said William. “Then how do we use the water pistol to frighten people?” “Simply by not telling them it is a water pistol.” “Not telling them?” “Correct,” said Aristid. “If we tell them anything at all it will be that the water pistol is a real gun.” “You mean a bullet ﬁring gun?” said William. “Exactly,” said Aristid. “Ah,” said William. “But what if it doesn’t look like a bullet ﬁring gun?” 173
“It will look like a bullet ﬁring gun, William. That is your job for tomorrow morning, to buy a water pistol that looks like a bullet ﬁring gun.” William thought about this. “I suppose,” he said, “that the plan makes sense. A water pistol that looks like a bullet ﬁring gun could be quite eﬀective, as a psychological weapon.” “It could indeed, William. I am glad that you grasp the ﬁrst stage of the plan.” “Is there another stage of the plan, Aristid?” “There is, William.” “Is that, by any chance, the second stage?” “It is, William. You are grasping the ﬁne points of plan design at last.” “I knew I would, Aristid. Plan design is a lot like shopping trolley management. What is the second stage of the plan?” Aristid smiled. “The second stage is our ﬁrst robbery, William.” “What will we rob?” “There are a number of possibilities. I have yet to make my ﬁnal choice. I will decide tomorrow morning, while you are buying the water pistol. Then tomorrow afternoon we will actually do the robbery.” “The second stage sounds very exciting, Aristid. How will we get to the robbery?” “In my car, William. I will be the getaway driver You will do the actual robbery, and I will drive you to safety afterwards.” “So,” said William, “stage two of the plan, the second stage in other words, involves me doing the actual robbery while you wait in the car?” “Exactly William.” “Ah,” said William. “Hm. I see. Aristid?” “Yes William?” “Is that . . . is that altogether fair, do you think?” “What do you mean, my dear brother-in-law?” “Do you think it altogether fair that I should do the actual robbery while you wait in the car?” “Well . . . ” 174
“I mean, won’t that result in me gaining all the honour and glory? I think you should be allowed to share in the honour and glory too.” “Ah. I see what you mean. No, my dear William, it is quite fair. I am perfectly happy for you to have all the honour and glory.” “You are very kind, Aristid. But I would still feel very guilty doing the robbery all by myself and thus gaining all the honour and glory.” “It is quite all right, William.” “But I insist. You must have some honour and glory.” “The plan is my plan, William. If it is successful I will have all the honour and glory I could want. You may do the robbery all by yourself with a clear conscience.” “Of course. I was forgetting that point. But just the same . . . ” “No, William. The plan is made, and we must stick to it. My plan is as important to me as your algorithm is to you. It must not be violated.” “Sorry, Aristid. Forgive me for criticising you.” “I forgive you. It was a very minor criticism, after all. Now, do you know what to say while committing the robbery?” “I suppose,” said William, “that I should go up to the man I plan to rob and say: ‘Good afternoon. My name is William Pratt and I am a robber . . . ’” “No, William, I don’t think you should give your name.” “Oh? I thought it sounded more professional that way.” “No. Rather less professional, I think.” “Oh. All right. ‘Good afternoon,’ I will say. ‘I am a robber. If you hand over all your money I will leave you in peace and not squirt you with my water pistol.’” “I don’t think you should mention the water pistol, William.” “Very well. Then I will just say: ‘I will not squirt you.’” “No William, don’t say ‘squirt’, say ‘shoot’.” “Ah, of course. I was forgetting to pretend that the water pistol is a bullet ﬁring gun. I will say: ‘Good afternoon. I am a robber. If you hand over all your money I will leave you in peace and not shoot you with my bullet ﬁring gun.’” 175
“That is better, William, but it lacks menace somehow. How about: ‘Hand over all your money or I will shoot you. I have a gun and I am not afraid to use it’ ?” “What about ‘Good afternoon’ ?” said William. “Shouldn’t I say ‘Good afternoon’ ﬁrst?” “No.” “How about ‘hello’ ?” “No, William. No greeting at all.” “But won’t it be rather frightening for whoever I rob if there’s no greeting?” “Yes, William. That is the whole point.” “Ah. We are trying to frighten the person we rob?” “Exactly William. Well done.” William thought about this for a while. “Aristid,” he said. “Yes William?” said Aristid. “Is it altogether a good idea to frighten the person we rob?” “Of course it is,” said Aristid. “If we don’t frighten our victims they won’t give us their money.” “I suppose you know what you’re doing. I’m simply worried about what might happen if we frighten someone with a weak heart. We might cause them to have a heart attack. We might accidentally kill someone, Aristid.” “Yes, but . . . ” “I don’t think we should risk any lives in our eﬀorts to rid the world of communism. That wouldn’t be the right thing to do at all.” “Quite. But . . . ” “I think we should make sure the people we rob don’t have heart conditions before we rob them. We should say: ‘Excuse me, do you have a heart condition?’ and only if they say no should we go on to rob them.” “All right William. If you insist.” “And also I think we should say ‘Good afternoon’, because people are likely to give more money to polite robbers than to impolite ones.” “Very well. I suppose there may be something in what you say.” “We will still be a bit frightening, won’t we, Aristid?” 176
“Yes, William, I am sure you will.” “And I will buy the water pistol tomorrow?” “Tomorrow morning. Tomorrow afternoon we will stage our ﬁrst robbery.” “Good. I’m sure we’ll be a big success, Aristid.” “I do not see how we can fail, William.”
On Thursday morning Miranda got up to go to work. This surprised her because she didn’t remember going to bed the night before. The whole of Wednesday evening was a little diﬃcult to recall. After learning of Morris’s betrayal her conscious mind had simply turned itself oﬀ. Her subconscious mind must have taken charge at this point and made sure that she took herself to bed properly, changing into her night clothes and brushing her teeth along the way. This suggested to Miranda that her subconscious mind had its priorities wrong. Why was it worried about her teeth when her heart had been broken? Nevertheless, she let her subconscious guide her, on automatic pilot, through the chores connected with getting up, while her conscious mind fretted about Morris. There seemed to be only one explanation for what she had heard on the phone last night. It was an explanation that shattered her world and seemed to reduce to zero all possibility of future happiness. The best emotion she could hope for from now on was a sort of neutral misery. Smiling again was absolutely out of the question. She walked to the bus stop that morning amid the fumes and dust of the suburb. She noticed with some disgust that the morning sky was blue and cloudless. It was going to be a lovely day, which was a pity, because what she really wanted at that moment was a particularly violent thunder storm. She glanced ﬂeetingly at the ridiculous brightness of the sun. Miranda made her way through the doors of the bank branch 179
shortly before they were opened to the public. The person who let her in was Anne Cameron. She scowled gruﬄy as she wished Miranda good morning. “You here again, are you?” said Anne. “Yes,” said Miranda, “I’m here.” “And planning to compete with Desmond in the long faces department as well, I see. You miserable as well, are you?” Miranda realised she was looking unhappy, and quickly made an eﬀort to smile. “No no,” she said, “I’m ﬁne.” “Good,” said Anne. “It’ll make a nice change in this bank to have someone around who’s happy.” Miranda went over to the computer to turn it on. Anne dealt quickly with a customer enquiry, but was soon back at her side. “Are you going to use that computer of yours today?” she said. “I hope so,” said Miranda, ﬂicking the red ‘on’ switch at the side of the console. She had already activated the computer screen and the printer. “It’s just that I noticed you didn’t use it much yesterday,” said Anne. “No, it was rather quiet yesterday. I expect you have days when not many people open accounts, and days when lots of people open them.” “We certainly do,” said Anne, grimly. “Sometimes it’s like a mad house in here, everyone rushing around trying to keep up with all the work; other times you could sleep all day and no one would notice you weren’t here. Sometimes I think the customers organise it deliberately. My staﬀ’s pretty aggravating at the best of times, but when it’s a busy day they drive me mad.” “Well, it should be easier to cope on busy days now we have the machine.” “You say!” “In fact, I rather hope we do have a busy day today or tomorrow, so we can really test the machine.” “Oh do you?” said Anne. “Well I’ll try to oblige you, though I don’t see what I can do.” 180
“Which day of the week is usually busiest?” “Wednesday.” “But yesterday was Wednesday!” “That’s right, and hardly anyone came in at all. That’s the way it is in this business, unpredictable. But don’t you go wishing too hard for a busy day young lady. Some days things in here move so fast you won’t know what hit you. Friday might be one of those days. I have a feeling about Friday. Friday or Monday.” “You stay open an extra hour on Fridays, don’t you?” said Miranda. “We do,” said Anne. “Hope that won’t inconvenience you. I know you young people like to go to bed early on Friday nights.” Anne wandered oﬀ to see to some more customers, and Miranda gave her machine a quick check. The slide show was now going through its paces on the computer screen. She noticed that ‘counter’ was now spelt correctly. All she had to do was check the paper supply for the printer, then she could go and sit in her chair on the other side of the enquiry counter and worry about what to do when she ﬁnished reading the last few pages of her training manual. But as she turned to check the paper supply she saw something odd. Sitting behind the pile of printer paper, and looking entirely out of place amongst the leads and connectors attached to the computer equipment, was a bunch of ﬂowers. They were roses. They were red. They had a note attached to them. The stems of the ﬂowers were wrapped in crˆpe paper, and Miranda e carefully extracted the bunch from the tangle of wires and paper. The note was on a folded up piece of paper. Miranda unfolded it. It said: ‘Dear Miranda, these ﬂowers are for you. I hope they will help you to forgive me for making a fool of myself and upsetting you. I would very much like to be friends with you even though you have a boyfriend because I think you’re wonderful. I promise not to get carried away again. Love, Desmond.’ This note was utterly ridiculous. Miranda frowned. The last thing she wanted to do right now was to ease that weird little idiot Desmond through the agonies of unrequited love. On the other hand, she didn’t 181
want to hurt his feelings either. Weird he might be, but he was at least sincere. All in all, she decided, it would have made life easier for her if Desmond had decided to take the day oﬀ work rather than to give her ﬂowers. She detected a nervous presence behind her. She sighed impatiently, and without turning round said: “Yes, Desmond?” “Oh,” said Desmond. “Hello, er, Miranda. You found the ﬂowers?” “Yes, Desmond.” “Do you, er, do you forgive me?” Miranda took a deep breath. She could feel anger welling up inside her, but she didn’t want to direct it at Desmond. He couldn’t help being an idiot. He meant well. “You’ve done nothing wrong, Desmond,” said Miranda, still without turning round. “You don’t need to ask me to forgive you.” “Oh,” said Desmond. “Right. Can we be friends again then?” Miranda wanted to hit him. She kept telling herself that he didn’t deserve hitting, but she wanted to hit him anyway, preferably with a brick. “We are friends, Desmond,” she said, noticing with some surprise that her voice had taken on an unaccustomed note of icy menace. Desmond had obviously noticed it too. She heard him step back. “Oh dear,” he said. “I’ve just made you even angrier. I had hoped ...” Miranda span round and glared at him. “Hoped what?” “Well . . . ” Desmond’s eyes were staring at her with horror. He was looking more nervous than she had ever seen him look before. “Er . . . ” he continued, “even though you, um, already have a boyfriend I, er, thought maybe you’d like to have lunch with me in the park.” “Look Desmond,” said Miranda, “please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m afraid I don’t feel much like lunch with anyone today. So would you please go away?” There was something distinctly insensitive and stupid about men. They never seemed to behave the way she wanted them too. She thought of Morris, and wondered if he still constituted a boyfriend. If not, did she really want another boyfriend to replace him? Was 182
a boyfriend worth all the heart ache and stress that went with one? Would a boyfriend as ridiculous as Desmond be worth any amount of stress at all? “I made you some sandwiches,” said Desmond. “What?” said Miranda. “I made you some sandwiches,” said Desmond, “just on the oﬀ chance that you might want to have lunch with me in the park . . . ” Miranda scowled furiously. “Oh did you?” she said. It seemed utterly incredible to her that a man could presume so much as to make her sandwiches. Did he think he was so wonderful that all he had to do was throw together two slices of bread to have her wilting at his feet with gratitude? “Here,” said Desmond, “I’ll show you.” He knelt on the ground beside his briefcase and opened it to show her. Miranda gazed disdainfully down into it, only to get a considerable surprise. She stared in disbelief. “Of course,” said Desmond, “I had to leave my encyclopaedia and my street directory at home to make room . . . ” The briefcase was full of sandwiches. They were divided up into groups of eight little squares, and each group of eight was in its own individual plastic bag. She couldn’t help staring. She had never expected to see a briefcase so completely full of sandwiches. “But Desmond,” she said, “there are so many!” “Yes,” said Desmond, “of course. I didn’t know what sort you liked so I made a variety you could choose from. There’s ham, chicken, lettuce, Mil Lel cheese, Cottage cheese, Kraft cheese, hard boiled egg, pat´, some with just butter (sorry), pork, salmon, tomato, caviar dip, e some with diﬀerent combinations of those things, some with rye bread, some with garlic, none with fairy bread (sorry), and the triangular ones I got from a sandwich shop on the way to work. I don’t know if they’re any good. They looked nice.” Miranda couldn’t help smiling. “They look ﬁne to me,” she said. “All the ones I made I cut into squares. I didn’t think of triangles. I hope you don’t mind.” 183
“Squares are okay,” said Miranda. “It was very sweet of you Desmond. So many sandwiches! It must have taken you hours!” “I did some shopping and cooking last night, and got up especially early to do the rest.” “And ﬂowers too. And all I did was shout at you!” Desmond shrugged his shoulders. “I understand,” he said. “I know I can be pretty irritating at times. I’m just grateful to you for being so tolerant of me . . . ” Miranda grinned. “I’m not tolerant, I’m rude. And you’re not irritating. Not after doing so much for me.” “The sandwiches?” said Desmond. “Oh, that was nothing. Just a token of friendship.” “Well they made me smile, anyway. I didn’t think anything would do that again.” “Does this mean you’ll have lunch with me?” said Desmond, and the expression on his face was so eager Miranda couldn’t have refused him even if she’d wanted to. “Yes,” she said, “I’ll have lunch with you. We’d better have it in the park since you’ve made so many sandwiches for us.” Desmond’s eyes lit up, and a grin began to spread out across his face. “But,” added Miranda, “we’re only going to lunch as friends. Nothing more than that.” Desmond’s face fell slightly, but only slightly. “Of course,” he said, “I understand.” The grin still on his face, Desmond closed his briefcase and went back to his customers. Miranda shook her head and smiled slightly. She had never expected to encounter anything quite as odd as Desmond in her career in banking. He had still left her with one problem, however. Where was she going to put the ﬂowers?
The shopping centre was ﬁlled with busy people of all shapes and sizes. Although most of them were women, there were enough men about for William not to look conspicuous as he walked along, in his digniﬁed, upright manner, in search of a water pistol. Nevertheless, he felt decidedly odd walking as a customer through areas he had previously only visited as an employee. Beside him a plump, harassed young woman pushed a shopping trolley full of groceries from Coles New World towards the car park. Around him were more full trolleys being pushed in all directions by all kinds of women and men. It gave William a whole new perspective on his previous career. Never before had he thought of shopping trolleys as things to actually do shopping with. This part of the shopping centre was indoors, and the shops were ranged beneath a high ceiling in an area ﬁlled with neon light and muzak. Here and there a plastic tree stood in a small patch of artiﬁcial soil. The outside world, the real world of shopping trolley management and drinking competitions, could be glimpsed only rarely through the handful of openings that led out from the shopping centre to the sunlight. The tiles on the ﬂoor were a creamy colour that clashed with the pink of the ceiling, but this did not bother William. His perception of colour was sketchy even at the best of times. What he was looking for was a toy shop, and he was fairly sure that the shopping centre had a toy shop in it somewhere. He had decided to buy the water pistol 185
at the place of his former employment so that he could have one last lingering look at his beloved car park before leaving it forever. Sure enough there was a toy shop. It was called Mr Toys. It was rather small, perhaps, but at least it was a specialist shop. The people inside were bound to know everything there was to know about water pistols. Inside the shop he found himself surrounded by shelves of toys. On one side of him was a rack of cuddly black and white dogs, while on the other was a series of futuristic plastic tanks driven by little plastic soldiers with rivets through their elbows. William walked further into the shop. Along one wall was a display of revolting pink and purple teddy bears with multi-coloured hearts tattooed on their stomachs. Their plastic faces were frozen into sickening smiles, and on their chests they wore little badges with the words ‘I LOVE YOU’ written on them in clear, disturbing capitals. The next display contained a number of six inch plastic muscle men, each clutching a three inch plastic battle axe and snarling menacingly at the pink and purple teddy bears. William began to feel out of his depth. Further into the shop he encountered a tray in which little plastic farm animals were mixed up with slightly larger plastic dinosaurs. He thought this was unnecessarily cruel to the farm animals, but at least it was approaching a more traditional sort of toy. It seemed strange to William that so many children were in the toy shop. The place seemed unreasonably full of them. Surely some of them should have been at school? He noticed the young woman behind the sales counter eyeing with considerable suspicion a group of eight year old boys gathering furtively around the dolls’ dress section. William walked up to her desk and nodded politely. If he had been wearing a hat he would have taken it oﬀ. “Good morning,” said William, “how do you do?” “Hello,” said the woman, taking her eyes brieﬂy oﬀ the boys. “Can I help you?” “I hope so,” said William. “I was looking for a water pistol.” “A water pistol? For your son, is it?” 186
“No no, for me. Preferably one that looks like a real gun and also possesses a formidable squirt.” “Possesses a what?” “A formidable squirt. That is to say, a squirt that is formidable.” The young woman was now eyeing him with even more suspicion than she had eyed the small boys. “Hold on, sir,” she said, “I’ll just get Mr Matthews.” The young woman disappeared through a door behind her counter, leaving William the run of the shop. He watched as the eight year old boys grabbed two Barbie doll ball gowns and ran oﬀ through the exit. That, he thought to himself, was very wrong of them. If he had only had his water pistol by that stage he could have avenged the theft of the ball gowns. There was a slight noise as the door behind the counter opened again. The young woman stepped through, followed by a somewhat older man. He was a small, round faced, cheerful looking fellow with dark hair and glasses. William nodded to him. “Good morning,” said William. “Good morning sir,” said the man, amiably, as he stepped to William’s side of the counter. “I understand you’re looking for a water pistol?” “Yes,” said William, “that is correct.” “And you want one that looks like a real gun?” “Yes,” said William. “I’m told that sort is the best.” The man looked thoughtful. “I’m sure you mean well, sir,” he said, “but I think you’ll ﬁnd that children nowadays prefer these little laser guns to water pistols.” The man held up a clear fronted box from the rack beside the counter. Inside the box William could see what looked like a black, solid plastic headband, as well as a distinctly odd looking black plastic gun. It didn’t seem to be at all the sort of thing Aristid had suggested. “It doesn’t hurt people, does it?” said William. He felt that the black plastic gun looked rather too menacing. “Not at all,” said the man. “It merely makes a little light ﬂash on people who are wearing the special head band.” 187
William was interested. “Oh?” he said. “Does it make a little light ﬂash on people who are not wearing the special head band?” “No,” said the man, “of course it doesn’t.” “Ah,” said William, “then I’m afraid it’s of no use to me. Do you have any water pistols that look like real guns?” The man looked thoughtful as he placed the box back on its rack. “Chris,” he said, turning to the woman behind the counter, “have we got any of the Authentic Replica Western Six Shooters left?” “We might have,” said the woman. She pointed. “They’ll be on the shelf over there.” “Good,” said the man. He turned back to William. “Follow me, sir,” he said. He led the way past a shelf of large plastic space ships to a small rack, well hidden in a corner of the shop. On it hung a white and black box with a photograph of a gun on it. The man reached up to lift it down. “You might be interested in this, sir,” he said. “It’s the last one we have. We generally ﬁnd fathers are more interested in this line than their sons!” He opened the box and extracted a toy gun. It was no ordinary toy gun, however. Its brown plastic handle had the texture of real wood, and the rest of the gun was made of heavy, dark grey metal. It looked like a real gun, and felt very solid in William’s hand. The man pointed to a hinge. “See?” he said. “You can click it open and put little caps in its genuine rotating cylinder.” William was impressed. “What’s its range?” he asked. “Range, sir?” said the man. “Yes,” said William, “how far does it ﬁre?” “It doesn’t ﬁre any distance,” said the man, “it’s just a cap gun. It only makes a loud noise.” “It doesn’t squirt water then?” “No sir.” “Not even if you put water in its genuine rotating cylinder?” 188
“Not even then sir. If you put water in this gun all you do is make the caps soggy.” “Oh. What a shame. I fear it won’t do either.” William handed the gun back to the man, who put it back in its box and back on the shelf. “So you really are after a water pistol?” said the man. “Oh yes,” said William, “one that looks like a real gun.” “Hm,” said the man, “I don’t think we have one of those. We have toy guns that look like real guns, and we have water pistols, but I don’t think we have any that combine both features. Which is most important to you sir? That your gun should squirt water, or that it should look real?” William thought carefully. “That it should squirt water, I suppose,” he said. “A gun that just makes a loud noise is of no use to me at all.” “Very good sir,” said the man, “so you want a genuine water pistol. Well we do have several. They don’t look much like real guns, however.” This news disappointed William, but he tried to look on the bright side. “I suppose that if they do have powerful squirts they’re better than nothing,” he said. The man walked over to another shelf and took down a box. It was ﬁlled with water pistols, each made of transparent plastic tinted a diﬀerent colour. The man pulled out a green one and handed it to William. “You pour the water in through the hole in the top,” the man explained. “Then you put the plug in and pull the trigger.” “Is the squirt formidable?” said William, dubiously. “Sorry sir?” “What’s the range like?” “Ah,” said the man, “I see. The range is, I believe, quite good, for a water pistol.” William eyed the gun carefully. It was very light in his hand and not at all menacing. He failed to see how anyone could be frightened of a gun like this. Even if, as the man said, its squirt was formidable, 189
no one would believe it to look at it. It didn’t seem to meet William’s requirements for a truly modern looking weapon at all. “This model is normally very popular, sir,” said the man. “Being transparent, you can see the water inside, so you know when it needs to be reﬁlled.” “Hm,” said William, “I fear this isn’t exactly what I’m after either.” The young woman behind the counter suddenly spoke up. “Mr Matthews,” she cried, “what about the Gordon and Hailey Secret Agent Spud Gun?” “Of course,” cried the man, and he rushed back to the counter. William followed him, still in some doubt. He was surprised to hear that spud guns were still made, but even so, a water pistol was what he was after. “Yes yes,” said the man, “I’d forgotten the Gordon and Hailey Secret Agent Spud Gun.” “But I don’t want a spud gun . . . ” said William. “Nobody wanted one,” said the man, “we didn’t sell any. The children had never heard of spud guns and their parents didn’t want their oﬀspring to have toys capable of shooting little bits of potato all over the house. So we’ve still got hundreds in our store room!” “But I don’t want a spud gun,” said William. “I want a water pistol.” “The Gordon and Hailey Secret Agent Spud Gun,” said the man, “is also a water pistol.” William’s eyes lit up. “Does it look like a real gun?” “Yes,” said the man, “it’s made of water resistant grey metal. It looks exactly like a real gun, except for the bright red plastic nozzle at the end of the barrel.” “Oh? Does it have a bright red plastic nozzle at the end of the barrel?” “Yes, but the rest of it is exactly like a real gun.” “Then I’m sure it will do,” said William. The young woman had disappeared through the door behind the counter. She returned carrying a small box. The man opened the box 190
and passed the contents to William. There, in his hand, was the water pistol of William’s dreams. It was small, though no smaller than many real guns, and made of very solid grey metal. The weight was exactly what William had hoped it would be. Even the red plastic nozzle at the end of the gun didn’t spoil its appearance. It looked like a water pistol all right, but a technically very sophisticated one. With such a weapon by his side, William thought, nothing could stop him. “If you want to use it as a spud gun you click the nozzle open,” the man explained. “I don’t want to use it as a spud gun,” said William. “I want to use it as a water pistol.” “Then I’ll tell you how to ﬁll it,” said the man. “First you click open the nozzle, then you immerse the whole gun in water. Squeeze the trigger a few times to get all the air out, then release the trigger, click the nozzle closed and take the gun out of the water. Your water pistol is then ready to squirt.” “Is it a good water pistol?” William asked. “Yes and no,” said the man. “It’s got a good range . . . ” “Ah?” “Yes, but a rather small capacity. After three or four squirts you have to reﬁll it.” This didn’t matter to William. He planned to use the water pistol to commit robberies. One squirt would be enough to convince his victims he meant business. “I’ll take it,” said William, reaching for his wallet. “Excellent,” said the man. “Chris, how much is the Gordon and Hailey Secret Agent Spud Gun? We’ve sold one at last!” Thus it was that William Pratt bought himself a water pistol.
