(published 23rd April 2018)
The office tea-point was a miserable space; a battered sink, whose hole emitted a cloacal smell, and a kettle thick with scale. A window looked out onto the building’s cavernous atrium. Tom gently swung it open and peered out. His gut untightened. Karen was still out there, thank God – talking to some clients in leather chairs, waving her hands around in histrionic gestures. Dampened by the acoustics of the hall, a few words and phrases echoed up; ‘New standards in lean product design’, ‘restructuring the client-customer interface’. The clients nodded sagely.
He could still feel the email, framed ominously in his ‘sent mail’ box:
‘Thanks for covering for me mate. If Karen knew how much of the budget we’d spent on booze, she’d pop a fucking blood vessel. Good thing she doesn’t. See you in a bit’.
Tom had been close to breakdown for weeks with anxiety about asked to explain the hole in the budget. He’d been lucky. Gav had covered for him in the accounts meeting, backing up his tenuous story about conference expenses, and no one had picked up on it – not even Karen. He’d come out of the meeting euphoric, brimming with gratitude. But he hadn’t sent the message to Gav. Somehow, the address he’d put in the ‘to:’ box was Karen’s. He realised just after he pressed ‘send’.
As long as Karen stayed in the atrium, she couldn’t see have seen emails, and Tom was safe, temporarily. He kept leaning out, his eyes fixed on her, as if that would hold her perpetually in place. A new thought crept up. The window was low and wide, with no barrier between the ledge and the empty space beyond. It would just take a shifting of weight, and he’d be over, tumbling languidly onto the freshly hoovered carpet five floors below. He wouldn’t have to worry about the email anymore, or anything else. His skin prickled, and he slowly pulled himself backwards. Health and Safety should look at that, he thought.
He flicked on the kettle, and searched the cupboard for his mug. Some prick had taken it again. There were a few others, anonymous and stained, at the back; Leaders in Industry 2014, Aston Villa, ‘Don’t Ask Me, I Just Work Here.’ He took Aston Villa, and set it down on the window ledge.
‘Oi oi! Tommy boy.’
Tom winced. He’d chosen this tea point specifically to avoid him.
‘All right, Jason?’
‘Not bad mate. I’ll give you a tip. Sixth floor toilets are a no-go zone. I just laid some bum beef in there I’ve been saving up for days. Almost knocked myself out with the smell.’ Jason chuckled conspiratorially, wiping his wet hands on his trousers. He was bald, about four inches shorter than Tom. Despite the bulk that menaced his shirt buttons, his suit still managed to be too large, cuffs dangling down to his knuckles, trousers pooled around his ankles.
‘Okay, mate. Understood.’
‘How are you, anyways?’
‘I’m okay. Just…’
Of all the people to get it off his chest to, why did it have to be Jason
‘I’ve stepped in it big time with Karen. Sent an email I shouldn’t have.’
Jason leaned towards him, giving off a whiff of rancid musk, and winked.
‘Don’t worry mate, I’ve been there. Say no more.’
‘Honestly,’ said Tom, ‘I’m not sure I can get out of this one.’
‘Listen mate – don’t worry yourself. I’ve got a feeling you’ll sort it out. I’ve a good sense for these things.’
Jason made his tea, then lifted the bag out of the silty water with his fingers and flung it into the bin, leaving a wake of brown droplets.
‘Here, are we having that pint later or what?’ Tom felt his gut freeze; as if things could get any worse. He must have agreed to a drink last week, although he’d been putting it off for months.
‘I can’t tonight,’ he said. Jason’s face fell.
‘Why’s that then?’ You haven’t got a bird. Got to get home to rub one out?’
‘No, I have… theatre tickets.’
‘Bloody hell. The theatre!’ he said in a mock-posh voice. ‘Didn’t think you were a shirt-lifter.’ Tom wished he had thought of something better.
‘Look, said Jason, ‘I might be able to help you out with your little problem. But I’m only doing it if we go for a pint, one mate to another. I’m serious about that.’
What was he talking about?
‘Sure.’ Tom was resigned. He’d have to, sooner or later. He was also desperate for anything that might help.
