Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Fortune’s Bastard

by Robert Chalmers

“A spontaneous seduction prompts a surreal chain of events in this raucous new novel. . . . This is a wry, writhing tale about the forces that shape our fate.” –Allison Block, Booklist

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 400
  • Publication Date September 23, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4160-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date December 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9973-7
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

The second novel from the author of Who’s Who in Hell–called “thoroughly engaging, delightful and very funny” by The New York Times Book Review–is the cringingly hilarious account of an orderly life falling to pieces, in order to be made whole for the first time.

In his highly popular Who’s Who in Hell, Robert Chalmers gave us “a hip, passionate love story without a shred of sentimentality–an impressive debut by a writer to watch,” as Booklist wrote. Now he delivers his second novel, a painfully funny story of disaster and redemption that recalls Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love and Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House.

A brilliant ensemble black comedy, Fortune’s Bastard is the story of how a bad man loses everything, and in the process becomes good. When Edward Miller, tabloid editor and reactionary alpha male, spontaneously seduces his temp, his many enemies make sure the news reaches his cold, beautiful wife–who leaves and cuckolds him. Miller heads for a London media hangout, where he meets cocaine. By morning, his exploits are public, his career is over, and his house is on fire. Clearly, it’s time to leave town. After a brief stint teaching English in Spain, Miller winds up in a Florida town full of dwarves, fat ladies, lizard women, and a one-eyed albino hit man, all presided over by the Half Man, a criminal and sadist with no legs. Despite everything it seems that life among freaks will unwittingly teach Miller what normal life never could–how to love, and how love is worth risking everything for. Touching and cringingly hilarious, Fortune’s Bastard confirms Robert Chalmers as one of Britain’s freshest voices.

Tags Literary

Praise

“The reader will careen along on an electrifying and hilarious ride. Highly recommended.” –Barbara Love, Library Journal

“A spontaneous seduction prompts a surreal chain of events in this raucous new novel. . . . This is a wry, writhing tale about the forces that shape our fate.” –Allison Block, Booklist

“A novel of wonderful surprises, an emotional see-saw that can be very funny, very sad and very brutal. This is a story about a love that shouldn’t work at all, but triumphs against the odds.” –Michael Palin, Monty Python alumnus

Excerpt

When he looked back on that morning, as he did, time after time, he could never understand how he’d forgotten to be discreet. Adultery had become a discipline to Miller, in the pursuit of which he’d learned – like a seasoned assassin, or a bomb disposal expert – that brief moments of precious intensity were best secured through scrupulous attention to detail and diligent forward planning, and that impulse was his enemy.

That Wednesday, though, some new instinct settled on him. It happened abruptly, in the way that a man might walk along the same clifftop path every morning for twenty years then, one day, for no reason, glance down into the void and step off.

It happened – every time he thought of it, the memory horrified him more – in the office. And not just in the office, but in Bowker’s Cupboard. He’d worked with Charlotte, his temporary assistant, for two weeks without really noticing her at all.

But that morning, just before seven, as he settled behind his desk, sifting through a pile of irregular expenses claims, she was stretching up to reach some box files on the far side of the room, with her back to him. He watched her. It was the first of May, and she was wearing a beige cotton jacket and a cornflower-blue skirt that finished just above her knee.

He stopped scrutinizing journalists’ invoices for first class flights, luxury hotels and other privileges he had prohibited on the morning he took over as editor, and instead found himself staring absent­mindedly at her calves. He thought about the time, during the war, when British women used to paint a false seam on the back of their legs, to simulate the nylon stockings they didn’t have. When the weather was warm and overcast, like today, he wondered, did they go out unpainted, on the grounds that it was too hot to wear real stockings? Could a woman paint those lines herself? If she was left­handed, would the left leg be harder to do than the other? Would she use a mirror? If she didn’t paint her legs herself, then who did? And if you were painting seams for someone else, would you use some sort of flexible straight edge, or draw the line freehand? And what with? Eyeliner? Ink?

He noticed that she’d stopped what she was doing and she’d turned round to face him, as if waiting for a response. He was staring fixedly at her kneecaps. His eyes rose, and met hers.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was miles away.”

He rubbed his eyes, pressing into them with the index finger and thumb of his left hand. Even with his eyelids closed, her knees were still there, like twin circles burned on to a sunbather’s retinas.