The sun shone brightly over the willow trees as the waters of the little lake, shocked by the sudden impact of a dozen or so splash landing ducks, lapped at its stone banks. In the centre of the lake, on a small island, a statue of Cupid stood on one leg, pointing its arrow menacingly at a large pigeon. The grass in the park was healthy and well tended, and the path that led down from the street to the lake, in spite of being covered in bird droppings, was free of cracks and weeds. There was a gentle slope down through the park to the lake, and higher up, Desmond knew, there was a tiny bandstand that rarely saw use. But Miranda wanted to ﬁnd a seat by the lake. There they would sit, in the shade of the willows, and work their way through the sandwiches. Any they couldn’t eat they would feed to the ducks. That way, Miranda said, none of his eﬀorts would be wasted. They walked down the path towards the lake together. The traﬃc noise behind them could still be heard, but now it was largely replaced by bird song. Even the air here seemed cleaner, though Desmond knew this to be an illusion. They were no further from town now than they were at the bank. As he walked beside her he wondered if he should hold Miranda’s hand. He knew he wanted to hold her hand, but suspected that she wouldn’t like it if he tried. There were other couples in the park, he noticed, and most of them were holding hands. Desmond was still surprised by how few people did come to the park at lunch time. The park was one of his favourite places, and the weather, while not very warm, was pleasant. Perhaps 193
most people preferred crowded caf´s to parks at lunch time. e Of the people who were in the park, most were wearing neat business clothes. Miranda looked ﬁne among these people, but he felt out of place, as always. It was one of his ambitions to somehow discover a part of the world he could feel comfortable in. Being with Miranda made him happy in nearly every way, though he was painfully aware that she was much too good for him. They wandered around the lake for a while, basking in the reﬂection from the silver waters and listening to the gentle quacking of the ducks. At last they came to a free seat. Desmond waited for Miranda to sit down, then sat down beside her. A small duck with a black head swam over to the edge of the lake closest to them. It was eyeing Desmond’s pile of neatly wrapped sandwiches with what might be called a wild surmise. “Give it some bread,” Miranda advised. Desmond broke up a cheese sandwich and tossed it to the duck. The animal devoured it as quickly as it could, and was soon joined by more ducks. Ducks, it seemed, were not animals inclined to miss out on a potentially good thing. Miranda too was nibbling at a ham and lettuce sandwich. “These are nice,” she said. “Try one.” “Well,” said Desmond, “I basically made them for you, and . . . ” “Desmond,” said Miranda, ﬁrmly, “if you think the ducks and I are going to force ourselves to eat all these sandwiches all by ourselves then you’ve got another think coming. Have one. Go on. You made them, after all.” Desmond ate a cheese sandwich just to oblige her. “It’s good here, isn’t it?” he said, between mouthfuls. “Yes,” said Miranda, “I can see why you like to come here. The ducks seem pleased to see you, as well. Give them some more bread, Desmond.” Desmond threw another piece of bread into the water. A dozen or so ducks dived for it. The rest looked hopefully up at him, clearly wanting him to throw some more, this time closer to where they were. He obliged them, but again the original twelve got to it ﬁrst. Life, for 194
certain ducks, seemed terribly unfair. “The ham and lettuce sandwiches are very tasty,” said Miranda. “Have one.” Desmond had one. He felt a huge amount of gratitude towards Miranda simply for being there with him, but he didn’t know how to tell her. He was sure that if he tried he would frighten her away. He had noticed her getting pretty annoyed with him earlier that day. If he did anything else to oﬀend her he would lose her forever. On the other hand, the whole point of taking her to the park had been to try to ﬁnd an opportunity to ask her to the party on Friday night. If he didn’t ask her all his eﬀorts would have been in vain. “You’re looking thoughtful, Desmond,” said Miranda. “What are you thinking?” This was the time for Desmond to ask. The moment was right. What did he have to lose? Only her friendship. Love was impossible, as she already had a boyfriend. Did her friendship mean that much to him? He decided it did. “I wasn’t thinking anything,” he said, sadly. The ducks quacked, and he threw them some more bread. This time the second group reached it ﬁrst, quacking and ﬂapping their wings, and swallowing it down as quickly as possible. The ﬁrst group turned on them and tried to chase them away, but the second group had grown conﬁdent after their victory, and would not be moved. Battle was joined brieﬂy, then both groups turned towards the humans and quacked for more bread. Miranda threw them some. “I had a terrible night last night,” said Miranda. Desmond brightened at the prospect of a conversation. “Really?” he said. “Yes,” said Miranda. “I phoned my boyfriend, and he . . . ” She stopped. Desmond waited for her to ﬁnish what she was saying, but she didn’t bother. Instead she turned back to the ducks and threw them more bread. “I wonder,” said Desmond, “if the ducks would like a chicken sandwich?” “Wouldn’t that make them cannibals?” 195
Desmond threw the ducks a chicken sandwich. They fell on it, and with much splashing and quacking the sandwich disappeared. “I think,” said Miranda, “that there’s a lot of the essential vulture in those ducks.” Desmond agreed. “Miranda,” he said, “could I ask you something?” “Yes,” said Miranda. “What?” He tried to marshal his intelligence, but it didn’t seem to be working at that moment. “Oh, nothing,” he said. Miranda laughed gently. “I know,” she said, “it’s just too pleasant a day for conversation, isn’t it?” This wasn’t exactly Desmond’s problem, but it seemed a good enough excuse to be going on with. He and Miranda threw some more sandwiches to the ducks before deciding that the ducks were getting more than they were. They had two more sandwiches each to even up the score. “Desmond,” said Miranda, “if you loved someone, and you had a relationship with them, would you trust them?” “Trust them with what? How do you mean?” “I mean, would you still love them and be theirs if you found out they were sleeping with someone else? What sort of freedom would you allow them?” Desmond though about this. He loved Miranda so much that if she were his girlfriend he would allow her to do anything, however much it hurt him. “I think,” said Desmond, “that I would allow them as much freedom as they wanted. If they were sleeping with someone else I’d still love them and be theirs.” Miranda sighed deeply. “That’s how I used to feel.” “I mean,” said Desmond, “if someone loved me I would be faithful to them. I wouldn’t sleep with anyone else, or even think of sleeping with anyone else, or at least I hope I wouldn’t. But I wouldn’t stop them from sleeping with someone else if they wanted to. I guess if I really loved them I couldn’t stop them, even if it hurt me.” “That’s exactly how I used to think,” said Miranda. “I always 196
thought that that was my attitude. But now . . . I’m not saying that anything like that has happened. But now I know that if the man I loved ever slept with anyone else I’d feel angry and shocked, not just unhappy. And empty. Perhaps more so because I couldn’t think of sleeping with anyone else.” Desmond nodded. “I know that empty, shattered feeling myself ...” “No you don’t,” said Miranda. “Oh,” said Desmond. “You told me you’d never had a girlfriend!” “I haven’t . . . ” “So how could you have been hurt by someone?” “I’ve been in love and been rejected. I’ve asked several girls out and they all . . . ” “So you have been in love?” “Well, sort of love. A bit in love, I mean. Not as much in love as I . . . ” Desmond paused. “Not as much in love as you what?” “Oh, er, well . . . not as much in love as, er, as you obviously are with your boyfriend.” “You are sweet Desmond. My problem is that I think my boyfriend might have . . . ” “Yes?” “Oh, nothing. Just feed the ducks.” Desmond fed the ducks, or at least the strongest, fastest ducks. The other ducks tried to gain access to Desmond’s discarded bread, but their fellows beat them to it. Meanwhile Desmond pondered Miranda’s words. Was she dropping him hints? If she was he should ask her to the party, and quickly. If she wasn’t he should say nothing at all. He decided to err on the side of caution and keep his mouth shut. “Life is sometimes so complicated,” said Miranda. “I envy you. You seem to have found the perfect solution to life’s problems.” Desmond was surprised to hear this. “Have I?” he said. “Yes,” said Miranda. “I wish I could be as happy as you are, just sitting there feeding the ducks. You must like animals very much.” 197
Desmond threw another piece of bread at the ducks. He wished some of them would drown ﬁghting for it. “I would quite like to have a girlfriend,” Desmond said. “Then why don’t you ﬁnd yourself one?” “Oh, well, I’ve just never met a girl who felt she could love me. You know how it is,” said Desmond, sadly. Miranda smiled gently. “Don’t worry. You will.” “I’d far rather have a girlfriend than feed ducks,” said Desmond. “You might be better oﬀ without one,” said Miranda. “Love’s overrated.” “So’s duck feeding,” said Desmond. Miranda laughed. “You made a joke!” she said. Desmond was puzzled. “Did I?” he said. “Yes,” said Miranda, “but love’s still worse than duck feeding. Love makes you miserable. I don’t see how duck feeding could do that.” Desmond had to agree with her there. They fed the ducks for a bit longer, then Miranda suggested they should return to the bank. At no stage did Desmond come even close to asking her to the party on Friday. As he stood up to leave he cast one last look at the ducks. The two groups that had fought for the bread were eyeing him carefully, perhaps hoping he still had more to give them. Separate from the two groups, however, was one lone duck. It was small and rather crumpled looking. It had watched its fellows eating the bread without once attempting to get any for itself. It had just sat there waiting, perhaps hoping that when the others had ﬁnished there would be some bread left over for it to take without a ﬁght. It looked very hungry. Desmond did have one piece of bread left, so he took it out of its plastic bag and threw it to the lone duck. Instead of taking it the duck swam quickly to one side and watched as the other ducks fought for it. Desmond felt sorry for the duck, but there was nothing he could do to help it. It lacked the necessary personality for survival. He noticed Miranda watching the duck too. She smiled, but her eyes were sad. “That duck’s a bit like me, in a way,” she said. “Aren’t animals 198
funny?” Desmond looked once more at the duck, then he and Miranda turned to go.
The car was an elderly Volkswagen, and it rattled and hissed as it drove along. William had agreed to meet it on the park road, near the fountain. There he stood, clutching the little paper bag the toy shop had given him, trying to look relaxed and ordinary. He did not want any of the people who passed him to realise he was a notorious robber about to pull oﬀ a raid. The bag had ‘Mr Toys’ written on it. On the side of the road stood a stone wall, and beyond this was the park. If William turned round he could see the trees (willows mostly, and some smaller native trees), the grass, and the few scattered rose beds. There were wide paths leading between the trees and the rose beds, and there were park benches on which visitors could sit to talk or admire the green and red around them. Beneath the rich blue sky, with its few puﬀs of thin white cloud, the park looked beautiful. He decided that, today at least, he and Aristid should rob somewhere other than the park. That way the beauty would remain undisturbed. There were buildings on the other side of the road. They were buildings of moderate height, and most of them seemed to be shops. There was a fast food restaurant, a library and a newsagent’s. A tiny travel agency sat wedged between a french patisserie and a small liquor shop. As well as these William noticed several video hire stores. Their windows advertised the latest video releases, and he looked at all the posters of overly muscled, rather dirty young men clutching various large and powerful looking weapons. He had a weapon of his own, concealed in the little paper bag, and now it was loaded it was making 201
him feel very conﬁdent indeed. Next to the largest of the video shops was a fast food restaurant. He wondered if perhaps they should rob that. He had once had a very unpleasant experience attempting to eat a very strange and greasy looking meal in a fast food restaurant not entirely unlike that one. A quick route to fame and public approval, he thought, would surely be to rob a fast food restaurant. Several cars passed by, until Aristid’s grubby white Volkswagen rattled into view. It drove up to where he was, stopped and shuddered brieﬂy. William opened the passenger door. “Hello Aristid,” he said. “Good afternoon William,” said Aristid from behind the steering wheel. “If you will just climb in we will head oﬀ to our appointment with destiny.” William folded his long body into the passenger seat and closed the door. With a grinding of gears Aristid started the car up and drove oﬀ, merging into the stream of traﬃc that was making its way round the park. “Where are we going, Aristid?” said William. “We are going to a small chemist shop further out in the suburbs. I have done a lot of thinking about this, and have come to the conclusion that this will be the best place to start.” William sat back and thought about the coming adventure. On his left the park whizzed by, slowly coming to a halt as Aristid’s car approached a red traﬃc light. “Do I know this chemist’s shop?” said William. “No,” said Aristid, “it is in a suburb where neither of us is known.” William was shocked. “Then how will they know who’s robbing them?” The traﬃc light changed to green and Aristid started his car once more. “They will not know who is robbing them,” he explained. “That is the whole point.” “Ah,” said William, “I see.” “Good,” said Aristid. “Aristid?” said William. 202
“Yes William?” said Aristid. “If they don’t know who’s robbing them, how will we win honour and glory?” “I do not see the problem, my dear brother-in-law. Is it necessary for them to know who we are for us to gain honour and glory?” “I think so,” said William. “Certainly I would ﬁnd it hard to honour a hero without a name.” “Perhaps, William, perhaps. But if the people we rob know who we are they will tell the police and we will be arrested.” “Arrested? But we will be robbing in a good cause . . . ” “Even so, we are likely to be arrested.” “Oh,” William was disappointed. The police had suddenly gone down in his estimation. “Do not worry, my dear William,” said Aristid. “We will not be arrested if the police do not know who we are. That is why we are robbing a chemist where we are not known.” William was still unhappy. “Perhaps,” he said, “I could rob the chemist using a false name. I could win honour and glory under a false name.” “What name would you use?” Aristid said. William thought. “John?” he suggested. “I don’t think so,” said Aristid. “It is not altogether unusual enough.” “Albert?” suggested William. “No,” said Aristid. “I do not think that sounds right either.” “How about Aristid?” said William. “Aristid is my name,” said Aristid. “It’s a very good name,” said William. “It’s digniﬁed, unusual, exciting, memorable . . . ” “But it’s my name,” said Aristid. “Don’t you think that using my name would rather defeat the purpose of the exercise?” “No,” said William. “As long as it’s not my name.” “I think,” said Aristid, “that we had better postpone the winning of honour and glory until we have built up a secure ﬁnancial base. For now, we will rob anonymously.” 203
William’s face fell. “Tell me,” said Aristid, “how did your quest for a water pistol go?” “Quite well, I think,” said William. “I have bought a water pistol that satisﬁes nearly all of our requirements.” “Nearly all? What is wrong with it?” “It’s capacity is not large, I’m afraid,” said William. “The man in the shop said that after three or four squirts it has to be reﬁlled.” Aristid looked slightly alarmed. “No no, William, that really doesn’t matter. We’re not worried about how well it squirts . . . ” “I thought you wouldn’t mind. That’s why I bought it.” Aristid looked relieved. “Well done, William,” he said. “Does it look like a real gun?” “Very much,” said William. “Should I show you?” “Please do,” said Aristid. William removed his mighty looking water pistol from its bag. The grey metal looked solid and powerful in the light of day, and William felt very proud. “William,” said Aristid, gently. “It has a red plastic nozzle on the end of its barrel.” “Yes,” said William, smiling happily. The red plastic nozzle, he felt, was the perfect ﬁnishing touch to the gun. “Do you think,” said Aristid, “that it is an altogether good idea for the gun to have a red plastic nozzle on the end of its barrel?” “Oh yes,” said William. “Without the nozzle all the water would fall out.” “Ah.” “Yes, and besides that, without the nozzle we’d only be able to use it as a spud gun, which would be no use to us at all.” “No, quite. I see. William?” “Yes, Aristid?” “You do remember that we plan to use the gun only as a psychological weapon, don’t you?” “Of course.” William would never have dreamt of hurting anyone, even in the pursuit of honour and glory. 204
“So, don’t you think it might be a better psychological weapon without the red plastic nozzle?” “Without the nozzle it would look quite boring.” “But William . . . ” “It’s all right Aristid. I assure you that the red nozzle in no way detracts from the appearance of the gun. If anything it makes it more impressive.” “Does it?” “Yes. It makes it look more technically advanced. People seeing this gun will assume, from its red nozzle, that it is more sophisticated than other guns, and thus more to be feared.” “Well . . . ” “Trust me, Aristid. I have thought very carefully about this red nozzle, and I’m sure it is to our advantage.” “But . . . ” “In fact, I don’t think we can manage without it. There are a lot of millionaire chemists, aren’t there, Aristid?” “I beg your pardon, William? What did you say?” “I asked you if there are a lot of millionaire chemists.” “Well, I’m not really sure. Now, about this gun . . . ” “I think there are a lot. I read it in a magazine once. It’s something to do with vitamin tablets.” “I’m sure it is, William, but . . . ” “I expect this chemist we’re going to rob is a millionaire. We will strike our ﬁrst blow for honesty and decency by stealing from him.” “Er, William, I’m not sure he’s a millionaire . . . ” “Not sure?” “No. Does it matter?” William was shocked. “Does it matter? Of course it matters. You said yourself that we should rob from the rich to give to the poor.” Aristid smiled. “My dear William,” he said, “you do not have to be a millionaire to be rich.” “Ah,” said William. “So even though he’s not a millionaire he is rich?” 205
“Of course,” said Aristid. “Or at least, he is richer than we are. Probably. So you have no need to worry.” William was relieved. “That’s all right then,” he said. “As long as we’re not doing anything wrong.” “Of course we’re not,” said Aristid. “Not morally wrong, anyway. You realise, of course, that, strictly speaking, what we intend is legally wrong, don’t you?” “Owing to faults and confusions in the law?” “I imagine so.” “But it’s in the national interest in the long run, isn’t it Aristid?” “Of course.” William thought about this. “That’s a sign that our legal system is inadequate,” he said. “I must write to John Laws about it.” The car drove on to beyond the centre of town. Gradually the shop fronts that lined the street grew fewer, to be replaced by the tiny gardens of town houses. The streets narrowed, as Aristid turned the car at ﬁrst one crossroad, then another. Soon William was thoroughly lost, but he trusted his brother-in-law to guide them safely to the end of their journey. The town houses grew smaller, and began to separate. The road they were on widened brieﬂy, then narrowed again. Aristid turned oﬀ onto a wider, busier road, and William saw a street of small shops up ahead. There was a shop advertising genuine Italian pizzas, a small oﬀ licence and a chemist’s. Aristid slowed the car as they approached. A sudden wave of terror passed through William, and he realised with some surprise that he was suﬀering from stage fright. As the chemist’s shop drew closer, and he noticed the name ‘Jones’ written on the crumbling red sign hung over the door, William began to feel very nervous at the prospect of robbing it. In spite of the moral justiﬁcation of what he planned to do, the actual prospect of doing it was a little too much for him. Aristid drove the car into the small side street by the chemist’s and parked. Using all his strength he pulled the hand brake into place. “Well, William,” he said, “I will wait here. I can see the chemist’s, and will have the car started and ready to go as soon as you emerge 206
with the money.” “Oh,” said William. “Oﬀ you go then.” “Ah,” said William. “William? Are you all right, my dear brother-in-law?” William was staring sadly at the chemist’s. His heart was beating far faster than it usually did. Even when Mr Blenkham had presented him with a new tractor he had not felt as nervous as he did now. He wondered if it was too late to call the whole thing oﬀ. “Aristid,” said William, “what did we come here to do again?” “To rob the chemist, William.” “Ah yes. I remember.” “Well? Oﬀ you go then.” “Aristid?” said William. “Yes, William?” said Aristid. “Don’t you think it might be better if I drove the car and you robbed the chemist?” “It’s my car, William.” “Yes, but . . . ” “And you do not know how to drive it.” “I know how to drive tractors . . . ” “Not the same, William. Not the same at all.” “Well,” said William, “I could wait here, and you could rob the chemist and drive the car. That way all the honour and glory would be yours . . . ” “But that would hardly be fair, would it William?” “Ah. No. I suppose not.” Aristid smiled gently. “You’re not nervous, are you William?” “No,” said William. “Good. Oﬀ you go then.” “Aristid?” “Yes William?” “I am nervous, actually.” Aristid’s smile broadened. “Ah,” he said, “I suspected as much. To be nervous at this stage is quite normal.” 207
“It is?” “Oh yes, so you should not let it worry you.” “Good. I feel better now,” said William, looking worried. “Besides,” said Aristid, “I will be here, to help if anything goes wrong.” “Ah,” said William. “Good. I think.” Aristid leaned over and opened William’s door. “Oﬀ you go,” he said. “Good luck.” Looking miserable, William unfolded himself from the car. He hid the water pistol in his pocket and walked, hesitantly towards the chemist. He disappeared round the corner, Aristid eyeing him eagerly as he went. For a moment Aristid’s knuckles whitened as he gripped the steering wheel of his car. Then the sound of a bell tinkling was heard. Aristid relaxed brieﬂy. It was the sound made by someone opening the chemist’s door. Three minutes passed, and William ﬁnally reappeared. He moved very slowly as he rounded the corner and walked back in the direction of the car. Aristid started the engine. He noticed that William was holding a small red paper bag with the name of the chemist printed on it. William climbed into the car, and Aristid released the hand brake and slammed the gear lever into ﬁrst. With screaming tyres and rattling wheels the car hurtled oﬀ down the street. “How did it go?” said Aristid. “How did what go?” said William. “The raid. How did the raid go?” “Oh. That. Not well, I’m afraid,” said William. “I forgot the plan, the ﬁne points anyway. So I didn’t bother.” “What?” “I didn’t bother to rob the chemist.” “William!” “But the journey wasn’t entirely wasted.” “No?” “No. I bought you a toothbrush.” William handed the paper bag to Aristid. 208
It was half past eight in the evening. In the ﬂat of Morris Atkins Virginia had just noticed a lack of milk. She had searched Morris’s fridge most thoroughly, and there wasn’t a bottle or a carton to be found. “You’ve run out of milk,” she said. “It doesn’t matter,” said Morris. “Yes it does,” she said. “Milk’s good for you, and I absolutely refuse to drink black coﬀee.” “So we won’t make any coﬀee tonight.” “Yes we will,” said Virginia, “and mine will be white.” “But . . . ” “I’ll just drive down to the garage and buy some milk. Give me your car keys please.” Morris gave her his car keys. “And some money,” said Virginia. “I’m not going to pay for your milk.” Morris gave her some money. “Good,” said Virginia. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Bye Morris darling.” Virginia skipped delicately out of the ﬂat, slamming the door hard behind her. Morris shuddered. Virginia was the ﬁrst girl he had ever had who knew herself to be his intellectual superior. This made him very nervous. There were physical problems too. Although she was fantastic in bed she had nearly twice as much energy as him. She was 209