Jason lifted his tea, sloshing it over the counter, and shuffled off. Leaving his requisitioned mug on the ledge, Tom went to make the coffee. Something about the ritual calmed him down. It would help him get his thoughts in order. He measured out a spoonful of the brown powder into the little French press. He poured in the hot water, and let the steam rise to his nostrils. After a minute, he pushed the plunger, then poured out a thick black stream.
He leant on the window ledge. Karen’s voice still echoed up from the Atrium. He took a deep breath, recalling something about mindfulness. His legs were heavy; if he relaxed, it felt almost like his body wasn’t his. Just let go, he thought. Can’t do anything about it now. Then he remembered the meeting he was meant to be in.
He swung his arm up to look at his watch. As he did so, he knocked the mug.
It happened quickly; he saw it slowly. The coffee spilling out in a hot arc, the Aston Villa colours rotating as the mug departed from the ledge, and sailed out into the atrium. Tom followed it with his eyes. It dropped, a second of silence. Then a crunch, sickeningly firm. He didn’t dare look down after it; he was stuck in place, staring into the blank air. There was another pause. Then the screams began. At first it was a man’s voice.
‘Oh God’, someone shouted. ‘Jesus Christ’.
The chorus swelled. Fuck, thought Tom. He began to step away from the window. It was an accident, right? Whatever happened, it was an accident. Not his fault. He began to think about how he would explain it. He was just a little clumsy, and… shit. It wouldn’t make sense, not to anyone. An urge pressed Tom to look over the edge and see what had happened; but everyone would be looking up now. He’d implicate himself.
Tom had never been in real trouble. It seemed far less complicated if it could just be avoided. After all, how would anyone know that it was him up here? His retreat from the window accelerated. He looked at his coffee paraphernalia, still by the sink, and grabbed it. Got to hide the evidence. He emptied the French press in a different sink, and then threw it in a bin. Maybe he was paranoid, but it felt important. He couldn’t believe how calm he was now. It was like a trance. He checked in his jacket pocket – he had a notebook there, good; that would look normal when he went into the meeting.
The room wasn’t full when he slipped in; looked like others were late as well. Gary, another senior manager, was chairing, his role marked out by the impressive leather-bound notebook in front of him, complete with an expensive Swiss pen.
‘Hi Tom,’ said Gary, ‘we’re just waiting for Sandra, and…’
Gary’s phone was ringing.
‘Hello?’ he answered. He stood up.
‘Right…oh my God. All right, I’ll let the team know’. He hung up. His arms dropped to his sides; he looked drained.
‘Everyone – I’m afraid I’ve got some terrible news.’
Tom had never liked Karen; he didn’t know anyone who did. There hadn’t been many tears in the office when they’d heard the news, just shock. How had she been so unlucky, to be sitting in just that spot?
‘It must have been an accident’, said someone.
‘No way’, replied a bloke from finance, ‘I’m sorry but no; how could that happen by accident? Has anyone owned up to it yet?’
Not yet, they all agreed, but someone will, won’t they?
Tom let the voices wash over him; when it seemed appropriate, he joined the chorus, cautious not to say anything out of line, anything that might implicate him. He felt so calm. He certainly didn’t feel like a murderer; but it had been an accident, so why should he? He was off the hook for the email, at least. He tried not to feel good about that, without success.
I’m going to get away with it, he thought. Then someone said the police had arrived, and he decided that he wasn’t, and he felt sick. Everyone would need to be interviewed, in due course; first they would carry out an investigation, Gary solemnly informed the office. His sleeves were rolled up, and his tie knot had been lowered down his neck, at respectful half-mast.
On the bus home, Tom felt good, like everything was going to be fine. When he got in, he flicked the TV on. Cooking. Football. It was all noise and light, and on the sofa, it hit him again. They’ll know it was me, he thought. Someone will know. Then I’m screwed. There was nothing else to think about. He was utterly screwed. He had no idea why he did it, why he hadn’t owned up. There was no way out now. He was at the bottom of a pit. From the top of it, people were lobbing down missiles. Mobile phones, laptops, coins, shoes, chairs. Even coffee mugs. He could dodge a couple, but sooner or later he’d be too slow, find himself right under one. Then it would all be over.