“Oh really?” she said.

She walked out of the room and, as she passed him, she squeezed the top of his arm. He watched her cross the editorial floor and open the door to Bowker’s Cupboard. She switched on the light, which was on the outside, and went in. After a couple of moments, she closed the door behind her.

Charlotte didn’t know she was in Bowker’s Cupboard. She was new. She called it the Stationery Room. Bowker had left the paper two years earlier and the storeroom had been his preferred venue for seducing vulnerable young women employees when the building was quiet. He’d had a lock fitted on the inside of the door. It was a small sliding chrome bar, which had been fixed so low, just a few inches from the ground, that the general run of visitors – the kind who came to the stationery cupboard for stationery – wouldn’t ever have noticed it was there. Bowker had found the lock in France, where it had been electrically wired to switch on the light in a public toilet, once a customer drew it across into the closed position. The difference with Bowker’s lock was that, once you were in the cupboard, sliding it into the locked position turned the light not on, but off.

For all his resourcefulness, Bowker, like most philanderers, had become careless. For months before he was dismissed, his cupboard had become a standing joke. Even now, among staff of longer standing, any reference to fetching stationery or stamps had become tainted by crude innuendo.

Miller got up and walked out of his glass-walled office. The editor was always in the building by seven and it was generally half an hour before any of his journalists were at their desks. If he’d met anyone as he crossed the main floor he would have turned back but, as luck would have it, every desk was empty.

He reached the door of Bowker’s Cupboard and stood facing it. The fire doors leading to the main staircase were just a couple of yards away, to his left. Realizing they might open at any moment, he tried to think of some plausible reason as to why he might have been there, and couldn’t. He heard what sounded like footsteps coming up the stairs. Flustered, he opened the cupboard door without knocking, then closed it behind him. She turned to face him. She was startled, and put her hand on her collarbone, like an actress in a silent film. “You made me jump,” she said.

He put his hand on her right shoulder. She turned her head to look at his hand and he saw her notice the jagged scar running along the inside edge of his slightly deformed first finger. He felt suddenly uneasy and, without thinking – to distract her, as much as anything – put his left hand on her other shoulder. She leaned forward and put her arms loosely around his hips. “What’s happening here?” she said. Then, to his surprise and relief, she kissed him.

He took off her jacket. They lay down with an awkward urgency, like strangers paired in a three-legged race. She was almost six foot, three inches taller than he was. Bowker’s Cupboard was eight foot square, with shelves covering every area of wall except the door. There were boxes below the bottom shelf, which was no more than a foot off the ground. She couldn’t lie down until he’d pulled a battered old box of air-mail stickers out from under the shelf on the far wall. That gave her the room to stretch her feet out. He lay down next to her, on his back, staring at the boxes of envelopes, Sellotape and printer cartridges. She took his left hand. With his right, he felt for Bowker’s switch. When he drew the bolt across, the light went off and the only illumination was from the skylight in the room’s high ceiling. Through it came a dim shaft of blue light. It felt like night.

“You’ve been here before then,” she said. “No,” he told her. He took off her skirt. In a matter-of-fact way, as if for a medical examination, she slipped off her pants.

He stared at the barely discernible line of fine blonde hair that ran down her abdomen and noticed that, unlike most women he’d known – women like his wife, who spent most weekdays in health clubs in the Home Counties – she didn’t have what he’d learned to call a bikini line. Any object, it occurred to him, becomes even more intensely itself when placed in an unfamiliar setting. In this cupboard – far more than would have been possible in any masseuse’s bedroom furnished with satin sheets, low lights and essential oils – his temporary assistant radiated an unimaginable level of erotic charge. He gazed down, motionless, at this conspicuous woman’s thighs, and said nothing. He was interrupted by her undoing his belt and pulling down his trousers and shorts.

“Hey,” she said.

She pulled him on to her, and took him by the hips, and held him still. She twisted under him.

“There,” she said. ‘morning Mr Miller.”

Thirty seconds later he was lying in her arms, panting, exhausted, and already overtaken by shame and foreboding. Her breathing was steady and unaltered. She was still wearing her blouse. He was still wearing his jacket.

