The magazine was my dream job, in that I spent my whole day dreaming about being somewhere else. It was based in a once genteel Victorian terrace house near the university and, as with most of the houses in the redbrick row, had been converted for business using slingshots, hatchets and explosives. Original fireplaces had been sledgehammered out, tiles had been shucked off to the dump and architraves and ceiling roses suffocated under coats of gloss. We spent eight hours a day sweating and shivering in a building that was ill-equipped whatever the season.
I sat right under the boss Jude’s enhanced nose. She sat on a raised platform, so my face was level with her be-tighted feet. Legs crossed, she would swing one shoe on the knuckle of a big toe because, she said, fidgeting burned calories. This was tolerable on Monday and Tuesday. By Wednesday, the fumes puffed out with every shoe-swing. By Thursday, staff reeled against the musk and by Friday, we were drunk on the haze. As Editor and Publisher, Jude scooped buckets of free beauty products but I think she drank them. She was talented that way.
I had no ‘contacts’ because my job almost exclusively involved slashing and burning my way through press releases Jude forwarded by email or tossed at my desk, and trimming them to plug gaps between ads. I was the Editorial Department, which meant writing nonsensical style tips I made up on the spot and penning outrageous purple editorial for advertisers. Buy a quarter page ad and you’d get 75 words. Half page, 150 words. Full page, 300 words. Front cover, 500 words and a blow job from Jude. Jude’s role was to schmooze with the advertisers, attend launches, take epic lunches and test-drive performance cars after several Tanquerays and a bottle of L’Air du Temps.
Her assistant, Aoife, suckered a procession of eager young freelancers into writing interviews, fashion, interiors and food pages, then waiting a year or more to be paid. The arts pages were written by the magazine’s only long-term freelancer, an octogenarian called Diane Sand. No matter how often Jude queried or ignored her invoices, Diane continued to squander her wit, spark and longevity on us with determined wartime vim.
Copies of the magazine were distributed to shops, where they sat on the shelves for a few weeks before being returned and piled up in the storeroom. Jude multiplied subscriptions to dentists and doctors surgeries by the number of patients in each, and claimed a massive readership which seemed to convince a lot of advertisers. She even found a cosmetic surgeon to sponsor her new nose. The surgeon got 2,000 words, a pole dance and a threesome, I imagined.
Getting out of bed and making it into work was a huge achievement in itself, and I congratulated myself every morning on a job well done when I turned up an hour late. Most of the time Jude and Aoife were out of the office, delayed at a ‘breakfast meeting’ or a launch or, as we secretly hoped, getting arrested for the debauched partying we heard rumours about and could sometimes smell.
As I walked to work, I noticed the traffic was heavier than normal, even accounting for snow. Cars queued back and plumes of exhaust drifted up. Passing the university, I crossed the road with shiny students, administrators and lecturers with Asperger’s hair, and I thought about my own abandoned degree—how I dreaded and avoided the academic farts and fusties, and how I had left after three months to work as half a reindeer in a Christmas grotto.
Turning a corner, I saw what was causing the tailback. An ambulance and police car were double-parked outside work. My prayers about Jude must have been answered. The front door was propped open and behind the miniature pulpit-style reception was a tiny new temp. She had long, dyed-red hair twisted over one shoulder and huge grey-green eyes which blinked at me blankly. Behind her, one door led to the open plan office and another led upstairs to the boardroom.
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘Somebody took ill,’ she said. ‘Very ill. Like, died.’
‘Oh my God, who?’
She looked round at the stairs and we listened to the low shuffling and shifting above. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘There was a meeting with a client or something. It happened before I got here. Bill? Bill somebody...?’
Bill was the Sales Department. He was nearing retirement but saving his money for the double wedding his twin daughters had requested. He’d had polio as a child and Blob called him ‘Sack-a-Slack’, because he looked like he was heaving a sack of coal onto his back with every step.
‘No, no.’ The tiny temp waved her hands. ‘Bill tried to tell me what happened but I’m getting mixed up. Seamus...’