For a few days, it was quiet in the office. No one ate crisps at their desk; people were chatting, but in a serious way, about important things— like politics, or ‘health & wellbeing’. Everyone was aware of the investigation. A section of the atrium was cordoned off; occasionally, someone would get the call and have their session with the detectives — five minutes, maybe ten.
Every day, Tom’s dread grew. He was going to crack under pressure, he was sure of it. What was his alibi? Could he lie? He planned out the scenarios in his head, went over the script. He mimed facial expressions in front of the mirror: surprise and sincerity.
It got to Friday, however, and the call never came. They didn’t want to talk to him. He couldn’t believe it, but it seemed like he wasn’t under suspicion. He started to feel the pressure release, the bars of his cage expanding again. He was going to get away with it. What did they have against him, as long as he kept his cool?
Fuck it, thought Tom. No point worrying about it. Might as well just have a good time, enjoy life. He texted a couple of mates, agreed to go for a few drinks. It was a Friday night, after all. The sun was shining. Maybe after a beer or two, they’d pick something up, make it a big one.
He packed his bag, got in the lift, and hit the ground floor button. It stopped on the fifth. Tom’s mood dropped. Jason got in, hauling his work papers in a pair of Tesco bags.
‘Look who it is! Here, we never managed that pint the other day, did we? Got a bit interrupted by all that fuss. Poor old Karen, eh? Never did like her, but she didn’t deserve that. At least it got you out of your little spot of bother.’
He winked at Tom. The lift doors closed. Move, thought Tom. He mimed a regretful sigh.
‘Yeah, a real shame. Look, I’m sorry mate, I can’t tonight. Got other plans.’
His finger jabbed at the lift buttons again. The ‘G’ button was lit up, the doors were closed, so why weren’t they moving? Jason looked at him blankly. He made no sign of accepting Tom’s apologies. He leaned closer; Tom felt the full force of his breath in his face.
‘I ran down to the lobby, the other day, you know,’ said Jason, playful and menacing. ‘After I heard the screaming and shouting, I thought I’d see what all the commotion was about. She was lying there, Karen, blood pouring out, everyone throwing a wobbly.’
Tom was sweating. Why wouldn’t the lift go? The air around him had thickened.
‘Then I saw what was next to her, before those idiots cleared it up. Aston fucking Villa. Shards of that mug. Couldn’t believe you had the balls for it, mate. And what a shot – couldn’t have done better myself.’
Tom couldn’t speak or move. The lights flickered. He felt like he wasn’t in the lift anymore, but was plunging down some bleak and nameless shaft.
‘So,’ said Jason, flashing a yellow smile, ‘are we going for that pint, or what?’
It took a while for Tom to force out the words.
‘Good man’, said Jason. The lights snapped back into a regular glow, and they began to move.
Jason sat hunched on the bar stool, belly extended and legs splayed in a frog-like posture. He picked at his teeth when he wasn’t drinking, jabbing stubby fingers at Tom as he talked.
‘Always packed out with poofters, this place. Public school twats. Hardly any birds, neither, least none worth having a go at. To be fair, that was that one bird. I was here last week, just smashing a beer after work; it was me and Ian from HR. He told me we should find a couple of birds, and I said to him: you won’t find them here. Fat fucking chance. Then, I’m at the bar for a pint, and I see this blonde – fucking speechless, I was. Wearing a little dress with her arse hanging out, pair of tits you could eat your dinner off. She wasn’t alone, of course. I’m giving her the once over and this nonce comes up behind me and says, ‘eyes to yourself, pal’. You should have seen the twat: shirt buttons undone, wearing a gold chain over the pubes on his chest like he’s about to open up into fucking ‘Delilah’. I was about to glass the skinny piece of shit, but I thought no, I know what’ll be worse. I go back over to Ian and I say to him ‘Fifty quid I’ll be getting up close and personal with that young lady over there tonight’. He takes one look at her, sticks out his hand, says ‘no wonder you’re skint, Jase, you stupid cunt. Have you ever looked in a mirror?’