“Hey,” she said again, noticing his appalled expression. “It wasn’t that terrible for you was it?”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s OK.”

“I’m really, really sorry. I’ve never done anything like this before.” She said nothing.

“I haven’t,” he repeated.

In another place he would have seduced her again – if seduce was a verb that had any meaning in Bowker’s Cupboard – with gentleness, affection, and a sort of fleeting sincerity. But now, as he inhaled through his mouth to quieten his deep breathing, he could hear the creak of shoe-leather less than a foot from his ear, and the squeak of the fire door. Though they were locked in, if anybody so much as tried the cupboard door, he was finished.

He lay there, next to her, on his back, staring up at the skylight, paralysed by a creeping awareness of his situation. He began to imagine a face appearing through the glass above him, and felt a surge of panic. He tried to concentrate on the writing on the cardboard boxes: Self-Adhesive. Urgent. Fragile. Do Not Bend. Important.

He tried to think. It was still early. Bowker’s Cupboard was very near the fire door. With luck they should be able to dart through it, and into the stairwell, unnoticed. But there was no way of knowing who they might meet once they were on the stairs.

They got to their feet and dressed, face to face. As she put her jacket back on, he could feel himself starting to sweat with fear. When he looked down to do up his belt, he was still breathing heavily. Something about the action made him feel like a rapist.

Charlotte took charge of him like a mother. She straightened his tie which, like his jacket, he had not thought to remove. She adjusted his lapels. He made a half-hearted attempt to reciprocate, and touched her breast by accident. She gripped him by the wrist.

“Listen,” she said. “I’ll go out first, on to the stairs. If it’s OK, I’ll cough.”

He bent down to open the bottom lock but, before he could reach it, she’d slid it open, deftly, with her foot. The room was flooded with unforgiving fluorescent light, like a pub at closing time. She listened at the door. “Right,” she said, and slipped out.

What if it’s not OK? Miller thought. He was silently promising the same God he hadn’t implored since he was eight that he would never, never be unfaithful again, if only he could exit Bowker’s Cupboard undetected, when he heard a theatrical cough. He burst through the fire doors wearing the look of a hedgehog going through the sound barrier, and met her on the stairs. They were alone. There were no footsteps. “We’ll go up to the canteen,” she said, “and we’ll get some coffee. Then we’ll get the lift down. It’s over. Relax.”

The canteen, which was on the next floor, was full of staff having breakfast before settling down at their desks for the day. Coming in, he sensed a familiar, reassuring deference. Conversations became hushed. People who had documents on their table started to look at them. The drinks counter was at the far end of the room. He followed Charlotte as she picked her way through the tables. They queued, collected the drinks, which she paid for, then sat at a table.

“Can I ask you something?” she said.

Miller started to squirm.

“The thing is,” she went on. “I’ve forgotten what I went in there for. Do you know?”

“No.”

‘do you think my memory’s going?” She laughed, awkwardly. “No,” he said, wishing that it was. ‘don’t get paranoid.” He followed her out.

‘see?” she said, once they were in the lift, with the doors closed, alone again. “Easy.”

‘didn’t you notice anything when we were coming out of the canteen?” he asked her.

“No.”

“They were giving me weird looks.”

“Now who’s paranoid?” she said.

Walking back across the editorial floor, he saw there were two people on the foreign desk, next to his office: Simon Feasey, the foreign editor, and his deputy, Catherine Davies. As they greeted him, Miller kept his eyes on them, looking for any sign of an unusual reaction, and found none.

They turned back to their work. The editor leaned over them as they

examined a possible headline for the Overseas News in Brief column. “Lagos: Hertfordshire mother of three assaulted by corrupt African police.” There was a picture of the victim, a white woman in her thirties. “It’s a few letters over,” said Feasey. “What could we cut?” “African,” said Davies. “Where the hell do you think corrupt police would come from in Nigeria – Wolverhampton?”

Feasey turned back to his screen and began to make the alteration. “No Simon,” Miller said. “Leave African. Cut “of three”. ” “Why?” said Davies, with a rising inflexion that bordered on
insolence.

“I don’t know,” Miller said. “It just has a nicer ring to it.”

“Even if,” he heard Davies mutter, “it is fucking tautologous.” “What?” he asked her.

“It repeats the obvious,” she said.