exhausting him, to say nothing of what she was doing to his ego. The whole point of sleeping with Virginia in the ﬁrst place had been to improve his ego, Morris felt. Every other male student in the department wanted to sleep with her, and there was no denying how attractive she was. She was tall, slim and energetic. She had long, wavy red hair and the most perfect legs Morris had ever seen. Miranda, for all her other attractions, did have slightly knobbly knees. So Morris felt that if Virginia was everyone else’s fantasy she should be one of his conquests. The problem was Virginia’s air of eﬀortless superiority. Morris didn’t mind women who were strident feminists, he could enjoy patronising them. He was also fairly fond of women like Miranda, who treated him with a sort of passive admiration. He had even more fun patronising them. He didn’t know how to patronise Virginia. Worse than that, she spent a lot of time patronising him. It was no good at all. If only he still had Miranda, he thought. If he had his devoted little drip to return to, Virginia wouldn’t bother him at all. He could simply enjoy her body until her mind became too much for him, safe in the knowledge that Miranda would be prepared to leap into his bed as soon as he told her to. It was roughly at this point that he considered testing Miranda, to see if perhaps it wasn’t too late to re-establish communications with her. He had done some pretty lousy things to her in the past, and she had always come crawling back for more. Perhaps even this was not too much for her. He went to the telephone and dialled her number. “Hello?” It was Miranda’s voice. “Hello Miranda,” said Morris. “Morris here.” “What? Morris?” “Yes. About last night. You aren’t going to let what you heard bother you, are you?” “Of course I am! How could you Morris!” “Now don’t get excited, Miranda.” “Excited? You bastard! Go away!” He waited, but Miranda did not hang up. He smiled to himself. 210
He knew this young woman better than she knew herself. “Morris?” it was Miranda’s voice. “Are you still there?” “Of course,” said Morris. “I . . . I just don’t understand. I suppose I should forgive you. I’ve always said that I wouldn’t be too possessive in this relationship, that I wouldn’t let myself tie you down or anything . . . ” “I understand Miranda. Don’t blame yourself. You’re taking it pretty well under the circumstances. I guess that’s why I love you so much.” “Oh Morris! How can you say you love me?” “Don’t you trust me, Miranda? Don’t you believe me when I say something?” “Of course I do . . . ” “Then trust me now. Jesus, Miranda, if you’d trusted me in the ﬁrst place none of this would have happened.” “What?” “I told you not to ring me. I said I’d ring you. But you didn’t listen, did you? You rang me anyway. That’s how you found out. That’s why you’re upset. The blame really rests as much with you as it does with me.” “Oh Morris!” “Think about it. If you hadn’t found out you’d never have been upset.” “But Morris! You’ve left me . . . for someone else . . . ” “I haven’t left you, Miranda. This is just a holiday from you.” “A holiday! Are you saying you’ll come back to me?” “I never really left you, Miranda. I love you, and I always have loved you.” “But what about . . . what about her?” “Virginia? I just sleep with Virginia, I don’t love her. All I feel for her is lust.” “Oh Morris! That’s awful!” “There were women before you, you know that. All I ever felt for any of them was lust. It’s the same with Virginia. You’re the only woman I’ve ever loved. You’re the only woman I ever will love.” 211
“So . . . you won’t see her again?” “I will, and sleep with her too, until I’m tired of her.” “How awful! You . . . you’re just . . . ” “Now don’t go getting excited. Think about it. What sort of relationship do you think we could have if I still felt lust for Virginia? I’ve got to work the lust out of my system ﬁrst. Then I’ll come back to you. All right?” “Oh, I don’t know . . . ” “Are you saying you want to end our relationship?” “No . . . ” “Are you? If you do, just say so. I don’t want to end it. I still love you, but if you want to end it, just go ahead and say so. But remember, it will be your doing, not mine.” There was a pause. “Morris?” Miranda’s voice was hesitant, almost apologetic. Morris grinned. “Yes Miranda?” he said, ﬁrmly. “I . . . don’t want to end our relationship. You can see this woman if you want to.” “Good girl.” “But . . . but you will come back to me, won’t you? Soon?” “Of course.” It was true, as well. “All right. I’ll trust you,” said Miranda. “Good. And to show you I appreciate it I’ll take you out tomorrow night.” “Really?” “Yes. Just for one night, mind. Then I go back to Virginia until I’ve ﬁnished with her. All right?” “Oh Morris . . . ” “All right?” “All right.” “Good girl. I’ll call for you about eight thirty. Bye Miranda.” He hung up before Miranda had a chance to respond. All was going well. He rubbed his hands together. A sexual change of pace for tomorrow night was just what he needed. He could hardly wait. The 212
best thing was that Miranda didn’t make him wear a condom the way Virginia did. The door opened. It was Virginia. “Hi,” she said, “I got the milk. I’ll just put it in the fridge.” Virginia made her way to the kitchen. Morris followed her. “Virginia,” said Morris. “Yes, Flower?” said Virginia. Morris wished she wouldn’t keep calling him that. “Virginia,” he said, “I’m starting to feel a bit ill. I think I might have caught a cold.” “Oh yes? What’re the symptoms? They must have started pretty quickly.” “Yes, well, colds are like that sometimes. It’s just that it might be better if we didn’t see each other tomorrow. Just in case I’m infectious. You know.” “Don’t be stupid, Morris. If you are getting a cold then you’re probably infectious already. It’s far too late for me to start running away and hiding now.” “But Virginia . . . ” “Besides, I know an ancient Chinese cure for colds.” “You do?” “Yes. It’s a bit like acupuncture, except that instead of needles you use massage.” “Really?” “Of course. Take your clothes oﬀ.” “Pardon?” said Morris. “Take your clothes oﬀ. You have to be naked or it won’t work properly.” Morris bent over to take oﬀ his shoes. Virginia started unbuttoning her blouse. “What are you doing that for?” Morris said. “I have to be naked too,” said Virginia. “It’s more fun that way.” Morris took oﬀ his shoes. “Ah Morris,” said Virginia, “you are going to enjoy yourself. That cold virus of yours just won’t know what’s hit it.” 213
Morris made a decision. Virginia was just too good to waste. Miranda would just have to wait until next week.
It was early on Friday morning. The sun had thoroughly risen and some of the shops were preparing to open. In the little side street beside the chemist’s shop a small battered Volkswagen rattled to the side of the road and stopped. Inside were William and Aristid. Aristid was mildly annoyed. There had been little chance of sleep on Thursday night. If the robbery on Thursday afternoon had gone according to plan sleep would have been easy. But the robbery had not gone according to plan. Instead it had changed into an expedition to buy a toothbrush. So the plan had been postponed until Friday morning. Now Friday morning had come, and both William and Aristid were feeling nervous, tired and miserable. “Do you think you will be all right today?” Aristid said. William looked hurt. “Of course,” he said. “Provided I remember the ﬁne points of the plan.” “And what are the ﬁne points of the plan?” said Aristid. “Er . . . ” “You have forgotten again!” “No no. I’m sure it will come back to me once I’m inside the shop.” “William.” “Yes, Aristid?” “I really have no need of another toothbrush. We will go over the plan again.” “All right, Aristid.” 215
Aristid took a deep breath. “First,” he said, “you go into the shop. Then what do you do?” William thought carefully. “Rob it?” he said. “Yes, but precisely what do you do in order to rob it?” William closed his eyes to concentrate. “I go up to the person behind the counter, I look threatening, I draw my water pistol and I ask for the money. I do not give my name, but I do say ‘good morning’. Oh, but ﬁrst I ask the person if they have a heart condition.” “Good, William.” “Aristid?” “Yes William?” “How much money do we take? Twenty dollars? Thirty perhaps?” “All of it, William. All the money they have.” “And if they don’t have any should I ask for a cheque?” “No . . . ” “A cheque might be better anyway. Easier to carry. I will tell them it’s in a good cause and, of course, give them a receipt.” “William! That is not how robbers behave!” “But we aren’t ordinary robbers, are we Aristid? We don’t want them to be afraid of us. Do we?” “Yes! Yes we do want them to be afraid!” “Oh? Well, I’m not sure . . . ” “William, if they’re not afraid they won’t give us anything.” “But . . . ” “If you are to rid the world of communism you must be ruthless.” “Must I?” “Yes. You must go in there, with your water pistol, and make them believe that these could be their ﬁnal moments on earth . . . ” “After ﬁrst making sure they don’t have heart conditions . . . ” “Well yes, if you like. But after that you must be ruthless, and terrifying.” “All right,” said William, “I’ll be ruthless and terrifying. Could I borrow ﬁve dollars?” “What for?” 216
“In case I forget the ﬁne points again and have to buy another toothbrush. No, wait, I’ve just remembered. I already have ﬁve dollars, so . . . ” “William!” “Yes, Aristid?” Aristid took another deep breath. “I think it might almost be better if I did the robbery.” “All right.” “But I really think you should be the one to do it, if only you could remember the plan.” “It is quite complicated.” “No it isn’t. Not really. Oh William, William, don’t you want to rid the world of communism? Don’t you want to win honour and glory?” “Of course I do. But, well, it’s not as if this chemist is a communist, is it? No, I think you’re right. You’d better rob the chemist. I’ll just wait until we get to the bit of the plan where we rid the world of communism.” “But William, how will you be able to rid the world of communism if you don’t get some practise now? You must learn how to threaten people. You must know how to wield your water pistol in such a way that men will fear you. You must, in short, learn how to cope with the action and violence that will engulf you while ridding the world of communism.” “Will action and violence engulf me?” “Undoubtedly.” “Oh. Couldn’t I just trust my instincts and improvise when action and violence engulf me?” “No, William. You will need practise.” “Ah. Couldn’t we ﬁnd a communist chemist to rob instead? That might be better practise.” “This chemist is perfect, William.” “But . . . ” “Do not fear, William. There is justice in what you do. Remember, we rob from the rich to give to the poor. This chemist deserves to be 217
robbed.” “Does he?” “Of course. You remember how much he charged you for a toothbrush yesterday?” “Yes. It was quite expensive.” “Indeed it was! This chemist has made his fortune by overcharging innocent members of the public for cotton wool and toothbrushes. He is clearly an evil man.” “Aristid.” “Yes William?” “I once paid more for a toothbrush in Woolworths. Should we rob there instead?” “No William, or at least not now.” “I have a plan Aristid. We could go round to all the chemist shops and supermarkets and compare the prices they charge for toothbrushes ...” “William!” “Then we could rob the one that charged the most.” “William!” “Or write a letter about it to John Laws. I’m not sure which would be best.” “William!” “Yes, Aristid?” “We must rob this chemist and we must rob this chemist this morning. If we fail at this early stage in our plans we might as well abandon them altogether. Failure now would be total failure.” “I suppose so . . . ” “You took a moral stand over your shopping trolleys didn’t you? You stuck to your algorithm then. Your courage was great indeed.” “Thank you, Aristid.” “But where is that courage now?” “Oh, well, it takes a diﬀerent sort of courage to rob chemists.” “No it doesn’t.” “Doesn’t it?” “No.” 218
“Oh.” William glanced thoughtfully at the chemist’s shop. He drew his gun from his pocket and held it before his eyes. “Remember your trolleys, William,” said Aristid. “Remember your algorithm, and go forward with courage and strength.” William gazed at his water pistol. Aristid was right. Courage came from within. If he concentrated his energy, William knew, he could make as glorious a career of robbery as he once had of shopping trolley management. “I will rob the chemist,” he declared. He stowed his water pistol back in his pocket and opened the car door. William climbed from the car. He stood on the narrow street, resolutely facing his destiny. Then he leaned back into the car. “Aristid,” he said, “what size toothbrush do you actually prefer, in case I get confused again?” “William,” said Aristid. “Please get back into the car.” “Why, Aristid?” “I want to talk to you, William. I want to run over the plan a few more times.” “That’s all right, Aristid. I very nearly know what to do. I’m sure I’ll be able to rob the chemist this time.” “William, please get back into the car.” “Really, Aristid, I’m all right now . . . ” “William, the chemist’s doesn’t open for another half hour.” “Ah.” “Please get back into the car.” William got back into the car.
It was the time in the morning when Miranda usually caught the bus. But this morning, instead of waiting at the bus stop, she was at the next corner of the street, running as fast as her high heeled shoes would carry her, towards the bus that was just pulling out from the stop. Very rarely did Miranda Catarini miss the bus. Never before while working for the bank had she overslept. This morning was the ﬁrst time. Worst of all, she had managed to oversleep after having gone to bed early the night before. Fortunately the bus driver, who was a kind hearted soul, saw Miranda running for his bus and waited for her. She thanked him breathlessly as she climbed aboard and paid her fare. Then she stumbled to the nearest available seat and collapsed into it. The bus took her close to the bank head oﬃce and she got oﬀ there. She made her way into the building and caught the lift to the eleventh ﬂoor. Out of the lift she turned left and made her way towards the ECAS oﬃce. Inside, the old familiar jumble of computers and cardboard boxes made her feel at home. She climbed over a pile of printer paper to where Mr Jameson was sitting, staring at the computer screen and trying to ﬁgure out how to use the help function on the word processor. “Good morning,” said Miranda. Mr Jameson looked up and smiled. “Hello Miranda,” he said. “Last day today, eh?” 221
Miranda smiled back. “Yes,” she said. “Pity, in a way.” “You’ll miss the people in your branch?” “Some of them, certainly.” “Even that Anne Cameron woman? You know Miranda, I’m very impressed with the way you’ve handled her.” Miranda grinned. “She’s not bad, really,” she said, “just a bit gruﬀ. She’s very good at her job, too.” “Well,” said Mr Jameson, “that’s probably true. But she still frightens me.” He turned from his computer screen to a pile of diskettes on his right. One of them had Miranda’s name scrawled on its label in biro. When Miranda had ﬁrst done her computer training course one of the things she had been told was never to write on a diskette in biro. “This is for you,” said Mr Jameson, handing the diskette to her. Miranda took it and stowed it with the other diskettes she had in her briefcase. “Is this the shut down diskette?” she said. “Yes,” said Mr Jameson. “Use it tonight on your machine, after you’ve run ‘end of day’ for the last time. Just boot oﬀ that disk and it’ll wipe all the software from the machine and leave it ready for the delivery men to pick up and take away on Monday morning.” “Will I need to pack the computer back into its boxes?” “No. The delivery men will do that. Your job for today is to get as many last minute customer applications on the computer as you can, then run ‘end of day’, run the shut down programme and ﬁnally, say goodbye to the people at your branch and thank them for their co-operation. On Monday morning all the ECAS team will be back here, and we’ll get together to compare ﬁndings and analyse results. Okay?” “Okay Mr Jameson,” said Miranda. “See you on Monday.” She left the oﬃce, her new diskette safely stowed away, and made for the lift. It was the last day of the ECAS test, the last day on which she would call in to her little branch, the last day on which she would see Anne Cameron and the amiable, if odd, Desmond. The lift stopped at the ground ﬂoor, and she got out. She still had her ﬁnal training manual. She had not ﬁnished reading it yesterday in 222
spite of what she had thought. Fortunately for her the computer had been used a lot that day, and when it hadn’t been in use she had been too depressed to concentrate on the manual anyway. At least, she thought, she was going to see Morris tonight. But even that didn’t make her feel very happy. Morris had claimed to love her, but he didn’t love her enough not to want to see other women as well. Every time Miranda thought of the mysterious woman, the woman Morris liked to sleep with more than he liked to sleep with her, her heart was ﬁlled with sadness and anger. Perhaps she wouldn’t even enjoy seeing him tonight. Perhaps he wouldn’t be the same any more. There was a bus stop just round the corner from the main bank building. She decided to take the bus to her branch. It wasn’t that far, but it was just a little bit farther than she liked to walk. Arriving near the branch, she got oﬀ her bus and walked down the street towards the glass doors. It was the last time, she thought to herself, that she would arrive for work in this place. She had only been there for a week, but already she felt she had gained from her experience. All those customers she had talked to, all the branch staﬀ she had interviewed, all the new people she had successfully encountered in the space of merely a week. It occurred to her that perhaps she had fairly good social skills after all. She walked through the doors and into the long, narrow, customer area in front of the enquiry counter. To her right was a long wall, decorated with pictures by local primary school children. She wondered if any of the children would grow up to be famous artists, and had a quick look to see if she could spot any early talent. Under the paintings a number of bank customers were ﬁlling in forms. Miranda waited by the gate in the enquiry counter until Bruce appeared to let her in. He smiled at her. “Hi,” he said, “you made a bit of a mistake.” “Did I?” said Miranda. It sounded to her like a plausible accusation. “Yes,” said Bruce, “you gave me the wrong telephone number.” “Oh yes?” Miranda made her way to her computer. Bruce followed. “Yes,” he said. “I tried to phone you last night, 223
but I kept getting through to the wrong person, some woman who told me she deﬁnitely wasn’t you.” “Really?” said Miranda. “Was she nice?” “I don’t know. We didn’t talk for long enough. Could you give me your phone number again, because you must have written it down wrong.” Miranda smiled sweetly. “Sure,” she said. She took a piece of paper out of her briefcase and wrote another wrong number on it. She handed it to Bruce. “Thanks,” he said. “I didn’t mean to hassle you or anything, but, you know, you and me just won’t be able to get together if I don’t have your telephone number.” “I know,” said Miranda, and she turned to see to her computer. Bruce drifted away. Someone had already turned her computer on, Anne Cameron probably, and it seemed to Miranda to be running smoothly. She was impressed by how quickly the apparently hostile Anne had learned to use the system. The only problem now was that, with the computer already on, there was nothing for her to do. She would have to go to her seat on the other side of the enquiry counter and read her ﬁnal training manual. She had hoped to make the remaining ﬁve pages last all day, but that plan now seemed doomed to failure. “Hi Miranda,” said the voice of Desmond behind her. Miranda turned round. “Hello, Desmond,” she said. “No ﬂowers today?” “Er no,” said Desmond. “Today I bought you a box of chocolates.” Anne appeared. “Desmond,” she said, “get back to the tellers’ booths. You can talk to your little EDP friend later.” “Yes, Anne,” said Desmond, and he disappeared. “I started your computer for you again,” said Anne. “I hope you don’t mind.” “No,” said Miranda. “You did a good job.” Anne scowled. “Well it’s not exactly diﬃcult, is it? I don’t know, you EDP blokes think you’re the only ones qualiﬁed to ﬂick switches.” “Sorry,” said Miranda. 224
“Who’s in charge of you?” said Anne. “Sorry, what?” said Miranda. “Who do you report to?” “Oh, I see what you mean. I report to Mr F. P. Jameson, EDP division.” “Right. I’ll remember that. This is your last day, isn’t it?” “Yes, that’s right. I shall miss working here.” “Don’t be stupid, you’ve only been here a week. I thought I might write a letter to your boss, full of glowing praise for you and the way you’ve handled this machine. That’d be all right with you, wouldn’t it?” “Oh! Of course it would, I mean, if you think I deserve it . . . ” “Of course you deserve it. Just because you’re young and pretty doesn’t mean you haven’t got brains. You ought to be more selfconﬁdent. There’s no reason for you not to be. Excuse me, looks like I’ve got a customer.” Anne walked away to deal with a customer at the other end of the enquiry counter and Miranda stared after her. She found Anne Cameron to be a continual source of amazement. Turning back to her computer Miranda bent down to examine the space behind its supply of computer paper. Sure enough, lodged among the cables from the computer, there was a small box of chocolates. She shook her head in disbelief. Why did Desmond keep doing things like this? Was he trying, in some barely competent way, to seduce her? Or was he just going mad? “Hi Miranda,” said Desmond, appearing once more behind her. “Desmond,” said Miranda ﬁrmly, “you must stop doing this. You must stop buying me things.” “But it’s your last day here. I just wanted, you know, to show my appreciation of all you’ve done for me. You’re just so . . . special.” Miranda tried to smile, but all she felt was great exasperation. She genuinely liked Desmond, but she couldn’t help wishing that he liked her a bit less. “It’s a nice thought,” she said, “but I wish you hadn’t done it. You know I’ve already got a boyfriend, so you know I can’t go out with you.” 225
“It was just, you know, a token of friendship.” “Friendship doesn’t need so many tokens, Desmond, you should know that. I hope you haven’t made me a briefcase full of sandwiches as well.” “No,” said Desmond. “I was going to, but I overslept and didn’t have time. Sorry.” “Well that’s a relief,” said Miranda. “We’ll go to our little tea shop for lunch today instead of the park.” “So you will have lunch with me today?” “Of course.” “You are so good to me. Thank you.” Miranda tried not to get angry. “Desmond, it’s no big deal.” “Not to you, perhaps, but it is to me,” said Desmond. “I think you’re . . . ” This was going too far for Miranda. “I’ve changed my mind,” she said. “What?” “I don’t want to have lunch with you. Sorry Desmond, but this is all too much for me. I’m only human. I’ll have a quick coﬀee with you after work if you like, but I don’t think I could face an entire lunch hour.” Desmond’s mouth dropped open. “What?” he managed to say without closing it. “Sorry Desmond,” said Miranda. “It’s not you, really, it’s me. But I can’t face the thought of lunch. Hadn’t you better get back to your teller’s booth?” “What?” “Teller’s booth. Your job. Remember?” “But I was going to . . . ” “What?” said Miranda. “I was going to, er, ask you, er, if . . . ” Miranda started. He wasn’t going to ask her to marry him, was he? Even Desmond wouldn’t do that, would he? “Er,” said Desmond, “I was going to ask you if, er, you’d like to go to a party, tonight, near my place . . . ” 226
“Oh Desmond!” “If you’ve got nothing else planned, I mean . . . ” “Well I have got something else planned, actually. I’m going out with my boyfriend tonight.” “Ah.” “Look, I’ll talk to you later. But not now. Please go back to your booth.” He went back to his booth. Miranda picked up the chocolates and put them in her bag. They were actually her favourite brand. She did feel sorry for him. In some ways he was better than Morris, gentler, more caring, more sensitive and, it seemed, much more loyal. But he was also so serious and so odd. She didn’t like that. It was ridiculous and it was embarrassing. Worst of all this business of following her around was probably making him miserable. She thought that it was a good thing for Desmond that he was never going to see her again. Desmond, she suspected, would not have agreed with her.