Jason laughed at this; beer bubbled out of his mouth.
‘Anyway, he takes the bet, and I’m there for a while, thinking about my strategy.’ He tapped the side of his head.
‘Then, the two of them — blondie and that loser — leave the pub. Right, I say, we’re after them. Ian doesn’t want to go, but a bet’s a bet, I say, and you have to see it through. We follow them into Hendry’s down the road; you know the one, student place, always crawling with long-haired tossers. We get a drink, and I say I’m hitting the dance floor, ‘cause that’s where this bird’s gone. Ian says no, he doesn’t dance. Suit yourself, I say. So, I head off into the crowd, and I’m gone a while. Ian gets another drink, gets another one — six quid a pint in that place — then he’s asking himself: where the fuck is Jase? He comes looking for me, but I’m not anywhere inside, and he hasn’t seen me leave. So, he goes to the gents, and he’s thinking shit, has Jase got himself in trouble? He’s in there, and sees one of the cubicles is locked. He waits a few minutes and no one comes out. Fuck, he thinks, he’d better check. So, he goes next door, climbs on the shitter, and peers over the top. What does he see? Blondie bent over, me stuffing her like a Christmas turkey! Best fifty quid I ever earnt!’
He took an emphatic swig of his drink, spilling on his shirt. Tom felt a little sick, thinking about the story. There was no way it could be true.
‘You’ll have to teach me your secret,’ said Tom.
Jason was overcome with laughter.
‘My secret,’ he said, between sputtering chortles, ‘my fucking secret! That’s what I like about you, Tommy. Always looking to learn something new. I’ll tell you my secret.’
He pushed his stool back a little from the table, and gripped his crotch with a meaty hand.
‘It’s having a pair of these. Now down that, and let’s get another one’.
It couldn’t be true. Could it?
Jason insisted that they stay until the pub closed. Tom stumbled home, crumpled into bed. The beer dulled things, but the fear came creeping back. He couldn’t escape it. He woke to the sun burning a hole in his brain. It was a Saturday morning; he should have been gearing up for a good time, but he couldn’t. He stared at the TV all weekend. Slowly, he would reason himself into calm. How could they know it was him? They had nothing on him. The police hadn’t even asked to talk to him. The weight would lift a little. Then he’d think of something else, some way that he might be found out. He would think about Jason, his leering, winking eyes. No, he thought, he was screwed. The chair would be kicked away from under him, and the rope would tighten.
He’d killed someone, he thought. That was weird. He could never take that back. Karen didn’t have kids, but she had a partner; a grim bloke with a moustache, who’d come into the office once or twice. She must have had family, of a kind. Bad as it was to kill someone, though — and it was bad, thought Tom — his greater concern was getting caught. That, he thought, was probably bad as well.
Monday came along. The week ground by in anonymity; spreadsheets, meetings, emails. The police still displayed no interest in him. He had been avoiding the tea-point, the scene of the crime; but worried that this might raise suspicions, he would go occasionally. He ran into Jason.
‘Another pint this Friday then? Had a proper laugh last time.’
Tom was about to turn him down, then he realised that he could not. This was Jason’s tithe; the price of his silence. Another week passed, then another. Tom never saw any of Jason’s other friends. The formula was always the same. They would drink — always lager — at an Olympic pace, nine or ten pints. Jason’s stories would be full of characters from the office that he’d never encountered or heard of; Tom never saw any of Jason’s other friends. If he tried to leave, Jason wouldn’t let him. He never made the threat explicit. Tom just felt like he couldn’t leave until Jason said that he could.
Tom started to get used to it. It wasn’t so bad, really. He still didn’t quite understand why Jason took such an interest in him, but he’d always attracted oddballs. Maybe Jason just liked spending time with a younger guy.
It was six weeks since the incident. Another Friday evening. Tom headed for the lobby, expecting Jason to be lingering in wait for him. For the first time, he wasn’t there. Tom waited for five minutes. He thought about just leaving. It felt transgressive. Another five minutes passed. Surely I can miss a week, he thought. Tentatively, he headed for the door. He looked around, checking that Jason wasn’t observing, testing his loyalty. That was an absurd thing to do.