‘My God, not Seamus!’
Seamus was the Production Department. He taught Tae Kwon Do on Tuesdays and salsa on Thursdays, and handled the magazine’s constant disasters with amiable grace, which I knew couldn’t be healthy.
‘No, not Seamus,’ said the temp. ‘Patricia...’
‘Patricia? Dead? No!’
Patricia was the Accounts Department. She had two young sons, she was studying part-time for a business degree and she made dinner before she came to work. Maybe even before she got up, in fact. I knew she was overdoing it.
‘No, Patricia’s not dead. You must be Tommie. Patricia said you’d be like this.’
The phone rang and the tiny temp held up a hand. ‘Just a sec...’ She answered. ‘Good morning, Bellefast Magazine. One moment please.’ She sharpened her focus on me. ‘Is there a Hans working here?’
‘He left two months ago.’
She went back to the phone. ‘I’m sorry, Hans is no longer at this company, can anyone else help?’ She paused, then asked me, ‘Is there a Petra here?’
‘She went travelling.’
‘I’m sorry, Petra no longer works here. Can anyone else help?’ She looked at me. ‘Is there a Claire here?’
‘Claire went back to university.’
‘I’m sorry, Claire is no longer at this company—can anyone else help?’ Back to me. ‘Is there a Stephen here?’
‘He took over his dad’s farm.’
‘I’m sorry, Stephen no longer works here. Can anyone else help?’ To me, ‘Can you speak to them?’
I did the jazz hands dance of silent refusal.
She went back to the phone. ‘I’m sorry, we’ve had a death in the building this morning, things are a bit confused.’ She listened to the phone—for quite some time— and said, ‘Yes, I was beginning to think that myself.’
It took me years to figure out what the tiny temp had discovered in just a few minutes. Anyone with any sense got out. Even death was looking good these days. The workforce was made up of a grim hardcore of lifers who had been here too long for anyone else to want us. And then there was the fringe of people who stayed a few days or weeks and escaped with their CVs intact. Their names still appeared on contact lists, creating the illusion of a bustling, buoyant business.
Patricia leaned into reception and twinkled at the tiny temp as she handed her a cup of tea, then she waved me into the office.
The desks were chaotic with paperwork, creaking yellow computers, old copies of the magazine and dead or dying plants. The office smelt of damp, old smoke and sweaty tights. Bill and Seamus sat on desks with their feet on chairs, cradling tea, ties between their knees.
‘It’s Diane,’ Patricia said, pouring me a cup. Her small blue eyes glittered, inviting secrets. ‘She passed away.’
Bill cleared his throat, jowls struggling against a stiff, grey collar. ‘My new client, Devine Energy. They’re upstairs. They were briefing Diane in the boardroom.’
‘Briefing Diane? But I write the advertisers’ editorial. Diane does the Arts pages.’
‘I sold them a sponsorship of the Arts pages,’ he said.
‘You sold the Arts pages? Is that what killed her?’
Bill was arch. ‘Devine Energy are sponsoring some festival. I told them Diane was covering it and for a fee she’d write it in a way that promotes Devine Energy.’
‘But you can’t make the Arts pages promotional,’ I said. ‘They’d have no integrity.’
‘Jude said it was a stroke of genius.’ Bill pulled at his tie and undid his top button.
‘At first they thought she’d fallen asleep,’ Seamus said, pushing a hand through his long hair. His low voice could always break up a squabble. ‘Aoife asked me to come up and I checked her pulse and her breathing. I think maybe she did fall asleep. And then she stopped living. It was a while before they noticed. She was cold. You know how Jude can talk.’
We sat in silence. ‘I was going to get a good commission on that.’ ‘Bill,’ Patricia whispered. ‘The girls have put deposits on their dresses.’
‘She bailed out rather than sell out,’ I marvelled.
‘Tommie,’ Patricia hissed.