“I know what tautology is, love,” he told her. “Come and have a chat to me some time. You tell me about your first-class English degree and I’ll tell you about mine.”

He went back into his office and sat down at his desk. He was comfortable here. Ten years ago Miller had been a news reporter who drank too much; he’d reinvented himself, under his wife’s steadying influence, as an editorial executive. The paper’s main enemies–paedophiles, suicide bombers, rapists, crack dealers, socialists and asylum seekers, bogus or otherwise–had coalesced, in his mind, into a coherent unit of evil, whose members worked together and shared information; a coalition it had become his mission to defeat by whatever means was required. On the wall above his head was a framed cartoon he’d brought with him from his last office. It showed a gladiator standing over the body of his terrified rival, his foot on his windpipe. The caption read: Numquam calcite hominem humi casum; quid melius tempus? “Find out,” Miller would say, when anybody asked him what it meant. Nobody had.

On top of the pile of papers on his desk was a resubmitted expenses invoice from a golfing correspondent, Peter Axon. It came to three hundred and thirty one pounds and nineteen pence and he’d rejected it first time round on the grounds that fifteen pounds of the money had been spent on an umbrella and, as Miller had pointed out in his memo, “you should have your own wet weather equipment – adjust accordingly”. Miller checked Axon’s revised claim and noted that the item had been removed. He was about to pass the new version when he noticed that the invoice total had remained unaltered – three hundred and thirty one pounds and nineteen pence. He added up the figures again, checking with the supplied receipts: the total tallied. Turning over the page, he found a postcard from Axon, with the scrawled message: “PS: Find the umbrella.”

He showed it to Charlotte. “If they used half this creativity in their writing,” he said, “we’d have a fuck of a lot better newspaper.”

“You know what?” said Charlotte, who seemed, unlike Miller, to have left the cupboard far more assertive than she went in. “I really don’t think you should be getting involved at this level. You’re the editor for God’s sake, not the accounts clerk.”

“But that’s just it,” he said. “It’s at every level. From freelance photographers fiddling their petrol money to the managing editor billing us for his first-class upgrades, and the five-figure sweeteners to get in new writers.” He picked up the next document in the file. “Look at this.”

It was a two hundred and forty pound lunch bill from the news editor, Ian Garfitt. ‘send it back to him,” he told Charlotte, “with forty quid and a memo. If he wants to spend two hundred pounds on his lunch, that’s his business, not mine.”

‘send it back?” she said. “To Garfitt? He’ll go mad.”

“You’ve met him then,” Miller replied. “Anyway, that’s his problem. We can’t go on like this.”

“There’s a note with it: “Please settle promptly.” ” “That’s what I like best about my job,” he said. “What?”

“Never having to say “please”.”

“What’s next?” he asked Charlotte.

She stood behind him and lifted the small pile of invoices he’d discarded, revealing his desk diary.

“You’ve got a breakfast,” she said. “With Linda Mealing.”

Miller winced. Mealing was a merciless gossip columnist who’d left the paper two years earlier for a rival tabloid. Miller was set on hiring her back.

“When?”

“Now.”

“Come with me,” he said. “Bring your notebook and get me a contract form.”

They left their coffee untouched. She handed him the form, which he folded and put in his inside pocket. On their way out, Charlotte left the memo and the invoice on Garfitt’s desk: the news editor, to Miller’s great relief, wasn’t there. He’d arranged to meet Mealing in a caf” outside the building, so as not to alert her current employers, or alarm his current gossip writer.

“What’s she like?” Charlotte asked him, as they left the building.

‘she” you see my hand?” he said. He held out his first finger and showed her the scar running down its length. The whole finger was bent over at a slight angle where it met the knuckle. “When I was a boy,” he told her, “I used to have a paper round. My father had the paper shop. I’ve always loved papers. Dogs,” he added, “were the main problem. When I go back to that road, I can still remember the houses that had them. The worst one was this Alsatian at number thirty-one. They had this heavily sprung letterbox; you had to hold it open to get the paper in. The dog used to fling itself at your hand as you pushed the paper through. Then one day I went up the path with the paper, and there was no noise from the hall. I thought – OK, great, it’s died. Then I put my hand through: it had managed to train itself to stifle its barking. It was waiting there, totally silent. It nearly tore my hand off.”