It was only with great caution that William approached the chemist for his second attempt to rob it. It was not that he was afraid as such, for he had a water pistol with which to defend himself, it was more a case of him being painfully aware of how easy failure would be. Just one slip on his part and disaster would follow. He knew that he had let Aristid down once already. He had no intention of letting him down again. Outside the open door of the chemist’s William lingered. Inside he could see shelves of drugs, tights, toiletries and even one of soft toys. He wondered how much money the chemist had on the premises, and whether it could possibly be right for him to ask for all of it. Aware of the signiﬁcance of the moment, he stepped into the chemist’s shop. On his right was a small rack displaying boxes of condoms; on his left was a rack of disposable nappies. But William was interested in neither of these. With purpose in his stride he made for the rack of toothbrushes. It was best, he thought, not to draw attention to himself too quickly. Only when the customer currently being attended to had left would he act. For now he would pretend he was looking for a toothbrush. The customer being served was a large woman carrying a bag of groceries. She was waiting for a prescription to be ﬁlled, and he had no idea how long this process would take. As he examined a couple of angled toothbrushes he ﬁngered the water pistol in his pocket. It was 229
loaded, and ready to ﬁre if needed. William was both eager and afraid to test it on this chemist. The butterﬂies in his stomach, he felt, were only making things worse. He wished they would go away. A young woman in a white tunic came up to him. “Can I help you at all?” she said. William started. “Ah,” he said, “er, I don’t think so, thank you.” “Was it a toothbrush you were after?” “No no,” said William, as he stared at the toothbrushes on the display rack. “Ah! Er, yes. I am after a toothbrush.” “Well we have some more over here.” The woman led him to another rack a little to the left of the ﬁrst. It too contained toothbrushes, but these ones were straight and made of transparent plastic. William eyed them cautiously. “What size would you like?” the woman asked. “Ah,” said William. “What?” “What size would you like?” “Oh, er, what is the smallest size?” “The size thirty has a head of three bristles by ten, while the size thirty two has four bristles by eight. It depends whether you want a short thick head or a long thin one.” “What?” said William, who was too busy concentrating on the customer to notice what the woman was saying. “Would you prefer to have a short thick head or a long thin one?” William stared at her. It seemed such an odd question to ask. “I rather like the head I have at the moment,” he said. “But is it short and thick or long and thin?” “Well, er, long and thin, I suppose.” “A thirty then. Would you like this toothbrush?” “What toothbrush?” “The one I have in my hand.” “Ah. That toothbrush. Er, yes please.” “Right,” said the woman, and she walked to the sales counter. William followed her. There was also a man behind the sales counter, a middle aged, balding gentleman in a long white coat. He handed a packet of pills 230
to the customer who had been waiting. She paid him for them and walked out. William saw that his opportunity had come. “Are you looking after this gentleman, Gia?” the man asked the woman. “Yes, Mr Sampao,” she answered. “Excuse me,” said William, while the young woman started wrapping his toothbrush, “but do either of you have a heart condition?” The man and the woman looked at him in some surprise. “Er, no,” said the man. “Not that I know of,” said the woman. “Good,” said William, and he drew his gun. The eﬀect was remarkable. No sooner had William removed the water pistol from his pocket and pointed it in the general direction of the two people behind the counter than the woman stopped wrapping the toothbrush and the man stuck his hands in the air. William tried to remember his lines. “Er, good morning,” he said. “I am a robber.” “Good morning,” said the man and the woman, nervously. They both had their hands in the air now and they looked terriﬁed. William was concerned for a moment. “Are you sure neither of you has a heart condition?” “Er, quite sure,” said the man. “I don’t either,” said the woman. “Right,” said William. “Hand over all your money or I’ll squirt you.” The man stepped nervously towards the till, then stopped. “Sorry, what did you say?” he said. “Oh,” said William, “I meant to say, ‘I have a gun and I’m not afraid to use it.’” “Excuse me, sir,” said the man, “but your gun seems to have a red plastic nozzle on the end of its barrel.” “Yes,” said William, determined not to be sidetracked now that he remembered his lines, “and I’m not afraid to use it.” To demonstrate that he was not afraid to use it, William ﬁred a warning shot over the head of the man. A thin jet of water shot out of 231
the gun, a few drops of it landing on the man’s shoulder. William was disappointed. The squirt of his water pistol wasn’t nearly as impressive as he’d hoped it would be. Nevertheless, William stuck to his plan and continued to point his weapon at the man and the woman. But the moment of power seemed to be fading fast. Both the man and the woman had put their hands down now, and neither looked as nervous as they had done. The woman spoke to the man. “Shall I carry on wrapping the gentleman’s toothbrush now?” she said. William knew that he had to do something to save the situation. He tried his best to look menacing, but with his light grey hair and his slight stoop he was not successful. He looked no more menacing than an elongated sheep, and not a very aggressive or energetic sheep at that. A blade of grass might possibly have been afraid, but the two humans behind the sales counter were clearly made of sterner stuﬀ. “Tell me,” said the man. “Is that gun of yours a water pistol?” William tried to bluﬀ it out. “It might be,” he said. “Now hand over the money.” “Let me show you something ﬁrst,” said the man. He reached his hand under the sales counter and pulled out a metal object. The object looked a lot like William’s water pistol, except that it seemed rather heavier, and it had more moving parts. Also it did not have a red plastic nozzle on the end of its barrel. William began to suspect that his ﬁrst attempt at robbery was not going to be an unqualiﬁed success. “Er,” said William, “is that a real gun?” The man smiled malevolently. “It might be,” he said. “Do you have a heart condition?” William, still pointing his own gun, began to feel a little nervous. “Er, excuse me for asking,” he said, “but does this mean that you’re not going to give me your money?” “It does,” said the man. “I might possibly blow your head oﬀ, but I deﬁnitely won’t give you any money.” “Ah,” said William. 232
They stood there for a few seconds, William and the man, pointing their in some ways quite diﬀerent guns at each other. William tried to think of a way out. He wondered if ﬁring another warning shot might help, then decided that probably it would not. “Does the gentleman still want his toothbrush?” the woman asked the man. “Do you?” the man asked William. “Er, yes please,” said William, not wishing to give oﬀence. “Right,” said the man, “that’ll be two dollars ﬁfty.” William, whose right hand was still holding the water pistol, reached into his pocket with his left hand. He extracted a ﬁve dollar note and handed it to the man. The man, whose right hand was holding his own gun, took William’s money with his left hand and passed it to the woman. “Give the gentleman his change,” said the man. The woman gave William two dollars ﬁfty in change, a till receipt and a toothbrush. “Good bye, sir,” said the man. “Oh, good bye,” said William. With his gun in one hand and his money, receipt and toothbrush in the other, William backed towards the open door. The man’s gun covered him all the way. “Have a nice day,” said the man, as William ﬁnally got through the door. William ran down the street and leapt into Aristid’s car. With a squeal of tyres the car hurtled oﬀ. William put his seat belt on. Beside him Aristid was concentrating on the road ahead as he drove furiously along. Escaping was clearly the part of robbery that Aristid enjoyed most. When they were a safe enough distance away from the scene of the crime Aristid slowed the car down slightly. “Well?” he said to William, “how did it go?” “Er, you remember that the toothbrush I gave you yesterday was bent in the middle?” 233
“Yes.” “Well the one I got you today is straight. And it only cost two dollars ﬁfty.” “Oh William!” “Sorry, Aristid.” “What happened this time? Did you forget your lines again?” “No. This time I remembered my lines. This time I was outgunned.” “Out-gunned?” “Yes. Everything was going well until the man in the shop produced a gun of his own. It was slightly larger than mine, and it also looked as if it might have been real. “Ah,” said Aristid, “I see.” “And I got the feeling from the man’s tone of voice and what he said that he was considering using it on me. The prospect of serious injury seemed imminent.” “In that case I do not blame you for leaving the shop empty handed.” “I did think that perhaps I should have tried shooting the gun out of his hand, but I’m not sure you can do that with a water pistol.” “I think perhaps you cannot.” “In that case it’s a good thing I didn’t try. Aristid, I think our plan requires some ﬁne tuning.” “Yes William, I think perhaps you are right.”
The ﬁnal customer to use the computer ﬁnished opening her account. Miranda asked her survey questions for the last time. The customer said that using the computer speeded up the process of opening an account, but being asked a lot of questions about it afterwards didn’t. Miranda thanked the customer politely for her time. It was half past ﬁve on Friday, and the doors of the bank branch were about to be closed to the public. The computer had been used to run ECAS for the last time. Now all she had left to do was to run the ‘end of day’ procedure and, using her diskette, to remove the system software from the machine. Anne Cameron came up to her. “What are you going to do with that machine of yours now?” she said. “Well,” said Miranda, “now I just have to perform the ‘end of day’ routine, then shut the system down.” “Shut it down?” “Yes. Wipe the programme from the machine.” “That seems a bit of a waste of a programme,” said Anne. “Well, we’ve got other copies at Central Oﬃce,” said Miranda, “so it’s not as if the whole programme’s being abandoned.” “Okay,” said Anne, “I’ve got a spare ﬁve minutes. Let’s run that ‘end of day’ thing of yours for the last time.” Miranda pressed the function key on the machine that started the ‘end of day’ procedure. For the last time the computer copied its new account information for the day onto a ﬂoppy disk. For the last time 235
the printer churned out two summaries of the computer’s business for the day, one for Central Oﬃce and one for the branch to keep. She put the second copy in the manila folder she had provided for the branch. “What do we do with all those pieces of paper now?” Anne said, pointing at the folder. “Er, keep them?” Miranda suggested. “You could think of them as a sort of souvenir.” “Souvenir indeed,” said Anne, but she did smile slightly. Miranda put the diskette copy and the printed summary into an internal mail envelope for dispatch to Central Oﬃce. Then she put her shut down diskette into the computer’s disk drive. She pressed the three keys on the keyboard that had the eﬀect of turning the computer oﬀ and on. The computer would then read the disk and, acting on instructions found there, erase ECAS from its memory. “You were right about one thing,” said Miranda to Anne, “it was busy today. We used the computer to open ﬁve new accounts.” Anne grunted. “Not as busy as I thought it would be,” she said. “I had a sort of feeling, as if something big was going to happen. Oh well, perhaps it’ll happen on Monday.” “When I’m not here,” said Miranda. “You might be lucky not to be,” said Anne sharply. “I suppose you’ll be going now, won’t you?” Miranda took the shut down disk out of the machine. It’s job was done now. “Yes,” she said, “I suppose I will.” “And what do we do with all this useless computer equipment we’ve got left on our enquiry counter?” said Anne. “The delivery men will come here on Monday morning and take it away for you,” said Miranda. “Are these the same blokes who brought it here last week and wouldn’t put it where I wanted them to?” “Er, probably.” “And you’re willing to trust them with your machine twice are you?” Miranda shrugged her shoulders. “It’s not my decision,” she said. “I guess the bank’s already paid them to deliver the computers to the 236
test branches last Friday and to pick them up again next Monday. It probably just wants to make sure it gets its money’s worth.” “Well I hope it won’t regret it,” said Anne, “and I hope I won’t regret it either. Anyway, good bye Miranda. Best of luck in your future career.” “Thanks,” said Miranda. “Bye bye.” Miranda picked up her briefcase and walked through the gate in the enquiry counter towards the doors of the bank. A security guard, Sam, opened them to let her out. He winked in a friendly way as she passed him, and she smiled back. On Monday she would have rather less to do with security guards, and bank branches in general, as she returned to the main bank building to help analyse the week’s results. She stepped out into the street and turned in the direction of the bus stop . Then she heard someone running after her. She turned back to see Desmond, out of breath and clutching his enormous briefcase, desperately trying to catch her up. “Have you come to say good bye?” said Miranda. Desmond nodded sadly. “Well, good bye, Desmond,” said Miranda. “It was nice to have met you.” “Er,” said Desmond. He looked as if he wanted to say something. Miranda waited patiently. “Yes?” she said. “Er,” said Desmond, “I’ll miss you.” Miranda smiled slightly. “No you won’t,” she said. “You’ll have forgotten me by next week.” “No I won’t,” said Desmond. “I’ll never forget you.” Miranda had a horrible feeling that he was going to start to cry. She began to panic slightly. “I’ll try to remember you too,” she said. “Bye.” “Er . . . ” said Desmond. “Bye,” said Miranda, and she turned to go. “Wait,” said Desmond, “please don’t go. I absolutely have to tell you something ﬁrst.” Miranda waited. “Er,” said Desmond, “I . . . ” 237
Miranda continued to wait. “The thing is . . . ” said Desmond. Miranda waited a bit longer. “You . . . ” said Desmond. Miranda decided to stop waiting. “What exactly did you want to say?” she said. Desmond’s shoulders slumped. “Oh, nothing,” he said. “Sorry.” Miranda did feel sorry for him, but she didn’t know what to say or do. “Oh Desmond,” she said. “You know, in a funny sort of way, I might miss you too.” “Do you mean that?” “Yes, I do. My boyfriend’s quite nice in some ways, very charming really, but he’s not always good to me. He does take me a bit for granted.” “I don’t take you for granted.” “I know.” Miranda smiled gently at Desmond, and was pleased to see him looking slightly less miserable in return. “About that party tonight,” said Desmond. “What party?” said Miranda. “The party I asked you if you’d like to go to with me.” “Oh. That party.” “Yes. Well, if you change your mind and decide you’d like to go with me, just phone me. Any time up to eight o’clock won’t be too late.” “I probably won’t change my mind.” “But if you do . . . ” “If I do I’ll phone you.” “Okay. Well, er, bye Miranda.” “Bye Desmond.” Miranda wondered if perhaps she should kiss Desmond good bye, but she decided against it. If he had been a normal person she would not have hesitated, but he was not normal. If she kissed him it would probably cause his brain to malfunction. Even shaking hands with 238
him might be dangerous. Instead she just smiled again and turned to walk away. Desmond turned too, and without saying another word to each other they walked, in opposite directions, towards their homes. Miranda intended never to see him again. She hoped that he wouldn’t be too upset about this, for she was genuinely fond of him. But she couldn’t see a continuing friendship getting anywhere. He would only grow even more attached to her, and make himself even more miserable because of it. In particular, she didn’t want him to end up feeling the same way about her as she felt about Morris. She didn’t want him to feel worthless and detestable simply because she preferred another man to him. The bus left the bus stop at twenty to six. It was too crowded for her to sit down, so she stood, sandwiched between a large, fat man in a black singlet who clearly hadn’t washed or shaved for about a week and a small, neatly dressed woman who didn’t seem to have brushed her teeth for about the same period of time. The journey was soon over, however, and she found herself walking up the street towards home. Once home she turned the kettle on, pulled oﬀ her clothes and had a shower. Then she put on her favourite dressing gown and made herself a cup of coﬀee. As she sat drinking coﬀee, alone in her kitchen, Miranda considered the problem of what to wear tonight. She wanted to look her prettiest for Morris, as always. She would leave her hair hanging free, because this made her eyes look smaller, and she would wear a long skirt rather than a short one because Morris preferred that. With great care Miranda dressed for the evening. She didn’t know where Morris was planning to take her, so she didn’t know whether to dress formally or informally. In the end she decided on a compromise, and put on a brightly coloured blouse with a patterned skirt and matching shawl. She went to the bathroom and examined herself in the mirror. Her appearance was quite acceptable, she decided, but it would probably be best to check with Morris ﬁrst. She went to her telephone and dialled his number. “Hello?” said a woman’s voice on the other end of the line. Mir239
anda recognized the voice and it stung her heart. “Is . . . is Morris there?” Miranda said. “Yes,” said the woman, “he’s here, but he can’t come to the phone right now. He says he’s got a cold, so I’m making him lie down.” “Oh?” “Yes. The silly idiot told me to keep away from him in case I caught it, but I managed to talk him into letting me stay.” Miranda heard Morris’s voice in the background asking who was on the phone. “It’s your sister,” said the woman, in reply. “Hello, Miranda?” it was Morris’s voice now. “Oh Morris,” said Miranda, “have you really got a cold?” “It’s great to hear from you, Sis,” said Morris. Miranda sighed deeply. “Sorry Morris,” she said, “but I’ve just decided I never want to see you again. Bye.” Miranda hung up before Morris could answer. She felt a curious lack of emotion about this incident. She didn’t even want to cry, perhaps because she had done too much crying over Morris already. Instead she went to her handbag and ﬁshed around in it for a small piece of paper with a telephone number on it. She went back to the telephone and dialled the number. “Hi,” said a man’s voice she didn’t recognize. “Oh,” said Miranda, “could I speak to Desmond please?” “Desmond? Sure. Hold on. I think he’s busy hanging himself or something at the moment.” The voice grew fainter. “Des!” she heard it call from a distance. “Stop trying to kill yourself and come here. There’s a girl on the phone. She wants to talk to you, and she just might be the sweet Miranda of whom we hear so much.” Miranda heard footsteps rushing towards the phone. “Miranda?” said Desmond breathlessly. “Hello, Desmond,” said Miranda. “Is it still all right for me to go to that party with you?”