We drank our tea. Of the four of us, I was the newbie, and I’d been there nine years. Bill had been there since Jude took over the magazine thirteen years before, Patricia had been there eleven years, starting out as temporary receptionist like I did, and Seamus joined just before her. Diane was a long-serving satellite and we were fond of her. I was fond of all of them.
My extension rang. It was Aoife, calling from the boardroom.
‘This would be a good time to die of embarrassment, wouldn’t it?’ I tittered, bewildered by the depths I could plumb. I was pinned against the wall as the paramedics manoeuvred Diane’s stretchered body round the tight corners of the staircase. One of them shot me a look.
I knocked on the boardroom door. ‘Come in!’ Jude’s voice chimed. I slithered in.
The boardroom was where Jude plied clients with coffee and wine and encouraged them to get sticky on doughnuts and sloppy sandwiches. She would stab the soft pink carpet with her stilettos as she stalked around, expounding the might of the magazine, then throw herself onto the pink leather sofa, spent by her efforts.
Framed covers of the magazine hung on the walls, including mock-ups showing fake interviews with major stars. The windows in the roof let in weak daylight but most of the light came from peachy lamps in the corners. There was a pyramid of doughnuts on the table and the air was saturated with coffee, perfume and undercurrent of feet.
Jude beamed a massive rictus at me. She was thin and brittle and her skin was stretched Botox-shiny. She stuck out her bottom lip.
‘Poor, poor Diane,’ she said. ‘Such a lovely woman. Such a talent. Tommie, this is Kevin. Kevin Loane, Marketing Director, Devine Energy.’
A small, undernourished man in a dark suit and buttoned-up shirt rose from his chair, glancing at his watch. His hair fell forward in boyish floppery and his scrawny jaw and neck blazed with a shaving rash. He shook my hand, sniffed like he was shovelling slack, and sat down. ‘My sympathies. Your colleague seemed very nice.’
Aoife, the Silver Surfer to Jude’s Galactus, met my eye but maintained her distance. She poured coffee into tiny cups, her polyester suit barely containing her.
Jude leaned across the table, deep red lips plumping and pumping with nerves. ‘I was just explaining the magazine’s high editorial standards to Kevin, and the fact that we have a whole team of talented writers downstairs. Isn’t that right, Tommie?’
I opened my mouth. Diane’s handbag, notepad and leather-bound address book were still on the table. ‘I...what, sorry?’
‘Tommie’s our lead writer, Kevin.’
‘So Tommie. Tommie, Tommie, Tommie, Tommie. With the greatest respect to Diane, who was a lovely, lovely woman, we have needed someone more “with-it”, you know, for quite a while now, so, you know’—Jude flapped her hands from side to side—‘cloud, silver lining, that sort of thing? I’ve always thought that with your talents’—she gestured loosely as if flummoxed—‘you’d make a fabulous Arts Correspondent.’
‘Well, you know, maybe, I was thinking.’ I wracked my brains. ‘Shouldn’t we maybe suspend the Arts pages for a month, you know, out of respect? I really think we should. Diane had a big following.’ I had no idea if Diane had a following, but I was too young to die naturally in this meeting myself. A month’s delay would at least buy me time to find another job.
‘Very thoughtful, Tommie. You’re so sensitive. And that’s exactly why the Arts pages are perfect for you.’ She spun a plastic sleeve containing a press release and notes across the table to me, grinning out her threat. ‘As Kevin was explaining before Diane...before Diane... As Kevin was explaining before, we need to cover a festival on behalf of—’
‘May I, Jude?’ Kevin shuffled his small body forward. He gave another great, wet sniff and rested his hands on the table. ‘It’s like this, Tom. Devine Energy is about harnessing the power of thought.’
‘I thought you sold wind turbines and solar panels.’
‘The power of nature, Tom.’
‘Not actually the power of thought then?’
‘Ours is the power that appeals to people who think. And who are society’s thinkers?’
‘Well, with all that pacing, I should think traffic wardens.’ ‘Writers, Tom. Writers.’ ‘Not sure I agree.’