“And?” she said.

“Linda’s vicious,” he said. ‘she’s deceitful. She’s completely without principle. But not so as you’d notice.” He paused, then added, with no sense of irony: “I’ve got to get her back.” Charlotte laughed.

‘didn’t you have a dog?” she asked him. “Yes.”

“What was he called?”

“Heathcliff.”

“Heathcliff? Very literary.”

“Well, Heathcliff was a smart dog. He bit me too.”

They walked on together, side by side, Charlotte slightly ahead of him, on his right. Noticing how her left hand swung back, as she walked, Miller thought about taking it in his right, then didn’t. The pavement narrowed as they approached the entrance to the caf”. It was obstructed on Miller’s side by an elderly black man who was sitting in a wheelchair, a blanket over his knees. The editor ignored the man’s mumbled request for change and then– rather than slowing down and walking round him, behind his secretary–stepped over the beggar’s feet so as to keep pace with her. “That’ll cost you,” the man shouted. “How much?” Miller replied, sarcastically.

“A day’s bad luck.”

As Miller walked away the man spat at him, and missed.

Mealing was late, as he knew she would be. Miller sat down at a table for four, facing away from the entrance, with Charlotte opposite him. She slipped her jacket off and over the back of her chair, in one easy movement; as she did it, his eyes met hers for a moment, then she looked away.

“Why did he say that, do you think?” she asked him. “Who?” he asked.

“That man in the wheelchair. Because you didn’t give him any money?” Miller laughed. “No,” he said. “I pass him every day. I never give him any money.”

“Why then?”

He looked up. “I think it was because I stepped over him,” he said. ‘stepping over a beggar: one day. I get off pretty lightly, compared to breaking a mirror.”

“That would all depend what your bad luck is,” she said.

The editor smiled. He felt someone place a hand on each of his shoulders. He looked round, and Mealing was there. She sat down at his side.

“Coffee,” the writer said. It was a command, not a request. Miller’s assistant started to get up. ‘sit down Charlotte,” Miller said. “I’ll get them.” He left the two women together.

As he turned away, he felt like ordering champagne. Some force must have been protecting him as he left Bowker’s Cupboard. That weekend, he thought, his earlier repentance forgotten, he’d take Charlotte to Edinburgh, or Paris, or Geneva, and make it up to her. Then he’d hire her permanently.

“You really are very beautiful dear,” Mealing was saying to Charlotte as he returned with a small plastic tray on which he’d placed the coffee, some individual cartons of milk, and his VAT receipt. “What on earth are you doing with him?” Charlotte smiled.

“How much?” Mealing asked Miller. He picked up the receipt.

“I don’t mean the fucking coffee,” she said.

“We’ll pay you what you get now,” he said. “Plus twenty.”

She looked at him and said nothing. When her silence didn’t provoke the blurted improvement she’d hoped for, she allowed a look of faint disappointment to cross her face.

“I’ve heard,” she said, “that’s it’s usual to make some sort of payment; I believe it’s called ex gratia“”

‘my accountant,” Miller said, “once told me: “if people ever start talking Latin to you, give me a ring”.” Mealing smiled.

“Charlotte dear,” she said, “would you mind going to fetch me some sugar? You’re closer to it than I am. It’s just there darling,” she said, pointing. “Behind you.”

Charlotte got up and walked over to the sugar counter.

Miller looked in his inside pocket for the contract form. “One or two?” he heard Charlotte call. “Two,” said Mealing, cheerfully.

“When you ring your accountant,” the columnist told Miller, “tell him sixty thousand up front. For the ex gratia.”

“There’s a board meeting next week,” he said. “I’ll try. We’ve put a ban on one-off payments. I can’t promise.”

“I’m afraid it’s a… what’s the word… a pre-requisite. It’s what I need.” Need, thought Miller, with a twinge of fury. It was the first time he’d been angry that day: he must be feeling better.

“Are there any questions,” he asked her, seeking a formal conclusion to the meeting, “that you’d like to ask me?”

“Yes,” she said. “Just one.”

“OK,” he said.

“Why is it,” she asked him, “that the back of your jacket, and the back of her blouse, are both covered in air-mail stickers?” She noticed Miller’s expression go from false amiability, to bemusement, to mortification.