The party was within easy walking distance of Colin’s and Desmond’s ﬂat, but quite a long way from Miranda’s. So Colin and Desmond picked Miranda up in Colin’s car. This car was an ancient Passat that had deﬁnitely seen better days. Most of the instruments on the dashboard had either fallen out or decayed to the point of uselessness. The whole car clearly had only a few years of life left to it, and Colin’s driving style was not improving its life expectancy at all. The passenger seat where Miranda sat was draped with loose wires that had somehow found their way out of the dashboard. The glove compartment didn’t shut properly. When Miranda ﬁrst got into the car Desmond introduced her to Colin. “Hi,” said Colin to Miranda. “You look almost as beautiful as Desmond said you were.” Miranda smiled, but this was exactly the sort of compliment she distrusted. Desmond climbed into the back seat of the car, and they drove oﬀ towards the party. “You’ll like Jenny,” said Colin to his passengers, “she’s a nice girl. Her boyfriend Mat’s pretty interesting too. He’s into computers, like you, Miranda, but more on the creative side. He designs computer adventure games. Jenny’s a hot shot Law student, very clever. I guess they’re holding this party to celebrate something. Maybe they’re getting married.” 241
“I hope,” said Desmond, nervously, “that the people at the party won’t be too intelligent.” Colin grinned at Miranda. “Is he like this at work too?” “Sometimes,” said Miranda, looking round to make sure Desmond wasn’t oﬀended. “Don’t worry, Des,” said Colin. “If there are any intelligent people at the party, we’ll protect you, won’t we Miranda?” “Yes,” said Miranda. “We’ll ﬁght them oﬀ for you.” “We’ll tell them that you’re very clever really, but that you’re suﬀering temporary brain damage at the moment so it doesn’t show.” “I don’t mind clever people if they’re friendly, like Miranda,” Desmond admitted. Miranda laughed. “Oh Desmond, you are silly,” she said. “Am I?” said Desmond, anxiously. “I’m afraid you are, mate,” said Colin. “In the nicest possible way, of course.” “Don’t worry really,” said Miranda, “I’m sure that lots of the clever people will be friendly to you.” The car drove on, down ﬁrst one street then another. “That’s where we live!” Desmond cried, as they drove past his house. “Very nice,” said Miranda, and Colin laughed. They turned into another street, this one wider, with more trees. Down the middle of the street were concrete traﬃc islands, where shrubs and small trees grew. There were a lot of cars parked outside a large, red brick building with a crenelated roof. Desmond and Miranda were impressed by this. “That’s where Mat and Jenny live,” said Colin. “It costs them a fortune in rent, but they seem to think it’s worth it. They share it with a few other couples.” Colin parked the car a little further down the street and the three got out. Colin and Desmond had brought along some beer and Miranda had bought a bottle of white wine from the oﬀ-licence near her ﬂat. 242
“Whatever you do,” Desmond said to Miranda, “don’t tell the people at the party you work in a bank.” “Why ever not?” said Miranda. “Desmond has a theory that uni students are automatically bored by people who work in banks,” Colin explained. “Most of the people at the party will be students.” “It’s true,” said Desmond. “Every time you talk to a student at a party you get to a stage in the conversation where they ask you what you’re studying. If you say you’re not studying anything, that you work in a bank, they get bored and stop talking to you.” “Then you shouldn’t tell them you work in a bank,” said Miranda. “You should tell them you’re an astronaut.” Desmond looked thoughtful. “Do you think they’d believe that?” he said. Colin laughed, and led the way to the front door. The front door was huge, with a large glass panel in its top half. Beyond it they could see a long, wood lined hallway with a telephone on the ﬂoor. Colin rang the bell. An attractive young woman with short hair appeared at the other end of the hall and came to let them in. She opened the door and smiled at Colin. “Hi Jenny,” said Colin. Jenny kissed him on the cheek. “Hello, hello,” she said. “Nice to see you.” “Jenny,” said Colin, “these are my friends Miranda and Desmond.” They said hello to her. “Well, come in,” said Jenny, “the others are in the ball room.” “Ball room?” said Miranda. “Yes, we’ve got a large room that we haven’t put any furniture in yet. We call it the ball room.” Jenny led them to her ball room. It’s name was appropriate. It was a huge, high ceilinged room, with steps leading up to another room at one end and a huge ﬁreplace at the other. Someone had scattered cushions around the edge of the room, and various people stood in the room talking, drinking and eating peanuts. The music was not as loud 243
as it often was at parties like this, but that seemed to Miranda to be an advantage. Oﬀ to one side of the ball room was a door that led to a little room. Here Desmond, Colin and Miranda stowed their beer and wine. A young man with curly hair and glasses oﬀered them a drink. “Punch or chardonnay?” he asked. Miranda looked at the punch bowl before her. It seemed as if the punch makers had poured everything they could think of into it. “I think I’ll have the chardonnay,” she said. “Chardonnay sounds good to me too,” said Colin. “Desmond will have the punch.” Desmond nodded reluctantly. “All right,” he said. The man poured the drinks they had requested into plastic cups and handed them over. “Enjoy,” he said. Taking their drinks, Desmond and Miranda went oﬀ to mingle. Colin stayed behind to talk with the young man about what exactly had gone into the punch. For Desmond, taking a girl he liked to a party was obviously a new experience. Miranda tried to make things easy for him. “How’s the punch?” she said. Desmond sipped carefully. “It’s not bad,” he said. “Can I have a sip?” said Miranda. He handed her the cup. “Mm,” said Miranda, “that is rather nice. I’ll swap you for the chardonnay.” Desmond swapped cups. “Do you recognise anyone here?” Miranda asked. He looked around. “Yes,” he said. “There’s a friend of mine, Cathy.” Desmond introduced Miranda to Cathy, and Cathy introduced both of them to Monica, an Asian girl. “I’m studying law with Jenny,” Monica explained to Desmond. “What are you studying?” “He’s not studying anything,” said Miranda brightly, “he works in a bank.” 244
“Really?” said Monica. “Yes,” said Miranda, “but after he’s been there for a year he’s going to be an astronaut.” Now Monica was interested. “Really?” she said. Miranda left them talking together while she went to get some more punch. In the little alcohol room she met Colin, who had taken over from the man with glasses in serving drink. “Punch please,” said Miranda. Colin poured her some punch. “I wouldn’t have too much of this stuﬀ if I were you,” said Colin. “I’ve been counting the empty vodka bottles in the bin. Give it to Desmond instead.” Miranda smiled. “What an awful thing to say.” “No, really,” said Colin, “with a few glasses of vodka inside him Desmond can become quite interesting.” “I like Desmond.” “So do I, but you must admit he’s a bit boring.” “No,” said Miranda, “I think he’s funny.” “Well,” said Colin, pouring himself a cup of punch, “if you do get bored with him, come and ﬁnd me. Then, if the whole party gets boring, we could go back to your place, just you and me.” “Leaving Desmond here?” “Yep.” “What an idea! Are you Desmond’s best friend then?” Colin grinned. “Have some more punch,” he said. Miranda eyed him narrowly. “Was that a serious proposition just now?” Colin’s grin broadened. “I like to keep my options open,” he said. Miranda went back to ﬁnd Desmond. More people came to the party as the evening wore on, and some left. Desmond, having failed to convince Monica that he was not going to be an astronaut, went back to Miranda. Colin found himself an attractive young woman who claimed she could read minds. He asked her to guess his star sign and lied to her when she got it wrong. An earnest young man started talking to Desmond about a superannuation scheme of his own invention and a fat young man with a big 245
nose and sweat running down his forehead propositioned Miranda. He explained that his father was a major shareholder in I.B.M. and that he would never have had the courage to proposition her if he hadn’t been drunk. Three hours into the party Desmond and Miranda found themselves talking to Cathy about Colin’s car and the dangers of going anywhere in it. Cathy said that for young women there were added dangers in being driven home by Colin, even supposing his car reached its destination in one piece. As they were talking two tall women, deep in conversation, came up to Miranda. “Look,” said one of them to the other. “This girl is pretty. You don’t mind me talking about you like this, do you?” “Er, no,” said Miranda. “I suppose she is,” said the other. “Right. Why?” “Er, well, she’s got a pleasant face. She looks like a nice person.” “It’s her eyes.” “Oh?” “She’s got big eyes. It’s the single most attractive feature a woman can possess, to men as well as to women. All the research shows that.” “Excuse me,” said Miranda, “but don’t you think my eyes make me look a bit like Marty Feldman?” “Marty Feldman? No. Not at all. Marty Feldman had hyperthyroid eyes.” “And I don’t?” “No. Why, do you want to look like Marty Feldman?” Miranda didn’t answer. She was lost in thought. Why had Morris told her she had hyperthyroid eyes when she didn’t? Why had he told her that large eyes were ugly if research said they were not? He must have known these things, being a medical student. Back at the conversation with Cathy, Desmond was trying to defend Colin’s reputation against charges of lechery. It was the sort of thing that Desmond, being soft hearted, would do. Miranda oﬀered to get him another drink.
Also consuming alcohol at that moment were William and Aristid. They were back in Aristid’s house pouring themselves large helpings of a very cheap and noxious whisky that Aristid had once bought for the purpose of mixing with things and then forgotten about. Between them, on the coﬀee table, next to the whisky bottle, lay the water pistol. William, in spite of the morning’s failure, was still convinced of its power. “I still maintain,” said Aristid, “that the red nozzle should be removed. Real guns do not have red nozzles.” “But I like the red nozzle,” said William. “It gives the gun character.” “Perhaps, William, perhaps. But the gun needs more than character. It needs menace.” “I think,” said William, “that we were wrong to try robbing a chemist. Chemists are a notoriously savage and dangerous breed of people.” Aristid took another swig of the appalling whisky. “But William,” he said, “if you want to rid the world of communism you will meet far more savage and dangerous people than chemists.” “Chemists,” said William, drinking more of the whisky without ﬂinching, “have a reputation for evil going back through history.” “Really?” “Yes,” insisted William. “Nostradamus was a chemist.” “I thought he was an alchemist.” 247
“That’s what they used to call chemists, Aristid.” “Ah.” “Nostradamus was partly responsible for Hitler. I read it in a magazine.” “I have heard something along those lines too, William, but . . . ” “And Mrs Thatcher is a chemist.” “But, William, Mrs Thatcher is against communism.” “Is she?” “Yes.” “Oh. Perhaps she’s not a chemist after all.” William was beginning to feel confused. He swigged down another glassful of whisky to clear his head, but for some reason it had the opposite eﬀect. “Aristid?” said William. “Yes William?” said Aristid. “Why is it, do you suppose, that I am beginning to feel drunk? I don’t usually feel this drunk after only four drinks.” Aristid poured his brother-in-law another glass of whisky. “I cannot imagine,” he said. “I suppose,” said William, “that it might be something that chemist did to me . . . ” “It might.” “Some ﬁendish psychological weapon known only to chemists and for use exclusively against innocent robbers.” “No doubt, William.” William swigged down another glass. “On the other hand,” he said, “it might be something to do with the whisky. Perhaps whisky has stronger eﬀects on me than beer. Each glass seems to make my thinking progressively less clear.” “I noticed that you were speaking rather slowly.” “That’s what I meant to say. Each glass makes my speaking less clear, not my thinking. My thinking is quite unaﬀected by the alcohol, my speaking is at fault. Alcohol only aﬀects the muscles of the mouth.” “Only the mouth, William?” 248
“And, occasionally, the legs. In spite of popular belief it does not aﬀect the brain.” “If that is the case, William, why is it that the morning after you have been drinking you can never remember anything of what you said the night before?” “Can’t I?” “I am afraid not.” William looked puzzled. “I don’t remember forgetting anything.” “You never do, my dear brother-in-law. Would you care for another glass?” “Thank you, Aristid, I believe I would. Probably my current diﬃculties in thinking are due to too little alcohol rather than too much.” “Are you having diﬃculty in thinking William?” “What? No no. I meant diﬃculties in speaking.” Aristid poured him another glass. “Tell me,” said William, “do chemists have anything to do with the preparation of alcoholic drinks?” “Sometimes, William, sometimes.” “I suspected as much,” he said. “The inﬂuence of chemists is indeed great.” “It’s a conspiracy, Aristid, as great as the communist one. When we have dealt with the communists we will deal with the chemists.” “In the jungles of Vietnam, William?” “Wherever they may be hiding, Aristid. Chemists are wicked.” “Indeed.” “Aristid?” “Yes, William?” “Why were we talking about chemists?” “We were discussing the reasons for our failure this morning. I suggested that we failed because of the red nozzle on the end of the water pistol’s barrel; you suggested that it was in the intrinsic nature of chemists that the problem lay.” William felt confused. He was beginning to have diﬃculty getting Aristid’s face into focus. “Did I say that?” he said. “Not in those exact words.” 249
“Ah. What exact words did I use, Aristid?” “Something about the savagery and danger of chemists, William.” “Really? I don’t remember that. Perhaps you’re right about alcohol aﬀecting my memory.” “Perhaps.” “Aristid?” “Yes William?” “If we were talking about chemists, how did we get on to the eﬀects of alcohol?” “I cannot quite remember, William. But I do remember you suggesting that perhaps it was drinking too little and not too much alcohol that caused the problem.” “Ah. In that case you had better pour me another glass.” “Do you think that wise? We have nearly ﬁnished the whole bottle, and I am still on my ﬁrst glass.” “My dear Aristid, I am sorry. Do you mind?” “Oh it’s not that, William. It is not as if it is very good whisky, after all. I am more worried that you may have drunk rather too much of it.” “You are kind, Aristid, to think of me so much,” said William. He reached forward to pat Aristid on the shoulder, but missed by several feet. “However,” he said, “I cannot have had too much, as I still feel drunk.” Aristid smiled. “Very well William,” he said, and he poured the rest of the whisky into his brother-in-law’s glass. “We must,” said William, “think of somewhere else to rob.” “Somewhere,” suggested Aristid, “that does not sell toothbrushes.” William thought about this. “That rules out Franklins then,” he said, and swigged the whisky down. “Well, William,” said Aristid, “that is the last of the whisky. How do you feel now?” “Still drunk, I’m afraid. Do you think we should go out to the oﬀ-licence and buy some more?” “No, William. In fact I think that would be a particularly bad idea.” 250
“I suppose so. You haven’t ﬁnished your glass though . . . ” “Nor do I intend to. It is not, as I said, very good whisky.” “Ah, then could I possibly ..?” “You want the rest of my glass?” “Well . . . if it’s not . . . ” “Very well William. On your own head be it. I have plenty of headache tablets for you for tomorrow.” William reached towards Aristid’s glass. On the third attempt he managed to take hold of it. He swigged the contents down. Aristid watched him carefully. “How do you feel now, William? Any better?” William thought carefully. It was a considerable eﬀort. “No,” he said, “I can’t honestly say that I feel a lot better. If anything, I think I feel rather worse. . . ” “Ah William. Such is the way with those who consume a whole bottle of whisky alone and unaided in the space of twenty ﬁve minutes.” William sighed deeply. It came out as a burp of considerable volume. “I do beg your pardon, Aristid,” he said. “I haven’t done that since I was a child.” “I will not take it personally, William.” “You are very kind, Aristid. Aristid?” “Yes William?” “I don’t feel very well. Do you think my theory about more alcohol making me feel less drunk may have been mistaken?” “I think it is a distinct possibility.” “Oh dear,” said William. He could feel movements beginning in his stomach. He did hope he wasn’t going to do anything embarrassing. “Now,” said Aristid, “about our next robbery.” “Could we possibly discuss it tomorrow?” said William, “I really don’t feel very well.” “I think we should discuss it now. Tomorrow you will not be in a ﬁt state to discuss anything.” “Oh dear.” 251
“What we need is an ideal victim, one with enough money to make our robbery worth while, but also one willing to hand that money over without resistance.” An idea suddenly occurred to William. It took him completely by surprise as he had thought himself beyond ideas at this stage. “Aristid!” he declared, “I have had an idea!” Then he threw up over Aristid’s carpet and passed out.
The party continued into the night. The hostess, Jenny, and the host, Matt, wandered among their remaining guests making sure that they were all happy. Desmond at least was particularly happy. In fact, if he had been honest with himself, he would have admitted that he had never been happier in his life. The pace of the party had slowed down a good deal by this time. The music was even quieter and the alcohol, unusually for a party these days, had all been consumed. Most people were now sitting on the ﬂoor or lying comfortably on the cushions provided for that purpose. Desmond was lying on the cushions too. What made him particularly happy was that Miranda, who seemed to have got herself mildly inebriated, was lying on some cushions next to him with her head on his shoulder. It was one of his secret sexual fantasies, and here it was being fulﬁlled. Admittedly, it was a rather tame sexual fantasy, but he had to start somewhere. Miranda had her eyes closed and was smiling contentedly. He realised with joy that she was almost as happy to be with him as he was to be with her. He wondered if she was asleep. He wished that he could somehow manoeuvre his arm to place it round her shoulders, but the way she was lying on it made that diﬃcult. He wanted to reach over with his other hand and touch her cheek, but he decided not to. That, he felt, would be pushing things a bit. Instead he turned his head towards her and smelt her hair. It had a marvellous Miranda-like 253
fragrance. He decided that the smell of roses had been overrated for centuries. “Are you asleep?” he said, quietly. Miranda giggled. “Yes,” she said. “You can go to sleep if you want to. I don’t mind. I rather like having you there.” Miranda giggled again. “Desmond,” she said, “I think I’m drunk.” “Only a bit.” “Why am I drunk when you’re not? I don’t normally get drunk, you know.” “I don’t mind.” “You’re sweet. Can we go home now?” “Sure,” said Desmond, “if you like.” “It won’t oﬀend you?” “No, of course not.” “It’s just that I really fancy a bed to sleep in. Sleeping is what I very much want to do. Your shoulder is a nice shoulder, but I can’t lie on it for ever.” “You can if you want to.” “Desmond, you’re lovely. You’re kind and funny and comfy. But I think I ought to go home.” “Okay,” said Desmond. “If you’ll let me get up I’ll go and ﬁnd Colin.” Miranda rolled oﬀ Desmond’s shoulder. “When I get home,” she said, “I’d better have lots and lots of water to drink.” “I love you,” said Desmond, but very quietly, so that she couldn’t possibly hear him. Desmond went back to look for Colin. He wandered among the remaining guests in search of his ﬂat-mate, but Colin was nowhere to be found. Would he have left without them? He found Jenny. “Jenny,” he said, “do you know where Colin is?” “I saw him leave with Cheryl about an hour ago. He might be outside somewhere, but he’s not in here. Sorry.” Desmond went outside brieﬂy. There was no one visible out in the street. Colin’s car seemed to have gone. He went back inside to 254
Miranda. “Help me up, Desmond,” said Miranda, oﬀering him her hands. He helped her up. He was surprised by how light she was. “Colin’s gone,” said Desmond. “He’s taken the car and everything.” “Abandoned!” said Miranda. “I knew I didn’t trust your friend.” “Colin’s all right,” said Desmond. “He must have just forgotten we were here. Or something.” Miranda sighed. “You’d better call me a taxi then. I think I’ve got enough money for one. Unless, of course, there’s a spare bed at your house.” “Yes, there is,” said Desmond, “or at least, you can sleep in my bed. I’ll sleep on the sofa.” “Would you mind doing that? It would be awfully good of you.” “It would be my pleasure.” “Then tomorrow we could go out together or something. That would be fun.” “Yes,” said Desmond. “That would be fun.” Desmond and Miranda said goodbye to Jenny and Matt, then walked out into the street together. It was a short walk to Desmond’s house, but the pace Miranda set was slow. The sky was clear, and even against the competition from the street lights the stars shone down brightly. It was strangely romantic for Desmond in that half lit street, with Miranda leaning on his arm and walking, very slowly, beneath the few dark trees. The night was quiet, the stillness complete (for a change), save for the beating of Desmond’s heart. He was going to spend the night with Miranda! Admittedly, they weren’t going to sleep together, but they were going to go out tomorrow. Miranda clearly wanted to see more of him. He could hardly believe his good fortune. He wanted to dance down the street, but he didn’t. He was afraid that if he let go of her Miranda might fall over. “I hope your bed’s comfortable,” said Miranda, “I want to sleep in a comfortable bed.” “I’ve always found it comfortable,” said Desmond. 255
“I hope the sofa’s comfortable too,” said Miranda. “I wouldn’t want you being uncomfortable.” “The sofa’s very comfortable,” said Desmond. “In fact, I’m looking forward to sleeping on it.” Miranda laughed. “You are funny,” she said. She nestled closer to Desmond as they walked along, and he experimented with putting his arm round her shoulders. She did not resist. Together they turned the corner into his street. They walked past the houses that stood next to Desmond’s house until they came to the concrete steps that led up to his front door. Miranda extracted herself from Desmond and sat down on the steps. “So this is where you live?” Desmond sat beside her. “Yes. Me and Colin. This is where we live.” “It’s a nice area. It’s got more trees than I have.” “Yes.” Miranda laughed. “Say something romantic about the stars, Desmond.” “The stars?” “Yes, the stars. You know, the twinkling things in the sky.” “I know what the stars are, Miranda, I just can’t think of anything.” “Try.” “Um . . . the stars are . . . very beautiful?” “Oh Desmond! You can do better than that.” “The stars are like your eyes?” “No they’re not. Anyway, that’s silly.” “Er . . . I’m very interested in stars, actually.” “Really? Do you know their names?” “No, but I like to dream about them. Did you ever see the ﬁlm Star Wars?” “Yes. When I was eleven. I thought it was strange.” “I’ve seen it hundreds of times. I like to think of the stars, and the people who might live on other planets. I like to think of all the 256
possibilities. I like to look at the stars and think how small we are in the universe, how little the bank and work and worries really matter. I’d like to voyage to the stars, just so that I could know, for certain, that there are better possibilities somewhere away from earth.” “That’ll do Desmond. That was almost romantic. You can show me to my bed now, make me a cup of tea and wish me good night. I feel so tired.” Desmond led her up the steps and through the front door. Up the concrete stairs beyond they went until they reached the door to Desmond’s ﬂat. Desmond pressed a button that turned a light on. Miranda laughed. “There’s a ‘do not disturb’ sign on your door.” Desmond started. “What’s it doing there?” said Miranda. “Colin must have put it there.” “Why?” “It’s a system Colin invented for us. He says it protects our privacy. If one of us brings a girl home it protects him from being interrupted, Colin says.” Miranda looked startled. “I should have known he’d be here,” said Desmond. “And if we’d got here ﬁrst I suppose you’d have put the sign out to warn him to keep away?” said Miranda. “What?” “Oh Desmond, I thought you were diﬀerent.” “How do you mean, Miranda?” Miranda started backing down the stairs. “I thought you were shy and innocent, I should have known. If you’d really been shy and innocent it would have taken you longer than a week to get me into your ﬂat. I really liked you, Desmond, I really thought we might have fun together.” “We might. Mightn’t we?” “I don’t want another man who’s into one night stands. I don’t want a man who puts ‘do not disturb’ signs on his front door because he brings girls home. I’m sorry Desmond. I want a . . . a more conscientious man.” 257
“But Miranda . . . I am shy and innocent. I’ve never used that sign. Honest.” “Bye Desmond.” “But Miranda . . . please don’t leave me like this . . . ” “Don’t worry Desmond. There are plenty more girls where I came from.” “That’s not the way I talk, Miranda. Colin talks like that, I don’t.” “You did talk like that, Desmond. Goodbye.” “Wait!” Miranda was at the bottom of the stairs now, heading for the street. “You can’t go out there,” said Desmond, “it’s not safe for a young woman . . . ” “I’ll be safer out there than I would be with you. Don’t worry. I’ll just go back to the party and phone for a taxi.” “I’ll come with you . . . ” “No Desmond. Sorry, but I don’t trust you enough. Bye.” Miranda skipped oﬀ down the street. Desmond was baﬄed and confused. He was suddenly aware that he should have told her he loved her, should have sworn he’d never been near another woman. It was true, after all. He ran after her. The suburb in which he lived was, in general, short of taxis. If you planned to hail a passing taxi you could stand on a street corner for ever and never see one. Normally, if you wanted a taxi, you had to phone for one and then wait around for a few hours until it showed up. But today things were diﬀerent. As Desmond rounded the corner he saw Miranda climbing into a vacant taxi. It was the only vacant taxi he had ever seen in this area. It drove oﬀ in the direction of Miranda’s ﬂat. Desmond’s mouth fell open. This was not the sort of miracle he had been hoping for. He walked back to his ﬂat with his head hung low. He didn’t understand what had happened at all. First Miranda had been drunk and fond of him, then she had been sober and upset. And now she had gone. On his way back up the street he saw Colin’s car parked by the curb. He wished he’d noticed it earlier. With a ﬁnal rueful sigh, he 258
climbed the steps to the door of his ﬂat and curled up on the concrete outside.