As he walked out the door and down the steps, his phone buzzed. He jumped like he’d stepped on a snake. He had a text.
‘Cant do tonite big man. Trouble at home. C u next week J.’
He didn’t remember giving Jason his number.
A Friday off — he didn’t really know what to do with it now. On his way back, he bought some cans in the shop. He turned on the TV. He ordered a pizza, and ate it greedily. He had a moment to himself in his bedroom with the computer and some tissues, with the lights off, and then he had another one when he was bored. He’d just finished, when his phone started ringing. He didn’t recognise the number.
‘Listen mate — you’ve got to do me a solid. Sorry, but there’s no two ways about it.’ It was Jason.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s my missus. She found out I’d been up to no good. Read the messages on my phone. She’s chucked me out.’ Jason had never mentioned a ‘missus’ before. He didn’t wear a wedding ring. Did he?
‘Can you do a mate a favour? Let me kip at yours for a night or two. She’ll take me back when she sees sense.’
Tom thought about some way that he could refuse. No acceptable formulation of words came to him.
‘Where are you now? Should I give you the address?’
‘No need,’ said Jason, ‘I’m outside.’
Shit. Tom pulled on his underwear, and looked out of the window. There, on the pavement, was Jason, in his wrinkled suit, with a massive suitcase.
‘You’re a proper legend, mate,’ said Jason into the intercom as Tom buzzed him in.
‘Fucking women. You’re a wiser man than me, not getting involved with one. In the long term, I mean. Here, this place is nice. Fucking decorations and all.’ He fingered one of the art prints on Tom’s wall. Tom couldn’t remember ever giving him his address.
‘How did you…’ he started, but Jason cut him off.
‘Listen mate — don’t let me get in your way. You just do your thing. All I need’s a spot to lie my head and I’ll be happy.’
Tom thought he should offer him something. He still didn’t know what to make of the wife story, but there was an unfamiliar contrition in Jason’s voice.
‘Do you want a…’
‘Here, I told you. Not a thing. Just act as if I’m not here. Go about your business.’
Tom went to the kitchen anyway to pour a glass of water. When he came back, Jason was asleep on the sofa. Somehow, he’d removed his suit, which was strewn across the floor, and stripped to a pair of white y-fronts and a Manchester City shirt. Tom went to bed.
It was two months since the incident. Tom was almost starting to forget about it. His pressing concern now was Jason. He seemed to have stop going to work. In fact, he never left Tom’s flat. When Tom came home, he’d be sitting on the sofa, drinking Tom’s beer, and hurling abuse at the TV. When Tom got up in the morning, he’d hear Jason in the toilet, groaning, swearing and splashing. He’d given up on using the brush on the bowl. Whenever he raised the subject of Jason’s wife, and going back home, Jason would just roll his eyes.
‘Problem with you, Tommy, is that you don’t have my experience. Female psychology. That’s just what she wants.’
In the office, Tom began to contemplate strategies to get rid of him. Maybe it was time to call his bluff? The police clearly weren’t that interested in Karen’s case, after all. Maybe one weird little man’s testimony wouldn’t make a difference. Or else…could he try talking to Jason’s wife, convince her to take him back? He couldn’t imagine what she was like.
Tom’s phone rang. That didn’t happen very often.
‘Tom, it’s Liz Sambrook. From the Met Police. I’m leading the investigation into the death of Karen Williams.’
His heartbeat flared wildly.
‘We’d like to have a conversation with you. An in-depth one, at the station, tomorrow. You’ll get all the details. Nothing to worry about, for now. Just a conversation.’
‘Okay,’ said Tom, the words crawling out through his tightened throat, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’.
He walked into the men’s toilets, locked himself in the cubicle, and began kicking the door, screaming silently. He couldn’t believe he’d been so stupid. They hadn’t missed him, thought him beyond suspicion. He’d been under more suspicion than anyone else. It was all over now, his little game. And Jason, he thought. He must have told them.