‘According to our research, 71.2 per cent of people are writing, or thinking about writing, or are reading, or reading about writing, or writing about what they’re reading, right now. This is set to grow by up to 10.6 per cent in the next five years, as evolving communities explore their heritage, examine diversity and express new truths. Devine Energy will be there for them.’
‘Heating their garrets,’ added Jude, laughing like a little bell with a crack in it.
Kevin sighed earnestly. ‘We’re supporting them because our research says they support us.’ He sat back, working the silence. Someone’s guts gurgled. Kevin continued, ‘We need you to help us win the hearts and minds of writers, Tom. It will mean a better future. For all of us.’ Big, wet sniff.
Aoife’s throat clicked. Jude’s plum-red fingernails tapped the table, once.
I lifted the press release in the plastic sleeve and looked at the headline: ‘BELFAST’S FIRST POETRY FESTIVAL ATTRACTS MAJOR SPONSOR’.
‘Right, then! Great, then!’ Jude said, putting the lid on her pen with a snap and shuffling her notes. Kevin stood up. Aoife gathered cups.
I stared at the press release and swallowed. My sweating fingertips slid off the sleeve and the papers fell to the floor.
Kevin put a hand on my shoulder as he picked them up and put them back on the table, his face so close he stole the air between us. ‘I’ll give you a call, Tom. A few things I want to discuss before the Poetry Festival.’ Big wet sniff.
Jude shook his hand at the door and Aoife followed him downstairs, chatting about death as if it were another client to gossip about.
Jude lifted a doughnut and threw herself onto the pink sofa. ‘Tell you what, that was fucking close—we nearly lost that fucking account. We only just fucking got it. The trouble I had keeping that guy here. His flight’s in an hour.’ She spat what she’d chewed into a napkin and took another bite. ‘Good result, though. He bought the feature. What the fuck did you think you were doing, Tommie?’
‘You put me on the spot.’
‘Well, fuck me for trying to run a fucking business here. We have a cash flow problem. We’ve lost half our advertisers to online, we’ve got bad debtors, and we only got him because he’s so keen on the written fucking word.’ She spat more doughnut into the napkin. ‘Without that asshole’s money, no one gets paid. If you don’t get this right, we’re fucked.’
‘But I don’t like poets.’ ‘Jesus. It’ll make for good journalism.’ ‘I’ve never interviewed anyone in my life.’
‘Well, fucking learn, Tommie. Your pals downstairs will be out on the street if you don’t pull this off. Look, take Diane’s address book.’ She nodded at it. ‘You’ll need to set up an interview with that guy, the one who plays pocket billiards when he reads his dirty poems, what’s his face, Rory McManus. He’s topping the bill. Do writers top bills? Who the fuck cares? Diane knew just about everybody. His contact details will be in there. And get that dirty stop-out he’s fucking as well, she’s big news. I have to go out.’ She dumped the doughnut in a coffee, and stalked out of the room. I floated down to my desk.
‘Anyone coming to the bar?’ I asked the others.
We waited outside until the bar opened. Inside, it was cold and tangy with disinfectant. I pressed into a dark snug and opened Diane’s address book. The soft, perfumed pages were crammed with her civilised writing. Patricia slid into the snug as Bill and Seamus ordered drinks.
‘Tommie, what are you having?’
‘Get me the biggest gin in the world.’ I leafed through to the ‘S’s. ‘S’ for Shaw. Gloria Shaw. She wasn’t there. Thank you, God—God that I don’t believe in but keep catching myself out with—thank you, thank you, thank you. I flicked back to the ‘M’s. At the bottom of the page, in tiny writing, Diane had jotted: ‘Rory McManus. Contact: Fellowes Agency.’
Back at the ‘F’s, I slid my finger down the names. Beside Fellowes Agency, she had written the name and phone number of her contact. Her contact was my ex-boyfriend. The one whose flat I set on fire.
Poets Are Eaten as a Delicacy in Japan is published by Untreed Reads.