That night, while Desmond slept on the stairs outside his ﬂat, he dreamt of Miranda. He dreamt that he sat at his desk in the bank checking some new account forms. Miranda came up behind him. He turned around and smiled at her, but she did not seem pleased to see him. She was clutching a large carving knife. “I’m sorry Desmond,” she said. “I do like you, but I’m afraid you’re just not good enough for me.” Miranda attacked him with the carving knife. At that stage he woke up, and was very glad to discover that he had not been stabbed to death during the night. It was now quite late in the morning. He looked around groggily, then remembered the events of the night before and began to wish he had been stabbed to death after all. The door of his ﬂat was open, but Desmond couldn’t see anyone around. “Colin?” said Desmond. Colin’s head popped out of the ﬂat, closely followed by the rest of him. “Morning Des,” he said. “Did you sleep well?” “Where’s the woman you brought home last night?” said Desmond. “Cheryl? She’s gone to work. She works Saturdays as a check-out chick. Weekdays she studies theoretical physics.” “Theoretical physics?” “It takes all kinds to make a world. Can I get you a beer?” Desmond rose to his feet. “I’d rather have tea,” he said. Colin grinned. “You know where the tea bags are. You’d better 261
come in.” Desmond came in and stumbled towards the kitchen. Colin followed him. From the cupboard over the stove Desmond extracted a tea bag and a mug. He turned the kettle on. “What time is it?” said Desmond. “Half-eleven,” said Colin. “I found you sleeping out there about ten-thirty, when I said goodbye to Cheryl. You were sleeping so peacefully I didn’t like to disturb you.” Desmond groaned. “Half eleven,” he said, dismally. “What were you doing out there anyway?” said Colin. “You put the sign on the door,” said Desmond. “I didn’t like to disturb you.” “No. I meant why did you come home at all last night? I thought you’d go back to that cute little Miranda’s place for a night of unprecedented passion.” “Well, I didn’t. In fact I invited her here and she accepted.” “Whoops,” said Colin. “I should have told you I was bringing Cheryl back here. So you were with your little Miranda when you found the sign on the door?” “Yes,” said Desmond, “I was.” Colin looked puzzled. “So why didn’t you go back to her place when you found the sign?” “The sign oﬀended Miranda,” said Desmond. “She didn’t like our convention of using a ‘do not disturb’ sign when we’ve got a girl inside.” “Why not?” “I think she thought it was sexist or rude or something.” “So she’s sensitive, is she?” “Yes. I’m afraid she is.” The kettle had boiled. Desmond made himself a cup of tea. “It’s still odd, though,” said Colin. “I thought your intentions towards her were honourable.” “They are!” said Desmond. “And the sign is mine, not yours,” said Colin. “To the best of my knowledge you’ve never even used it.” “I haven’t!” 262
“In fact, I’ve always got the feeling that you didn’t exactly approve of my little sign.” “Well . . . ” “So why,” said Colin, “did she get angry with you because I used the sign?” Desmond sipped miserably at his tea. “I think,” he said, “that there may have been some terrible misunderstanding.” Colin laughed. He went over to the fridge and extracted a beer for himself. “Now that’s sorted out you’d better phone her and explain things,” he said. Desmond leaned on the draining board and stared sadly through the tiny window of the kitchen. “There’s no point,” he said. “She was never interested in me. I was fooling myself thinking she might be.” Colin laughed. “Fooling yourself? You said she was planning to spend the night with you!” “Only to sleep. She was too drunk to make it home.” “Oh yes? She’s not here now, though, is she?” “So?” “So if she was as drunk as you say how did she get home?” “When she saw the note on the door she ran oﬀ and caught a taxi.” “Des, she wasn’t nearly as drunk as she seemed. She was just pretending, to get you to invite her home. She was probably planning a night of gentle love making with you. When she saw my sign she felt cheapened and got upset.” “Do you think so?” “Sure. My sign aﬀects some women like that. I’ve never been able to work out why.” Desmond was stunned. “Do you mean I almost lost my virginity last night?” “Perhaps Des.” “And with Miranda?” “Maybe.” Desmond moaned. “Or maybe not,” said Colin. “Look, whether or not she was planning to sleep with you last night she is very fond of you.” 263
“Is she?” “Yes. She told me she was. So you must phone her, Des, you really must. Why spoil what is at least a beautiful friendship over something as stupid as that?” Desmond drank his tea. “Well?” said Colin. “Are you going to phone her?” “No,” said Desmond, “I can’t.” “Why not?” “I had a dream,” said Desmond. “A dream?” Colin laughed. “What dream?” “I dreamt Miranda stabbed me. First she said I wasn’t good enough for her, then she stabbed me. You see what this means, don’t you?” “What what means? The dream?” “It means I’m not good enough for her.” “No, it means you’re a neurotic little twit who’s desperately in love with a bird he’s also terriﬁed of.” “But . . . ” “She won’t stab you Des. She’s far too kind-hearted to do something like that. You can tell that just by talking to her. She’s really nice and she likes you. If you don’t phone her you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” “No, I can’t.” “Because of the dream?” “Yes.” “Or because you’re frightened of telephoning her?” “Well, there’s that too.” Colin shook his head and left the room. Desmond followed him. “You just don’t understand,” said Desmond. “No,” said Colin, “you don’t understand. That Miranda of yours is absolutely gorgeous. I fancied her myself as soon as I laid eyes on her. But there’s a lot more to her than just looks. She’s fantastic in every possible way. And she likes you.” “Even if that’s true . . . ” 264
“It’s true Des. She likes you. Aren’t you the Desmond Fisher who’s always moaning around the ﬂat complaining that he hasn’t got a girlfriend? Well, you’ve almost got one now. All you have to do is to make one phone call.” “It’s not as simple as that . . . ” “Sorry mate,” said Colin, “but it is. I’m going to have a shower now. If you’ve got any sense you’ll make that call.” Colin went oﬀ to have a shower leaving Desmond to wrestle with his conscience. Sitting hunched up on the sofa Desmond tried desperately to ﬁnd ways to justify his coward’s decision not to phone Miranda. His best ones had all been answered by Colin, and those that remained were overwhelmed by his desire to see Miranda again. He loved her more than he could possibly talk his way out of. He went to his briefcase and extracted the piece of paper with Miranda’s phone number on it. The telephone was on the ﬂoor by the front door. Desmond went over to it. Terror and desire competed for control of his index ﬁnger as he tried to dial Miranda’s number. On the ﬁrst few attempts terror won out, and just before he ﬁnished dialling he hung up. Before the last attempt he rehearsed his lines. “Hello Miranda,” he would say. “It’s Desmond here. About last night. I’m really sorry. It was a terrible thing for you to see, but its Colin’s sign, not mine. I never even use it. Please forgive me. Please see me again. I promise you won’t regret it.” Colin came out of the shower and grinned. “Talking to yourself now Des? Hurry up and make that phone call.” Desmond forgot his lines. He decided to ad lib. When Colin had left the room Desmond dialled the number on Miranda’s piece of paper. “Hello?” said a man’s voice on the telephone. “Oh,” said Desmond, “hello. Could I speak to Miranda please?” “Who?” “Miranda.” “Sorry son, you’ve got the wrong number. Bye.” The man hung up. Desmond hung up too. His dream had not 265
quite come true. Miranda had not in fact stabbed him. Instead she had given him the wrong number, which was not a lot better.
Meanwhile Miranda, who had completely forgotten giving Desmond the wrong telephone number, was sitting by her phone hoping he might call. She had got up at her usual time that Saturday morning and gone to the shops. She had wandered around the supermarket buying this and that, stocking up on ﬂour and sugar, coﬀee and tea, cooking oil and corn ﬂakes, and all the other things she might have need of during the coming week. As she shopped she considered Desmond, and thought that perhaps she had been unfair to him. Seeing the sign on the door had made her panic. It seemed to suggest that Desmond’s interest in her was purely selﬁsh and that he had no real aﬀection for her at all. But now she thought that perhaps she had been mistaken. When she came home she decided to wait and see if Desmond would phone her. She put the shopping away, grabbed her copy of Shakespeare’s comedies and sat by the phone to wait. If Desmond was true to her, she decided, he would phone her. Unfortunately Desmond did not phone her. She sat for an hour and a half by the phone, reading As You Like It and waiting for his call. When she got to the end of the play she began to feel very sad. Desmond still hadn’t phoned her, and it was beginning to look as if he wasn’t going to. At one stage she considered phoning him. Perhaps if she apologised to him he would apologise to her and they would be friends again. But it was his door the sign had been on. He was the one who should have 267
been apologising ﬁrst. So why didn’t he call? There was clearly a lot of good in Desmond, despite this latest set-back. Miranda decided that she would like to see him again, but not unless he phoned up to apologise within the next few hours. Around midday she had a boiled egg for lunch. Desmond still hadn’t phoned her, and she began to feel lonely. She decided to have a nap that afternoon, and went to her bed to lie down. At about ﬁve o’clock in the evening Miranda woke up. Someone was knocking on her front door. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and dragged herself out of bed. She thought that perhaps the knocker was Desmond, coming round to apologise because his phone was out of order. Miranda stumbled to the front door and opened it. There was a man standing outside clutching a large bunch of ﬂowers. The man was Morris. “Hi Miranda,” said Morris, “can I come in?” Miranda wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or happy. She decided to remain fairly neutral, though the sight of Morris was actually a little cheering. “Yes,” said Miranda, “you can come in.” Morris came in. He handed the ﬂowers to Miranda. “These are for you,” he said. Miranda took the ﬂowers and thanked him politely. She wasn’t sure why he was here. Was he going to apologise to her? An apology from Morris would be worth far more than an apology from Desmond because apologies from Morris were so much rarer. Miranda found a vase for her ﬂowers. She put the ﬂowers in, then stood the vase on her tiny dining table. She sat down in one of her chairs. “Well?” she said to Morris, “what can I do for you?” Morris sat down opposite her. “Miranda,” he said, “we’ve got to talk.” “Have we?” “Yes. I’ve changed my mind.” “What about?” 268
“About Virginia. I’ve decided you’re the only girl in the world for me. I want you back, Miranda. If you’ll be mine again I can promise you lots of fun.” Miranda frowned. “It’s not as simple as that, Morris. You can’t use someone the way you’ve used me and then just walk into her ﬂat and expect to have her back.” “But Miranda . . . ” “I’m sorry Morris, but you must understand. I can’t be won over that easily.” Morris shrugged his shoulders. “Okay,” he said. “Bye.” He got up and walked towards the door. Miranda was alarmed. “Where are you going?” she said. “Back to Virginia. I thought that’s what you wanted.” Miranda ran to his side. “Don’t go,” she said. “Jesus Miranda, don’t you even know what you want? First you tell me to go, then you tell me to stay. I think there’s something wrong with you.” “I’m sorry Morris. It’s just that . . . ” “Let’s not talk about it. We’ll only confuse ourselves if we do. Do you want me back, or don’t you?” “Can I just explain how I . . . ” “Do you want me or don’t you? Come on, Miranda, I can easily ﬁnd someone else. You know I can.” “I want you.” “Good girl. Now go to your room and put on something pretty.” “Why?” “We’re going out together. And put a toothbrush in your handbag. We’re going back to my place afterwards.” “All right Morris.” “I love you, you know that don’t you?” “Yes Morris.” Back to her room Miranda went to change. It was true that she still loved Morris, though she wasn’t really sure that he loved her. She didn’t want to love him. She wanted to be able to tell him to get out of her life forever. But she couldn’t. If she tried she would always 269
wonder if she had done the right thing, always worry that if she had trusted Morris a bit further he might have become the man she wanted him to be. She didn’t like being ordered around by him, but even that was a relief. At least when she was obeying his orders she had a way to demonstrate her loyalty. At least when he was giving her orders he was talking to her. When she had ﬁnished changing she got another nice surprise. Morris was still there. He hadn’t got bored with waiting and gone home, something he’d done on one or two occasions in the past. He even looked relatively happy. Miranda did love him, but she still had certain doubts. “Morris,” she said, carefully, “are you still seeing that other woman.” “Don’t you trust me Miranda?” “Well . . . ” “Miranda!” “Of course I do, it’s just that . . . ” “If you trust me, Miranda, I promise that you will be the only woman in my life, and you will continue to be so until you stop trusting me. How’s that?” “I didn’t mean to sound resentful or anything . . . ” “Well you’ve got my promise now, haven’t you. Let’s leave it at that.” “Yes Morris.” “Good girl. Let’s go.” “Where are we going?” “To a restaurant. Bridger’s! A special treat for us.” Bridger’s was Morris’s favourite restaurant. Miranda didn’t like it very much, but Morris was not to know that. He led her out to his car, which he admired greatly. She had dressed herself in something pretty, as Morris had told her to, but he hadn’t commented on her choice. Morris didn’t believe in paying people compliments. He always said there was something weird about people who needed to be ﬂattered all the time. Morris had washed his car that morning. She told him how nice she thought it looked, because he would have been oﬀended if she hadn’t. 270
Morris drove them to the restaurant. Once there he ordered sea food for both of them, having forgotten that Miranda didn’t like sea food. The white wine he had bought to go with it was pleasant, but she didn’t drink too much. She knew how angry Morris (who was driving) would get if she drank more than he could. During the meal Morris dominated the conversation. He had completely forgotten how important Miranda’s week at work must have been, so he didn’t even ask about it. Instead he told her about his week, though he didn’t mention Virginia except to say that from now on he had sworn oﬀ all other women except Miranda. She was grateful for that. After their meal they went back to Morris’s ﬂat together. Morris told Miranda to brush her teeth (which she was going to do anyway) then checked with her that she had been taking her contraceptive pills. She told him she had. Morris undressed Miranda and made vigorous love to her. She did not enjoy it much. It was a little too vigorous for her liking. Afterwards she wondered if Morris had made love to her in that way because he had not enjoyed sex with his Virginia. She wondered if that was the only reason he had come back to her at all.
At ﬁrst that night Miranda had diﬃculty getting to sleep. She lay awake and listened to the sound of Morris breathing. Not so long ago that sound would have ﬁlled her with comfort and happiness. Now she felt strangely alone beside it. It simply wasn’t the same now, lying naked beside Morris in his bed. It was as if she had just had sex with a total stranger, not her Morris at all. Just before she ﬁnally fell asleep she wondered if perhaps she didn’t love Morris anymore. That thought made her sad. Poor Morris, she thought. Quite late on Sunday morning she woke up to hear the telephone ringing. Knowing that telephones rarely woke Morris, she answered it for him. “Hello?” she said. “Oh, hi,” said a woman’s voice. “Is sexy bum there?” “Who?” “Morris. I have got the right number, haven’t I?” Miranda recognized the voice. It was Morris’s Virginia. “Yes,” said Miranda, “you have got the right number.” “That’s Morris’s sister, isn’t it,” said Virginia. “I thought I recognized your voice. Have you come down from Katoomba to see him?” Miranda didn’t answer. “I hope I’ll be able to meet you,” Virginia said. “Morris is so secretive about his family, especially about you. I only found out he had a sister at all when you telephoned the other day.” “Really?” 273
“Yes. Well, I just phoned Morris to say that I’ll be back in town sooner than I thought, tomorrow in fact. So lucky Morris won’t have to wait a whole week before seeing me again. And lucky me, of course. Perhaps we could all get together some time?” “Perhaps. Do you want to speak to Morris?” “Yes please.” Miranda poked Morris in the ribs with the telephone hand piece. He woke up with a scream. “Your girl friend’s on the phone,” said Miranda. Morris looked startled. He took the phone from Miranda. “Virginia?” he said. “Hi love. Look, is it all right if I call you back? Oh, you’re in a hotel, right. Well then . . . oh, you get back tomorrow? Well, phone me when you get home. I can’t really talk now. It’s my sister. She’s a bit upset. I think she’s got a cold or something . . . ” “You bastard!” said Miranda. She scooped up her clothes and her handbag and ran for his bathroom. Morris spoke to the telephone. “Look, I’ve really got to go now. Bye Virginia. Yes, and you.” Miranda slammed and locked the bathroom door. She heard Morris come towards the door. He knocked. “Go away!” said Miranda. “Come on Miranda love. I told you, Virginia means nothing to me. You’re the only one who matters in my life.” “In that case why do you wait until she’s said goodbye to you before you hang up?” “What?” “You never do with me.” “Don’t I?” “No.” “Look Miranda, come out of the bathroom. It’s irrational to talk to each other from opposite sides of a locked door.” “Get lost.” “Come out at once Miranda!” “No.” 274
“I’ll break the door down.” “Suits me. It’s your door.” “Yes. It’s my door. So you have no right to lock yourself behind it.” “Tough.” “Miranda.” “Go away Morris.” Morris continued knocking. Miranda was dressed now, so she checked her hair in the mirror. She gripped her handbag and unlocked the bathroom door. “Ah,” said Morris, “decided to come out, have we?” “Bye Morris,” said Miranda. She rushed past him to his front door. “Where are you going?” “Home,” said Miranda. She opened the front door. “How? I’m not going to drive you.” “Then I’ll go by bus.” “On Sunday morning?” “Then I’ll walk.” Miranda rushed out into the corridor beyond Morris’s door. She headed for the lift. “I’ll come after you,” said Morris. “I’ll come after you and bring you back, by force if I have to.” “You’ll have to get dressed ﬁrst,” said Miranda, “or you’ll be arrested.” Miranda got into the lift which took her to the ground ﬂoor. She walked out of Morris’s huge apartment block and turned into the street that led to her home. She sighed deeply at the thought of the walk before her. She was wearing high heels because Morris liked her to wear high heels, and she hated walking long distances in such shoes. Her ankles would be crippled by the time she got home. There were several palm trees outside Morris’s apartment building, and Miranda found them oﬀensive as she walked beneath them. Morris had once told her that life for him was like living in a tropical paradise. Yet at the same time he had told her she couldn’t come and live with him on a permanent basis, that such a move would stiﬂe their 275
independence. What he had really meant was that if she lived with him she would ﬁnd out about his other girl friends. As she walked along the street Miranda grew sadder still. She turned into a very long, steep street that led up to the next suburb. She wondered if Morris had perhaps had another girlfriend when he ﬁrst met her, a girlfriend who loved him as much as she had once done. She wondered if this mysterious girlfriend’s heart had been broken when Morris abandoned her for someone else. She felt guilty just in case it had. At the top of the street Miranda turned a corner. There was a bus stop with someone waiting at it. The woman was middle aged and looked vaguely bored. Miranda asked her if there were any buses today that might take her home. The woman handed her a copy of the timetable. There was a bus due in about ﬁve minutes. Miranda thanked the woman and gave her back her timetable. She wouldn’t have to walk after all. Morris had lied to her about that too. As she waited for the bus Miranda began to think about Desmond. She wondered if he had tried to phone her at all yesterday while she was out. Perhaps he would phone today. But she doubted it. He was a man, like Morris. Men didn’t seem willing to put any eﬀort at all into a relationship.
“I really am going to kill myself this time,” said Desmond. Colin sighed. “I wish you’d stop saying that,” he said. “it’s becoming extremely boring.” Colin was trying to read the Sunday newspapers. Desmond was trying to gain some sympathy by threatening to kill himself. He had ﬁrst begun to suspect that he wasn’t getting very far when Colin came back from the newsagent’s that morning. Colin had given Desmond a copy of Playboy. “There you are,” Colin said, grinning wickedly, “I bought this for you. I thought it might cheer you up.” Desmond threw the magazine at Colin, and announced that he was going to kill himself again. By half past eleven Desmond still hadn’t killed himself, but he was now starting to look miserable enough to try. “Look,” said Colin, “why don’t you borrow the car and go and visit her? You never know, she might be really missing you. She might be planning to kill herself too.” “She gave me the wrong phone number,” said Desmond. “Sure,” said Colin, “but she gave you the right address. You know where she lives, even if you don’t know the phone number.” “But you don’t understand . . . ” “She probably just made a mistake writing it down. It’s easily done.” “Miranda does these things deliberately.” 277
“Oh yes?” “Yes. If a man she doesn’t like asks for her phone number she gives him the wrong one. She did it to Bruce.” “Did she?” “Yes. She told me.” Colin laughed. “The little bitch,” he said, and there was respect in his voice. Desmond bristled. “Don’t talk that way about the woman I love,” he said. Colin laughed again. “Sorry mate,” he said. “So this little Miranda of yours gives people the wrong phone number, does she?” “Only people she doesn’t like. So the fact that she gave it to me proves she doesn’t like me.” “Really?” said Colin. “Really. So what am I going to do?” “You could kill yourself,” said Colin. He went back to his newspaper. Desmond felt so unhappy. It was terrible to have lost Miranda, and to be despised by her. He didn’t know what to do. It occurred to him that killing himself might not be such a bad idea. “Look,” said Colin, “I’m sure you don’t need to be so miserable. I’m sure the whole thing’s just some terrible misunderstanding. She’s got the wrong idea from my sign on the door and you’ve got the wrong idea from her not giving you the right phone number. When you see each other on Monday you can explain your mistakes to each other and have a good laugh about it.” “But I won’t see her on Monday.” “Why not? Aren’t you going into work on Monday? Are you going to have some hysterical illness instead?” “I won’t see her on Monday because she won’t be there. She was only assigned to our branch for one week. The week is over. I’ll never see her again.” “Desmond! You idiot! Get in that car and go and see her.” “I can’t. There’s no point.” “Get going. You’ve got her address. Visit her.” 278
“No. I mustn’t.” “You must! Think about it, Des. She went out with you on Friday. She must have had some sort of tiﬀ with her boyfriend. If she makes things up with him before you get around to visiting her you really will have lost her forever.” “But Colin, the wrong phone number. She gave me the wrong phone number deliberately.” “What if she did?” “It means she doesn’t like me.” “It means she didn’t like you when she gave you the number, or at least not enough to want to see you again. But that was on Wednesday, wasn’t it?” “Yes.” “Well since then she’s phoned you up, asked you to take her out, confessed to me that she likes you, and tried to get you to sleep with her. Maybe she didn’t like you that much when she gave you the phone number, but she’s sure as hell started to like you since.” “I don’t know . . . ” “Trust me. One thing I do know is women.” “Do you? If that’s so why haven’t you got a regular girlfriend?” Colin grinned. “Maybe I don’t want one. Maybe the way I do things is more fun.” Desmond sighed. “I don’t know,” he said. “What if she gave me the wrong phone number because she doesn’t want me to see her again ever?” Colin shrugged his shoulders. “Go and see her anyway,” he said. “It might make her angry . . . ” “It might make her happy.” “But what if it makes her angry?” “What if it does? She won’t beat you up, or at least not badly. She’s too small.” “Yes but . . . ” “The worst she can do is tell you to get lost and slam the door in your face. Not nice for you, I agree, but it wouldn’t make you any more upset than you already are.” 279
“I love her, Colin.” “I know you do mate.” “I couldn’t face going to visit her and being shouted at by her.” “She might not shout at you.” “I think she would. She wouldn’t have given me the wrong number if she’d wanted me to visit her.” “Des, she gave you her address on the phone on Friday. She wouldn’t have done that if didn’t want you to visit her. Go and see her.” “That would be the worst possible thing to do.” “Would it?” “Yes,” said Desmond, “of course it would.” “Oh, I see what you mean. She might beat you up badly after all. You’re not too large yourself, are you?” “That’s not it. It would just make her unhappy.” “Des it might make her unhappy, or it might make her very happy indeed. You don’t know what she thinks of you.” “But I can’t take the risk.” “So that’s it is it? You’re determined not to visit her?” “I suppose so.” “In other words, you’re determined never to see her again even though you love her?” Desmond’s head slumped. “Life is terrible,” he said. “Des,” said Colin, “you’re weird. Do you fancy a beer?” Desmond shook his head sadly. “And do you still plan to kill yourself?” said Colin. “I don’t know,” said Desmond. “Probably.” “Well, if you do decide to kill yourself could you possibly go outside to do it? There’s nothing worse than having dead bodies cluttering up your ﬂat, especially if you’re planning to bring birds home.”