He left work early. It didn’t seem to matter anymore. When he got into the flat, Jason was sprawled across the sofa, smoking a cigarette and tipping the ash into a beer can.
‘Did you tell them?’ said Tom. Jason looked at him groggily.
‘You what, mate? What the fuck’s got into you?’
‘You told them about the mug. I know you did, because they’re onto me. No one else knew.’
Jason stood up, and walked towards him. Tom found himself, strangely, stepping backwards in retreat from this short, fat man.
‘Look into my eyes. Read my lips. We’re mates. Mates don’t grass. You heard that? Mates. Don’t. Grass.’
Those words had a gravity; they fell out after each other like a mantra. Tom felt pathetic.
‘I’m sorry, Jason.’
‘Spare me the fucking waterworks, mate. You were just being a twat. Now get us a beer.’ He moved to sit back down on the sofa. Tom’s rage, momentarily stilled, welled back to its full momentum. He was being taken for a fool. His fear was gone. He was sick of feeling like shit. He was going to do something for a change.
‘We’re not mates, Jason. You and I, we’re not mates. And you know what? I’m fucking turning myself in. I’m going into the station tomorrow, and I’m going to tell them I did it. I don’t care what I get, manslaughter, obstructing justice. I’ll even do murder. I don’t give a shit what you do, grass or not. But you can get out of my fucking house.’
Jason began to laugh again.
‘You do make me chuckle, Tommy. Stop whining like a little fairy and get us that beer.’
Tom couldn’t stop himself. He wound up his arm, and landed a straight punch on Jason’s face. Instantly, he was in terrible pain. It was like hitting a brick wall; his hand just bounced off, his knuckles giving way. He clenched his fingers, wincing. Jason just laughed. Tom hit him again, aiming this time for his protruding stomach. The folds of fat engulfed the full force of his blow, Jason rocking gently backwards.
‘Oh dear,’ said Jason, ‘that was terrible. Try again, you soft prick.’
Tom kept on lashing at him. His knuckles swelled and his arms burned. He had to stop for breath.
‘Sit down,’ said Jason. He raised his hand to Tom’s face in an open-handed slap. The force of it knocked Tom back, stunned, onto the sofa.
‘What did you think I was?’ Jason asked, ‘just some stupid sad act, who you were taking pity on? Did you have a hard-on for yourself, thinking that you were being so clever, and that you were doing me a favour by keeping me company?’ His voice had changed; it echoed around the room, resonating in Tom’s bones.
‘You probably even thought it was an accident, that mug landing where it did. I offered to help out, and you said yes, so I did. Arrogant bastard. I’ve been dealing with the likes of you for thousands of years; it’s always the same. You think that you’re lucky, that you’re special. Well I’m sorry, you’re not.’
Tom tried to speak, but his lips wouldn’t move, teeth locked shut.
‘Let me finish,’ said Jason, ‘just let me say my piece. Now you’ve been a bit out of order this evening. I can forgive that – you’re emotional, under a lot of pressure. In fact, I’m even prepared to help you out of your little situation. Get the fuzz off your back. I can do that, you know. But I need something from you.’
Tom’s teeth unglued, and he gasped as he prised his mouth open. Jason looked at him expectantly.
‘All right,’ he said. ‘All right. What?’
‘I knew you’d see sense,’ said Jason. ‘See, it’s this thing with my Missus. I’ve decided not to go back to her. Who knows if she’d have me – who gives a toss? Anyway, I like living here. I’d like to move in permanently. Indefinitely. What do you think about that?’
Tom shivered; the living room air was icy. The windows were closed, but the curtains seemed to flutter, driven by some abyssal energy whirling up through the floorboards. Jason loomed over him, eyes shining like the headlights on a bus barrelling out of the fog, holding out a hand. Slowly, Tom reached up and took it. What choice did he have? Jason’s fingers closed around his, crushing his palm.
‘Spot on, Tommy. I knew I could rely on you. You can always rely on mates, can’t you? And you’re a good mate. You always will be.’
Matt lives, writes and works in London, United Kingdom. His writing is a mix of the grim mundane and the grim fantastic, and has appeared in Penny Shorts and Electric Spec.