Morris was patrolling the streets in his car. He had dressed himself as quickly as he could and run out of his ﬂat in pursuit of Miranda. It was not the ﬁrst time his bedside telephone had caused trouble for him between one girlfriend and another. If only he didn’t keep forgetting to take the phone oﬀ the hook, Morris thought. Certainly if Morris had been a tragic hero his tragic ﬂaw would have been his habit of letting his girl friends sleep on the side of the bed closest to the phone. When he got into the street there was no sign of Miranda, so he rushed to his car to give chase. Then he rushed back to his ﬂat, found his car keys, rushed back to the street and rushed to his car to give chase. Morris drove one route to Miranda’s house, but couldn’t see her anywhere along the way. She couldn’t have got home already, so he decided she must have gone a diﬀerent way. He tried driving back along another route, and this time saw her waiting at a bus stop. Also approaching the bus stop was a bus. He watched as she got onto the bus and the bus drove oﬀ. He cursed the bus violently, then turned his car round to follow it. As he drove along he wondered if all this rushing around was worth it. He didn’t want to lose Miranda, but he also didn’t want to spend the rest of his life chasing buses in order to keep her. This bus, he knew, would drop her oﬀ close to her ﬂat. He would have to move fast if he was going to catch her before she had time to get into her ﬂat 281
and lock him out. So Morris followed the bus, and at the last minute, overtook it. He parked his car in time to watch Miranda get oﬀ the bus and wander towards her front door. He leapt out of his car to intercept her. “Miranda!” he yelled, and ran towards her. Miranda turned towards him, looking quite surprised. He managed to position himself between her door and her. He placed his hands on her shoulders. “Miranda,” he said, “we’ve got to talk.” “Please go away,” said Miranda. “You’ve got to get out of my life. You make me too unhappy.” “Don’t say that, Miranda. You know you’d be lost without me.” “No I wouldn’t.” “Well I’d be lost without you.” “Oh Morris, how can you say that?” Miranda struggled from his grasp and tried to get past him to the door, but Morris wrapped his arms around her so that she couldn’t move. “I love you,” said Morris. “I can’t live without you.” It was a slight exaggeration, Morris knew, but it was in a good cause. Virginia, without Miranda to come back to, would be no fun at all. “Do you really mean that?” said Miranda. “Of course,” said Morris, holding onto her for all he was worth. “When I thought you’d gone I was heart broken. I knew I might have lost you forever, and for what? For Virginia. I could never love anyone as much as I love you, never. Please forgive me, Miranda. I love you so much, but I’m too weak to show it. If you’ll forgive me Miranda I’ll try harder to show it in future. I’ll try to be as good a lover to you as you’ve always been to me. Please forgive me, my darling, please.” It was the ﬁrst major apology Morris had ever made, and he was not enjoying the experience. He didn’t think he sounded convincing, and it wasn’t easy to summon up the right words. He hoped he would never have to apologise to any of his other girl friends. “Will you really try Morris?” said Miranda, putting her arms around him. “If only you would. . . ” “I know I’m not a good man,” said Morris, “I know I let you down 282
all the time. Sometimes I can even feel myself doing it, but I can’t help myself. I’m a monster, and I’m selﬁsh, but I do love you. You’re so special, and so wonderful, because you understand me and don’t criticise me.” “I do try to understand, Morris.” “You do. You’re so patient. With you by my side I feel complete and special. I feel there’s nothing in the world I couldn’t do. I feel that life is good and that the future is ﬁlled with promise. But without you. . . without you life would be completely empty. Grey, hopeless and futile.” This last bit was rather good, and Morris wished he had a pen and paper so he could write it down. “Do you really feel that way?” said Miranda. “Yes,” said Morris, “I do. You’re a necessary part of my life, of my existence. If you left me I wouldn’t merely be a broken man, I would cease to exist altogether.” This last bit seemed rather too strong to Morris, so he tried being a bit more down to earth. “Please come back to me, Miranda, please.” “Oh Morris, I don’t know. . . ” “Just on a trial basis. Please. Give me a chance. You’re. . . well, I’ve had lots of girls, Miranda, you must know that, but you’re the only one I’ve ever really loved. I’d be lost without you. I really would. I just love you so much.” “Oh Morris.” Miranda hugged him and buried her face in his chest. “You’ll come back then? You’ll give me another chance?” “Yes Morris.” “Good girl. We’ll go out again, to another of our favourite restaurants, for lunch and for dinner. We’ll spend the afternoon together and have lots of fun. Then this evening, at my place, we’ll make love and it’ll be as great as it was last night. Then, at ten o’clock tonight I’ll drive you home and see you safely tucked up in bed.” “Why? Why can’t I stay the night with you?” “In case Virginia gets home early and pops in to see me. She’d hate to ﬁnd you in my bed.” “Oh Morris!” Miranda tried to pull away, but Morris was prepared for that. He held on even more tightly. 283
“Don’t struggle, Miranda, and don’t be upset. You know Virginia means nothing to me. She’s just something I’ve got to get out of my system.” Miranda stopped struggling. “Oh Morris,” she said. “When I’ve got her out of my system, and I will have done soon, I’ll be all yours, like I will be for the rest of today. And even when I’m with her, making love to her, I’m yours really. You know that, don’t you?” Miranda didn’t say anything. She seemed to be sobbing, quietly. He tried not to smile. Everything was going according to plan. He could hardly believe his good fortune. There was no doubt about it in his mind. He knew he must be a wonderful guy. No woman could resist him. The old charm was still there. Suddenly Miranda struggled violently. She stamped the high heel of her left shoe into the canvas toe of his right, and, as he leapt back in pain, she ran through her front door and locked it behind her. Morris stood still for a moment, three of his toes throbbing slightly. This was something of a setback. Perhaps mentioning Virginia hadn’t been such a good idea. But Morris was nothing if not an optimist. The situation had simply become more challenging, that was all. He would get Miranda back. It just might take a little time. Limping slightly, he returned to his car.
“’State-dependent’ learning, William, whatever is that?” said Aristid as he poured his brother-in-law a cup of after dinner coﬀee. William took the cup and sipped gratefully at it. Although his excessive drinking binge had been on Friday night its eﬀects had not yet worn oﬀ. He had spent the whole of Saturday and most of Sunday morning announcing that he was dying, and swearing that he was never going to touch another drop of alcohol as long as he lived. As the day wore on William began to feel a little better. Soon all that concerned him was the vague recollection of having forgotten something. When Aristid began asking him for details of the marvellous idea he had apparently had on Friday night William realised that this must be what he had forgotten. “state-dependent learning,” William explained, “is something I heard about on the radio some time ago.” “Ah,” said Aristid, “tell me more.” “Well,” said William, “the idea, as I understand it, is that if you learn something in one biochemical state, if you are under the inﬂuence of a certain drug, for example, then you can only recall it again when you are in the same biochemical state. When the inﬂuence of the drug wears oﬀ you forget it. When you take the drug again you remember it.” “Most interesting.” “That is probably why I failed all my exams at school,” said William. 285
“Really?” said Aristid. “Yes,” said William. “You see, when I revised for my exams I was relaxed, but during the exams I was nervous. So I was in a diﬀerent biochemical state. Thus I forgot everything. After the exams I became less nervous.” “And remembered everything again?” “Well, no. In fact I still couldn’t remember anything. But I’m sure that something very like state-dependent learning was responsible for my failure.” “No doubt, William, no doubt. You bring this novel concept up now, I suppose, because it has some relevance to the issue at hand, namely this marvellous new idea of yours that you have completely forgotten.” “That is correct, Aristid. Your mind is as sharp as ever.” “Thank you, William. Well? Would you care to explain?” “Explain what? The idea I have forgotten?” “No, William, the relevance of state-dependent learning.” “Ah yes. Well, I thought that if there is such a thing as statedependent learning then there may also be such a thing as statedependent idea having.” “Ingenious, William. Tell me more.” “It occurred to me,” said William, “that if you have an idea when in one biochemical state then perhaps you can only recall it when in the same biochemical state. I am no longer in the same biochemical state as I was when I had the idea.” “Because when you had the idea you were blind drunk whereas now you are sober?” “Precisely Aristid. The result of this is that the only thing I can remember about my idea is having forgotten it.” “Hm,” said Aristid. “An interesting theory. If this is indeed your problem, what solution do you propose?” “Well, basically, I need to reproduce the same biochemical state.” “Ah. You mean you plan to get drunk again?” William shuddered. “It may be the only way,” he said. 286
Aristid sipped his own coﬀee cup thoughtfully. “It is an ingenious solution,” he said, “but we have no more whisky.” “That’s quite all right,” said William, “I don’t intend to repeat the excesses of Friday night. I noticed that you had a few small bottles of beer in your refrigerator.” “Surely you cannot produce the same biochemical state on only a few small bottles of beer? You drank nearly a whole bottle of whisky on Friday, William, single handed.” “You ﬂatter me, Aristid. You helped, in your way.” “Nonsense. I only had a few sips. But the point I was making was this: beer is ﬁrstly a diﬀerent drink to whisky; Secondly: a few small bottles of beer has hardly the same alcohol content as a whole bottle of whisky.” “Nevertheless, it might be enough to approximate the biochemical state, to tip the balance, as it were, and jog the memory. I think it is a scheme worth pursuing.” “So you plan to drink all my beer, William?” “Yes please, Aristid.” Aristid sighed. “Very well,” he said. “It’s in a good cause, Aristid. The idea I am trying to remember is a very good idea.” William and Aristid made their way to Aristid’s fridge and Aristid got out the beer for William. “Here you are,” said Aristid, handing it to him. “Thank you Aristid,” said William. He took the top oﬀ the ﬁrst beer bottle and swallowed the contents down. “Has the idea come back to you now, William?” said Aristid. William thought carefully. “No,” he said, “it is still only a blur. I’d better have another bottle.” William removed the top from another bottle and poured the contents down his throat. “How is it now?” said Aristid. “Still blurry,” said William. “I’ll have another bottle.” William swallowed down another bottleful, then, just to be on the safe side, one more. There was one bottle left. 287
“Well William?” said Aristid. “Still nothing,” said William. Aristid sighed. “Then I suppose you had better have the last bottle as well,” he said. “Thank you,” said William, “I would like that very much.” He drained the last bottle. “How do you feel now, William? Are you drunk?” “I am a little unsteady on my feet, Aristid, and of course much more relaxed than I was, but I do not feel drunk.” “And the idea, William?” “What idea?” “The idea you were trying to remember, about the robbery.” “Oh. That idea. I didn’t know I’d forgotten it.” “So . . . you remember it now?” “Of course. It’s a very good idea Aristid. I don’t mean to insult you or anything, but I must say that it’s a much better idea than your idea of robbing a chemist.” “Tell me more, William. I am eager to hear.” “Let’s go back to our coﬀee ﬁrst, Aristid. I feel a need for coﬀee.” “Very well, William, but don’t drink it too quickly. We don’t want to change your biochemical state.” “Sorry Aristid?” “We don’t want to spoil the state-dependent idea having.” “State-dependent idea having?” said William. “Whatever is that?” Aristid smiled. “William,” he said, “has anyone ever told you that you are a marvel? A human miracle?” “I expect so,” said William, with pride. “Good,” said Aristid, “because you are. Let us go back to our coﬀee, then you can tell me your idea.” “What idea?” “The robbery idea.” “Ah. That idea.” William and Aristid returned to their coﬀee. William sat down comfortably and Aristid poured him some more. “Well?” said Aristid. “Do tell me your idea.” 288
“Of course,” said William. “We decided, did we not, that the robbery of the chemist failed because the savage nature of chemists prevents them from handing over their money without a ﬁght.” “That was our theory.” “And you suggested that what we needed was somewhere to rob in which the staﬀ would not put up a ﬁght. In other words, we need somewhere where the staﬀ will simply hand over the money as soon as we threaten them with the water pistol.” “Yes William, I agree.” “But we also want somewhere ﬁnancially proﬁtable, somewhere with a lot of money.” “On that point also I agree. But where will we ﬁnd somewhere embodying both of these ideals?” “Some time ago,” said William, “I read in a magazine that the staﬀ members of certain large ﬁnancial institutions are told that, in the event of a threat of violent robbery, they should hand over all their money to the robbers without a fuss.” “Large ﬁnancial institutions, William? What exactly do you mean?” “Banks, Aristid.” Aristid looked startled. “Banks?” “Yes,” said William, smiling proudly, “banks. You and I, Aristid, with our water pistol and your getaway car, are going to rob a bank.” “Hm. Do you think that is an altogether wise thing to do?” “Oh yes Aristid. Banks are easy to rob.” “Are you sure about that, William?” “Of course. Banks are much easier to rob than chemists.” “But I had always heard that banks were very diﬃcult to rob,” said Aristid. “I understood that banks tended to have armed security guards whose job it is to shoot any robbers attempting to rob the bank ...” “But security men are employees of the bank,” said William. “So?” said Aristid. “The magazine article I read said that bank employees are instructed to give all the bank’s money to robbers without putting up a ﬁght. So security men must be instructed to do the same. They 289
probably only carry guns in order to keep the bank’s customers under control.” “Are you sure about that William?” “Of course.” “Anyway, I have also heard that there are little buttons behind the counters of banks that, if pressed, alert the local police to the robbery in progress.” “That’s not a problem, Aristid. By the time the police arrive we will have escaped with all the bank’s money.” Aristid still looked worried. “Some banks have bullet proof shields that come crashing down at the touch of a button and protect bank employees from the threat of armed robbery.” “Bullet proof shields, eh?” “Yes, William. If a robber draws a gun a bank employee presses a button and the shield comes down before the robber can do anything.” “Are these shields also water proof?” “I imagine so.” “Hm. So our water pistol would be powerless against them.” “William . . . ” “But not all banks have such shields, do they, Aristid?” “No . . . ” “Then we have merely to ﬁnd one that is shield-free. We will rob a bank tomorrow morning.” “William?” “Yes, Aristid?” “Don’t you think we ought to get a bit more practice as robbers before we attempt to rob a bank?” “More practise? No Aristid. I don’t think we need more practise. Bank robbery is, after all, extremely easy.” “But William . . . ” “Trust me, Aristid. Tomorrow’s robbery will be simplicity itself. This time we will use my robbery plan. This time we will be successful.” “And what is your robbery plan, William?” “My robbery plan is to improvise, Aristid.” 290
“Oh dear.” “I think,” said William, “that tomorrow will prove very interesting.” “I think,” said Aristid, “that you are probably right.”
When Monday morning came Desmond was still alive. His suicide plans had not yet got anywhere. In spite of still being alive, the last thing he wanted to do that morning was get up and go to work. But he was a conscientious young man, so he got up and went to work anyway. Outside in the street the weather was distinctly unpleasant. The sky was a watery grey colour and a light drizzle was falling. Desmond did not know that the drizzle was an omen. When great events are due to occur rain pours from the clouds, and thunder and lightning crack the sky. Similarly, Monday’s unusual events were signiﬁed by a light drizzle. At his usual time Desmond reached the bank, grateful, for once, for the umbrella he always carried in his briefcase. Sam opened the doors of the bank for him. “G’day Desmond,” he said, “have a good weekend?” “Yes thanks, Sam,” said Desmond, wearily, “how about you?” “Can’t complain,” said Sam. “Get up to your usual tricks did you?” “Yes, Sam.” “I don’t know. You young blokes today. I don’t know where you get your energy from.” Desmond went through the gate in the enquiry counter. He stowed his umbrella back in his briefcase, and put his briefcase behind his desk. “Morning, Desmond,” said Anne as she passed him. 293
“Morning, Anne,” said Desmond, sorting out some new account forms. Marc dragged himself up to his own desk and collapsed into the seat behind it. “Hi Desmond,” he said. “Hi Speed,” said Desmond. “Desmond,” said Marc, “you just won’t believe what happened to me this weekend.” This turned out to be perfectly true. As Marc told him a highly improbable story of sexual exploration and adventure Desmond found he was quite unable to believe any of it. Behind them Bruce and Andrei had arrived. Bruce heard the last part of Marc’s story and he didn’t believe it either. “Speed,” said Bruce, “you’ve got a sick mind.” The enquiry staﬀ got down to their work. Desmond glanced up from his desk and saw Miranda’s computer, sitting deactivated on the enquiry counter. He wanted to reach out and touch it, as the last thing he would ever see to remind him of her. Soon, he knew, even that last trace of Miranda would be removed from his view. “Did you have a good weekend Desmond?” said Bruce. “What?” said Desmond. “Did you have a good weekend?” “Oh. Yes thanks,” said Desmond, sadly. “I went to a party.” “Oh yeah? Any good chicks there?” For a moment Desmond considered boasting that he had gone to the party with Miranda. But he decided against it. Thinking about Miranda was something he should try very hard not to do. “No,” he said, “no good chicks.” “Typical that,” said Bruce. “I went to a couple of discos, but the only girls there were ugly too.” This news meant nothing to Desmond. Ugly or beautiful, any girl who wasn’t Miranda was of no interest to him. He took one last look at her computer, sighed deeply, and returned to his paperwork. Once the early morning preparations were over the bank’s doors opened to the public. A handful of middle aged men in business suits, 294
six housewives, one school teacher and two old-age pensioners with walking sticks came in to do their banking. Anne scanned the turn out suspiciously. “Not as many people as I was expecting,” said Anne. “What do you mean?” said Desmond. “Well I told that EDP girl to expect something big to happen on Monday, I thought it would be one of those days when you can’t sit down for customers.” “Perhaps,” said Desmond, “something else big is going to happen.” “Perhaps,” agreed Anne. “All right, Desmond, get to work. There’s customers to be seen to.” “Yes, Anne,” said Desmond, and saw to some customers. The ﬁrst customer Desmond saw to was someone who wanted to apply for a MasterCard. This was a long operation, and kept Desmond busy for twenty minutes. The gentleman in question wasn’t sure where he worked, or at least he didn’t know the address of the place, and was pretty vague about its name. Desmond, who was helping the man to ﬁll in his form, wondered how he managed to get to work in the mornings. At about ten ﬁfteen the delivery men from the EDP department arrived. “We’re the delivery men from the EDP department,” they told Desmond and Anne. “We’re here to collect some computer equipment from you.” Desmond opened the gate in the enquiry counter. The delivery men came through. Anne showed them to Miranda’s computer, sitting lonely and deactivated on the enquiry counter. The chief delivery man looked at it suspiciously. “It’s not in boxes,” he said. “That’s right,” said Anne, “it’s not in boxes. You’ve got good eyesight.” The chief delivery man shook his head. “If it’s not in boxes we won’t touch it. We were told to collect boxes of computer equipment. Computer equipment out of boxes isn’t our responsibility. Someone else’s job to handle computer equipment out of boxes.” 295
Desmond spoke. “Should we put it back in its boxes for them?” he said. “No,” said Anne, “we’ve got too much work to do to be wasting time putting things in boxes.” She turned back to the delivery men. “Can’t you put it back in its boxes and then take it away?” “Sorry,” said the chief delivery man. “We were told to handle boxes. We can’t handle it if it’s not in boxes. If it was in boxes already we could put it in bigger boxes for you, but as it’s not we can’t touch it.” Anne frowned. “So what are you going to do?” “We’ll just go back to our depot,” said the chief delivery man. “Been a bit of a waste of time for you then, hasn’t it?” said Anne. The chief delivery man shrugged his shoulders. “Doesn’t bother us,” he said, “we get paid by the hour.” The delivery man left, and the computer remained standing on the enquiry counter. Desmond felt sad. He had hoped that this last reminder of Miranda would be taken away. He had hoped not to keep seeing it, not to be perpetually reminded of her. But now, it seemed, he was stuck with it. “I knew that stupid computer would cause problems,” said Anne. “It’s another typical EDP division foul up.”
Monday morning also meant a return to work for Miranda. She got out of her bed at her usual time and thought sadly of Morris, who might even now be waking up to ﬁnd his Virginia in bed with him. She wanted to trust Morris and to believe him when he said that this Virginia meant nothing to him, but she couldn’t. It seemed that Morris was far more willing to give her up for Virginia than he was to give Virginia up for her. The bus was on time as usual, and transported Miranda towards town and the central oﬃce of the bank. At the main bank building she took the lift to the eleventh ﬂoor and there, in the little ECAS oﬃce, she found most of the ECAS team sharing jokes and swapping anecdotes about their experiences in the branches. Miranda wandered in with a half-hearted smile. Several of the team members said hello to her. “Hi,” said Russell, “did you have fun?” “Lots of fun, thanks Russell,” said Miranda. “Some of the people in those branches are pretty dumb, aren’t they?” said Russell. “You ought to know,” said Miranda, sweetly. Some minutes later Mr Jameson came in. “Good morning everyone,” he said. He sat down on a desk next to one of the computers. “Now then,” he said, “before we get on with analysing the results of the experiment I just want to thank you all for the tremendous eﬀort you’ve put into this project. You’ve all done 297
an excellent job. This morning what I thought we should do is begin going through the survey questionnaires and also start analysing the statistical data from the experiment.” The ECAS team sorted through their ﬁlled in survey forms. The telephone rang. Josephine, a member of the team some years older than Miranda, answered it. “Hello,” she said, “ECAS oﬃce.” The team watched as Josephine’s expression grew ﬁrst puzzled, then angry. “Okay,” she said. “Thanks for telling us.” Mr Jameson looked concerned. “What is it Jo?” he said. “It’s our beloved delivery men,” she said. “They’ve let us down again.” “How?” “They’ve left all the computers in all the branches. They haven’t collected any of them.” “Why ever not?” “Because they’re not in cardboard boxes, apparently. If someone puts the computers back in their original cartons then the delivery men will be able to collect them, or so I’m told. What should we do?” Mr Jameson sighed. “There’s only one thing to do,” he said. “You must each go back to your individual branches and pack the computers back into their boxes. Then we’ll send the delivery men out again and see if they can bring themselves to actually collect something this time.” Miranda started. Her mind ﬂew instantly to thoughts of Desmond. He was positively the last person she wanted to see again, especially after Friday night. “Mr Jameson,” she said, timidly, “do we actually have to go back to our own branches?” “I think so,” said Mr Jameson “That would probably be best.” “I mean, wouldn’t it be a more interesting experience for us if we sort of swapped branches, just for packing up the computers?” “I think it’s best not to do that,” said Mr Jameson. “The branch staﬀ would be happier dealing with someone they know.” 298
“What’s wrong, Miranda?” said Russell. “Don’t they like you much at your branch?” “On the contrary, Russell,” said Mr Jameson, “Miranda’s branch have sent in glowing reports of both ECAS and Miranda. I expect they’ll be extremely glad to see her.” Some of them will, thought Miranda. She vaguely remembered Desmond saying something about having a day oﬀ one day this week. She hoped it was today. “Right,” said Mr Jameson, “you’d better all get oﬀ to your branches. The sooner you get there the sooner you’ll get back, and the sooner you get back the sooner we can get on with this work. You’d each better stop oﬀ at the fourth ﬂoor on your way out and pick up some packaging tape. You might want to seal up the boxes once you’ve packed the computers into them, just in case the delivery men have something against handling unsealed boxes.” So Miranda and her colleagues headed for the stores on the fourth ﬂoor to pick up rolls of packaging tape. They all felt annoyed at having to go back to their branches after having said goodbye to the staﬀ there, and they all had a suddenly increased dislike of the delivery men. Only Miranda felt nervous as well. She had wanted to put her branch, and Desmond, out of her mind forever. “Did they give you a hard time at your branch?” Josephine asked gently. “Was Russell right?” No one else was listening, and Miranda was grateful for her concern. “No no,” Miranda said, “I’m just a bit depressed at the thought of going out into this weather again. I thought I might be able to swap my branch for one a bit closer.” “I can sympathise with that,” said Josephine. “It’s a miserable day.” What Miranda did not realise was that the light drizzle outside was an omen. Even when, a few minutes later, she was running through it towards the bus shelter she still didn’t realise. Once the bus had deposited her in the street with her branch in Miranda still failed to realise the signiﬁcance of the drizzle. She also failed to realise the signiﬁcance of the battered little Volkswagen 299
parked just outside the bank. In fact, she ignored it completely as she headed for the doors of the bank and prepared to face the ordeal beyond.
“Tell me, Aristid,” said William, “would you care for a peanut?” “What, William?” “In the pocket of my jacket I’ve just found a packet of peanuts. I’m not sure how old the packet is, but it looks quite fresh. Would you care for one?” “No thank you, William.” “Are you sure? You look a little nervous. A peanut might help to cheer you up.” In fact, thought William, Aristid looked almost as nervous as he must have done just before the raid on the chemist. He couldn’t imagine what was troubling him. It wasn’t as if robbing a bank was nearly as diﬃcult or dangerous as robbing a chemist. They were sitting in Aristid’s car outside the bank William had decided to rob and watching the drizzle come down. If William had known that the drizzle was an omen he might have abandoned his bank robbing plans there and then. As it was, he was ﬁlled with immense conﬁdence. Only Aristid had his doubts. “There is a lot of complicated machinery in that bank,” Aristid said. “Some of it could be dangerous.” Aristid had been into the bank a few minutes before to look around. As before, it was William who would perform the actual robbery. “Yes,” said William, “so you said. But no sign of a water proof screen?” “No. No sign of one of those.” 301
“Good. Then I’d better pop oﬀ and do the robbery.” “William?” “Yes Aristid?” “Don’t you think you had better wait a bit before you do the robbery?” “Aristid, you look distinctly nervous. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a peanut?” “Quite sure, William.” “You won’t mind if I have one, though, will you?” “Not at all.” “Then I think I will.” William had a peanut. It didn’t taste at all bad. “About the complicated machinery,” said Aristid, “I still believe it might prove dangerous to robbers.” “Nonsense, Aristid. If the bank had machinery dangerous to robbers it would not instruct its employees to hand money over to such robbers. So you see, the machinery must be harmless.” “But the security guards, William . . . ” “You said there are only two of them.” “There are only two . . . ” “Well that’s all right then.” “But they are both large men, William, and they are armed. Their guns look to be considerably larger than the one I imagine that chemist had.” “Ah, but will they use those guns?” “I see no reason why they should not . . . ” “They will be afraid to, Aristid. Trust me.” “Why should they be afraid when the chemist was not?” “Because when I attempted to rob the chemist I was not wearing a stocking over my head. Robbers are supposed to wear stockings over their heads. I read it in a magazine. It makes them look more frightening.” “So,” said Aristid, “you plan to rob this bank wearing a stocking over your head?” 302
“Yes. I bought one especially for that purpose this morning. Unfortunately it is pink rather than black, but I don’t think that will matter too much.” “So William, if I understand you correctly, you plan to rob this bank while wearing a pink stocking over your head?” “Yes, Aristid. I expect I will look truly terrifying.” “I think I will have that peanut after all.” William gave his brother-in-law a peanut. Aristid ate the peanut and looked nervously at the double doors of the bank. “Do you have your water pistol with you?” said Aristid. “Yes, Aristid,” said William. “And does it still have the little red nozzle at the end of its barrel?” “Of course.” “I thought it might.” “It is also fully loaded.” “Oh good,” said Aristid, nervously. “That is a great relief to me.” “And best of all, I have had time for plenty of target practise.” “Target practise, William? Why did you need target practise?” “I want to become a crack shot. I can already hit an empty beer bottle at a distance of four feet.” “That is most impressive, William. When did you do all this target practise?” “This morning. I got up especially early for it.” “But it was raining this morning . . . ” “Oh that’s all right, Aristid. I did my target practise indoors.” “Ah. I thought the lounge room carpet seemed a little damp.” “You don’t mind, do you, Aristid?” “Not at all, as long as you think the target practise was useful to you.” “Useful to me?” said William. “Why, Aristid, if this bank is as dangerous as you claim, my target practise may very possibly save my life. Sharp shooting is always useful in life or death situations.” “My dear William, you will be careful, won’t you?” “Of course. But I still think you worry needlessly. Bank robbery, as I’ve said, is a remarkably simple business.” 303
“I’m sure it is,” said Aristid. “I’ll have the car running for a quick getaway when you come out.” “Thank you Aristid.” “Do you have your lines rehearsed? Do you know what you’re going to say?” “I thought that this time I would just try bursting in and waving my water pistol around.” “Do you think that will be enough, William?” “Oh yes. Provided the people in the bank are well trained they will know at once to hand all their money over to me.” “Yes,” said Aristid, “I suppose they will.” “Right,” said William. “If you will help me to ﬁnd my pink stocking I will get on with the robbery.”
“Oh, it’s you,” said Anne Cameron. “I didn’t expect to see you again.” “Yes, sorry about this,” said the voice of Miranda Catarini, “but we’ve had a bit of a problem.” Desmond started. He was sitting at his desk and looking at his paperwork, so he hadn’t seen who Anne was talking to. At the sound of Miranda’s voice he felt a sudden terrible sense of dread. “Desmond,” said Anne. “Let Miranda in.” Desmond got up from his desk and went to the gate in the enquiry counter to let Miranda in. She was dressed in scarlet today, and she looked very nice. The expression on her face as their eyes met was not kindly, however. “Hello Miranda,” said Desmond. “Hello Desmond,” said Miranda. The time had come, Desmond knew. He should try to apologise to her now, while he had the opportunity. But he couldn’t bring himself to. His basic shyness got the better of him, and once he had opened the gate for Miranda he went back to his desk without saying a word. Miranda went straight to her computer and started unplugging things. “What’s it all about, this extra visit?” said Anne. “Oh, it’s the delivery men,” said Miranda. “They won’t collect the computer unless it’s packed up in its boxes.” “So you’ve come back here to pack it away, have you?” “Yes,” said Miranda. “You put the boxes in that storeroom at the 305
back, didn’t you?” “Someone did. Think you can ﬁnd them again?” “I think so.” “I don’t know,” said Anne. “The bank sends you, on your salary, out here to pack a computer into boxes while the delivery men sit around waiting for you to do it. There’s something wrong with the way this bank operates.” “It gets along all right most of the time,” said Miranda. “Now, I think it’ll be easier to pack if I take the computer to the boxes in the storeroom rather than the other way round. That way I’ll have room to spread out while I’m packing.” “Not much room,” said Anne, “but please yourself. If you can’t manage on your own get Desmond to help. He’s not doing anything important.” “I can manage on my own,” said Miranda. Again and again as Miranda passed his desk, fetching ﬁrst one piece of computer equipment to take to the storeroom, then another, Desmond was forced to hide under his paperwork to avoid meeting her gaze. Once Bruce oﬀered to help her, but Miranda said quite ﬁrmly that she could manage on her own. She was wrong though. The last bit of computer equipment she tried to carry was too heavy, and she almost dropped it. Fortunately Andrei was on hand to help her with it. They went back to the storeroom together and Desmond supposed that Andrei was helping Miranda to put the computer back in its cartons. There were few customers, just two young mothers with their children at the tellers’ booths, so Desmond didn’t have a lot to do. He decided that when Miranda came out of the store room he would approach her and apologise. He was quite ﬁrm in his resolve until Miranda actually did come out of the store room. Then shyness got the better of him and he just sat at his desk without saying anything. “Well?” said Anne, coming up to Miranda. “All packed now,” said Miranda. “I don’t know when the delivery men will be back, but they should be willing to take the computer now.” 306
“Good,” said Anne. “I’ll come and let you out.” “Miranda,” said Desmond, suddenly. Both Miranda and Anne looked at him. Miranda scowled. “Yes Desmond?” she said. “Er,” said Desmond, “bye.” “Goodbye Desmond,” said Miranda. Anne went to the gate in the enquiry counter and opened it brieﬂy for Miranda to pass through. Miranda thanked her and did so. Thus Desmond Fisher watched sadly as Miranda Catarini, briefcase in hand, made for the main doors of the bank. He watched her very closely because he believed this was the last he would ever see of her and he wanted to make the most of it. For this reason Desmond Fisher was the ﬁrst person in the bank to see the masked bandit who burst in through the doors and bumped into Miranda. The bandit apologised politely, then pointed his gun at Miranda. This bandit was a terrifying sight. He was tall, thin and stooped, and he wore a pink stocking on his head. His gun was of cold, grey metal, save for the red nozzle on the end of the barrel. Desmond supposed this to be some sophisticated form of silencer. Everyone in the bank was terriﬁed. The two customers cowered and wrapped their arms around their children. The security guards, Sam and Doug, froze, though they looked poised for action should the bandit stop pointing his gun at Miranda. Even the staﬀ, trained for such an emergency, looked horriﬁed. Desmond had completely forgotten what he was supposed to do, though he noticed Anne Cameron’s hand secretly pressing the button that would alert the police. Miranda looked terriﬁed. Her face had gone completely white and she was backing towards the enquiry counter. The bandit, gun still trained on her, followed. “Do you have a heart condition?” said the bandit. “No,” said Miranda, her voice little more than a whisper. “Good,” said the bandit. This was all too much for Desmond. Miranda was, after all, the girl he loved. 307
“Don’t worry Miranda,” he cried, completely forgetting his training, “I’ll save you!” Desmond attempted to leap over the enquiry counter to Miranda’s assistance, but his foot slipped and he ended up sprawling on it instead. Because he was busy sprawling he didn’t see what happened next. Alarmed by Desmond’s shout, the bandit had ﬁred his gun. A jet of water squirted out of it, passed Miranda, and formed a small puddle on the ﬂoor. For a split second everyone in the bank froze, shocked by the enormity of what they had just seen. Then the truth began to dawn on them, and the atmosphere in the bank at once grew less tense. The bandit’s gun, everyone realised, was just a water pistol. The young mothers unwrapped their oﬀspring from their arms, and the security guards, smiling happily, began to un-clip their own guns from their holsters. Now it was the bandit’s turn to look nervous. He glanced around cautiously, as if wondering why no one was frightened anymore. Miranda, standing in front of him, folded her arms and glowered at him. At that moment Desmond managed to untangle himself from the enquiry counter. With his heart thumping wildly he rushed towards Miranda and the bandit. He threw himself between them, and stood facing the bandit with his arms spread wide. “If you want to shoot her,” Desmond declared, “you’ll have to shoot me ﬁrst!” He closed his eyes and braced his body for the impact of the bullets. Some people in the bank laughed. “Oh God, Desmond,” said Miranda, “that’s pathetic.” Faced with Desmond’s attempt at self-sacriﬁcing heroism the bandit grew even more confused. He had a go at shooting Desmond with his water pistol, but missed by several feet. On a sudden impulse he turned and ran for the doors. Sam and Doug, the security guards, drew their guns and ran after him. “Please stop now, Desmond,” said Miranda, grimly, “you’re em308
barrassing me.” Desmond cautiously opened his eyes. The bandit was nowhere to be seen. Desmond was shocked. He had somehow saved Miranda from the bandit without becoming even remotely dead in the process. His relief at still being alive took him so completely by surprise that the blood in his body decided to stop supplying his brain with oxygen for a moment. From Desmond’s point of view this lack of oxygen caused the room to grow polka dot around him and then to disappear completely, as he fainted for the ﬁrst time in his life.
When Desmond recovered consciousness he found he was lying on the ﬂoor of the bank with his head resting on something soft. The something soft turned out to be Miranda’s lap. “He’s coming round,” said the voice of Bruce. All his friends were standing round him looking concerned. Miranda was kneeling on the ground with her lap under his head stroking his hair. “Someone get poor Desmond a glass of water,” said Anne, who looked as concerned as anyone. Miranda smiled gently. “Desmond?” she said. “You thought that was a real gun, didn’t you?” Desmond was confused. “What happened?” he said. “Nervous tension,” said Anne, “followed by relief. You fainted. Didn’t you see that bloke only had a water pistol?” “Did he?” said Desmond. Miranda laughed. “Yes,” she said. “I’m afraid he did.” “Oh,” said Desmond. “Did you know it was just a water pistol?” “Everyone did except you, apparently.” Desmond moaned. “How embarrassing,” he said. Miranda laughed gently. “It was rather,” she said. “But it was also very brave. That man only had a water pistol, but you didn’t know that. You thought it was a real gun.” “So . . . you’re not cross with me?” “Of course I’m not. This is the ﬁrst time anyone has ever tried to 311
sacriﬁce his life for me. Admittedly, you didn’t do a very good job, but the thought was there. I am sincerely honoured. I could look all over the world and never ﬁnd another friend as devoted as you.” “All right,” said Anne, “this conversation is getting silly. There’s two police men in the manager’s oﬃce here to take statements. I’ll go and see them ﬁrst, then I’ll send the rest of you in one by one. Meanwhile, let’s get back to work. Miranda, take Desmond to the spare oﬃce and look after him. I don’t think we’ll be needing an ambulance after all.” Desmond drank the water Marc had brought him and stood up groggily. Leaning on Miranda’s shoulder, he made his way back behind the enquiry counter and towards the spare oﬃce. “I still can’t believe you were willing to die for me,” said Miranda, laughing happily. “Sorry,” said Desmond, sheepishly, and was surprised when Miranda gave him a sudden hug. They reached the spare oﬃce, and Desmond slumped in a black padded chair. Miranda sat behind the desk as if she was interviewing him. She reached for the telephone and dialled a number. “Hello, Mr Jameson?” she said. “Miranda here. I might be a bit late getting back to the oﬃce. The police want to talk to me. We’ve had an attempted armed robbery here. Yes, I’m ﬁne. No one was hurt, no money was taken, and the computer’s back in its boxes. I’ll tell you more later. Bye.” Miranda hung up. “Miranda,” said Desmond, “about that sign on the door of the ﬂat. I know you must hate it. I hate it too, but it’s Colin’s ﬂat, so I guess he’s entitled to put it out if he wants to. I never use it myself, honest. I don’t even have a girlfriend, I’ve never had a girlfriend and, er, I’m still a virgin.” Miranda smiled. “I believe you,” she said. “Also, er, Miranda I . . . I think I’m in love with you.” “I believe that too. I didn’t believe it until you fainted, but when you fainted your face was so white I thought you’d died.” “I thought I was going to die.” 312
“I know. I guess you’d never sacriﬁce your life except for someone you loved. I could be wrong, but I don’t think many people have ever loved me that much before.” “So . . . do you think you might be willing to go out with me again some time?” “I think that might be arranged.” “Gosh.” Miranda took a deep breath, then came round to Desmond’s side of the desk and sat in his lap. She kissed him. It was a move that took Desmond completely by surprise. He blushed. “That’s better,” she said. “A bit of colour in your cheeks. Are you still wanting a girlfriend?” “Well . . . yes.” “Would you like it to be me? Think carefully before you answer. I’m a lot of trouble, as a girlfriend.” Desmond thought carefully for about a tenth of a second. “Yes please,” he said. “Good,” said Miranda. “How about dinner at my place tonight? Pizza and champagne? Not very adventurous, I know, but less work than cooking.” “Oh. Er, ﬁne.” “Do you have a toothbrush in your briefcase?” “Yes.” “Good. Then it’s all settled.” “But . . . what about your boyfriend?” “Oh, he’s more of a brother than a boyfriend. Even he gets confused about the relationship sometimes. I think I could live quite happily without him for a while.” Anne came into the oﬃce. She looked suspiciously at the scene before her. “Can the police see you now Miranda?” she said. “Sure.” Anne looked at Desmond. “You’re looking well,” she said. “I’ve never seen you looking better. Fainting must agree with you.” Desmond blushed again. 313
It was quite late in the afternoon when William and Aristid ﬁnally decided that they must have escaped their pursuers. Aristid wondered if the two armed security guards had made a note of his car’s licence number while they were shooting at it. “Do you think,” said William, “that it will be safe to go back to your house now?” “The only way we’ll ﬁnd out is to try,” said Aristid. “Do you think the police will be there?” “They might be, William.” “And if they are will we have to shoot it out with them?” “Not with a water pistol, no.” Aristid drove his car back to his house and he and William went inside for a cup of tea. There was no sign of the police. Into Aristid’s lounge room they went. William made himself comfortable in one of the chairs while Aristid went oﬀ to get the tea. William pulled the water pistol out of his pocket and stared sadly at it. Aristid returned with a tea tray. “Well, William,” he said. “Not an unqualiﬁed success?” “No,” said William, “not really. Bank robbery is not as easy as I thought it would be.” “Never mind, William. Here is some tea for you.” William sipped his tea. “Well?” said Aristid. “What should we rob next?” 315
William sipped some more tea. “Aristid,” he said. “Yes, William?” said Aristid. “I thought, perhaps, we might stop being robbers, just for a while.” “Very well, William. But what about the ﬁght against communism?” “Yes,” said William, “that has worried me too. I thought that perhaps sending a charitable donation to the Salvation Army would help.” “To rid the world of communism? Yes, I suppose it might. Would you care for some more tea, William?” “No thank you. I have not yet ﬁnished this cup.” “You drink tea very slowly, William.” “Tea drinking should not be rushed, Aristid.” “Unlike whisky and beer drinking?” “Exactly.” They ﬁnished their tea. “I thought,” said William, “that I might try going back to Maria.” “Do you think she will have you?” William looked sad. “Perhaps,” he said, “or perhaps not. But still it will be worth trying.” “I shall miss you, when you return home,” said Aristid. “Will you?” said William. “Of course. Life is much more exciting when you are here.” “And we will not be able to have our philosophical discussions.” “No indeed. That will also be a sad loss.” “Still, I’m sure we will see each other again soon.” “No doubt, William, no doubt.” “Perhaps,” said William, “I will also be able to get my old job back.” “Perhaps,” said Aristid. “Would you be willing to sacriﬁce your algorithm to do so?” “Oh no, Aristid. That would be going too far.” “I thought as much.” “Still,” said William, “we have learnt an important lesson from our recent activities.” 316
“Indeed William? What lesson is that?” “From now on if we have an idea when drunk we should always get drunk again when we want to remember it.” “Ah yes,” said Aristid, “an important lesson indeed.” Outside the house the drizzle stopped.
That evening Desmond sat alone in Miranda’s ﬂat waiting for either Miranda to return with the champagne or the pizza delivery man to arrive with the pizza. He was trying to read a copy of The Tempest, which Miranda had said was a lot better than Star Wars. Desmond, who had read almost as far as act one scene two, was not inclined to agree with her. The telephone rang. Desmond answered it. “Hello?” said Desmond. “Oh?” the man’s voice sounded surprised. “Have I got the right number?” “I don’t know,” said Desmond, helpfully. “Is, er, that Miranda Catarini’s ﬂat?” said the voice. “Yes,” said Desmond. “Can I speak to her then?” “No,” said Desmond. “Oh. Why not?” “She’s not here. She’s out. She’ll be back soon though. Can I take a message?” “Yes. Tell her Morris phoned and . . . ” “Morris? Oh, I know. You’re Miranda’s ex-boyfriend.” “Her what boyfriend?” “The one who’s more like a brother. The medical student.” “Er, yes, that’s me.” “How interesting,” said Desmond. “Miranda’s told me lots about you. I think she used to be very fond of you.” 319
“Did she?” said Morris. “Who are you exactly?” “I’m her new boyfriend, Desmond.” “Really? Could you ask her to phone me, when she gets back?” “Sure. Bye.” Desmond thought that Miranda’s ex-boyfriend sounded intelligent. It seemed odd, though, that anyone who had Miranda for a girlfriend would have treated her just like a sister. The pizza delivery man and Miranda arrived at virtually the same time. Miranda paid the man, and she and Desmond sat down at her little table to eat the pizza and drink the champagne. “Tell me,” said Miranda, “do you like pizza?” “Oh yes.” “And champagne?” “Oh yes.” “And me?” “Oh yes. Oh, someone called Morris phoned. He wants you to phone him back.” “Does he? Well, I will. But not now. Tomorrow perhaps.” Miranda took the phone of the hook and returned to her pizza. “Well Desmond,” she said, “it’s been an interesting day.” “It certainly has. It was my ﬁrst armed robbery, you know.” “And mine. Let’s drink a toast to the robber!” “The robber?” “Yes. After all, he brought us together. And he was a very polite robber.” “Okay,” said Desmond. They drank a toast to the robber. “Tell me, Desmond,” said Miranda, “where do you go of an evening when your friend Colin puts his ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door?” “I sleep on the steps. I told you that before.” “Ah yes. So you did. I just wondered if you liked sleeping on the steps.” “Not much.” “Then stop doing it. Find yourself somewhere else to live.” “Where?” 320
“Here.” “Where!” “Here. I don’t have a ‘do not disturb’ sign.” “Are you saying I should move in with you?” “Yes. We could split the rent. If it doesn’t work out you could easily ﬁnd somewhere else.” “Gosh.” Desmond swigged down some champagne. Miranda laughed. “Careful Desmond,” she said. “Sorry,” said Desmond. “I was thinking,” said Miranda, “that you might like to stay the night.” “What. . . in the spare bed you mean?” “No. In my bed.” “And you in the spare bed?” “No. Both of us in my bed. Well?” Desmond swallowed down some more champagne. “Yes please,” he said. “Okay. You’d better come round here and kiss me then.” “Er,” said Desmond, “I’ve never actually kissed anyone before. I’m not sure that I know how to do it.” Miranda smiled. “Come here anyway,” she said. Desmond came over to her side of the table. “Now,” said Miranda, “kiss me.” Desmond hesitated. “It’s very easy,” said Miranda. “I’m sure you can do it. Come on, try.” Desmond tried. His ﬁrst attempt didn’t feel right somehow, so he tried again. A few minutes later he got the hang of it completely.