“And bits of dust,” Mealing added. “What?” he said.

“Why is it,” she repeated, “that the””

He got up and, trying not to run, headed for the gents, where he shut himself in a cubicle. He took his jacket off and stretched it out by the shoulders. He found five of the blue, self-adhesive stickers. He pulled them off, screwed them up in the palm of his hand, and dusted the back of his jacket down. He was about to put it back on when he had a shudder of horror as he found another of the stickers, hidden under the left arm. It reminded him of a sequence he’d seen in which Humphrey Bogart emerged from an equatorial river, covered with leeches. Mealing had worked with Bowker for years. She knew all about his cupboard. He dropped the ball of stickers in the pan and flushed the toilet. They floated. He left them there and went back into the caf”, wearing an expression of transparent guilt.

Mealing was still there, at the table. She’d finished her coffee. Charlotte was sitting across from her, in silence. In the ashtray, he noticed, there were three more air-mail stickers and a sliver of brown parcel tape. “You forgot your sugar”, he said to Mealing, noticing the two unopened packets on the table.

“I don’t take sugar,” she told him. “I never have. Sugar disagrees with me. Talking of which,” she added, “how are you? Feeling better now Edward?”

He glared at her.

“Can I have another one dear?” she asked him.

“Another?”

“Another question.”

She looked at him with a mixture of pity and triumph, as if she was a poker player whose royal flush was about to cost Miller his house. “Whatever happened,” she continued, “to Paul Bowker?” “He’s in New Zealand,” he told her.

“About the pre-requisite,” she added. “Can you manage eighty thousand?”

“Yes,” he said.

From the moment Miller and Charlotte entered the newspaper’s ground-floor reception, he could tell from the security guard’s face that details of his appearance in the canteen had got around. They entered the empty lift. The doors closed.

‘did you take off your jacket,” he asked her, “in the canteen?”

“Yes,” she said. “I think so. When we were sitting down.”

‘shit.”

‘my dad,” Charlotte told him, “is a joiner.”

“Oh,” he said. There was a sign behind her head: ‘do Not Use Lift in Conditions of Emergency.”

“You know what he says?”

“Who?” Miller’s mind was wandering; he was unsure of how to torment himself first – by remembering that security man’s sneering look, or anticipating the reception he was about to get when he stepped out of the lift into the office.

‘my dad.”

“No.”

‘my dad says: ‘most things are fixable, at a price. Other things pass.” “

He turned to face her. “I know there’s nothing I can say””

Before he could finish the thought, the lift doors opened.

They’d not taken ten steps across the floor when Garfitt saw them, and leapt out from his desk a few yards away. He took Miller by the lapels and forced him up against a pillar. Even in a suit, with his dark features, muscular build, and deep red veins in his face, Garfitt looked like a village blacksmith in a bad melodrama.

“You got my memo then,” said Miller.

Charlotte turned on her heel and disappeared down the stairs.

Garfitt tightened his grip on Miller’s jacket. He pressed inwards, hard, with his fists clenched, so that his knuckles were bruising the editor’s collarbone.

“The thing is, Edward – I mean – how can I put this: you may not have noticed, but I’m not really a memo kind of a guy.”

Miller shut his eyes and breathed in deeply through his nose, like a meditator seeking a place of transcendental calm, and not finding it.

A small crowd had gathered, but did not intervene.

I know you’re new,” Garfitt continued. “And that you’re trying to make a name for yourself””

Miller stared past him at the far wall, and said nothing.

“But that name,” Garfitt continued, “is cunt.”

He could feel the eyes of his staff on him. Garfitt let go and stood back, one eyebrow raised, waiting for the puny lunge from Miller that would allow him to knock the editor out. When it didn’t come, he took hold of him again. Garfitt arched his shoulders back at an angle which suggested to Miller that he should prepare himself for a head butt.

The lift doors opened again. Charlotte ran out, followed by Thomas, Miller’s driver. Thomas was from Ghana and he had served four years in the paratroop regiment. He was four inches taller than Garfitt, and forty pounds heavier. The news editor straightened his torso and nodded to the chauffeur. With a sarcastic smile to Miller, he released his lapels.

“It’s the same for everybody,” the editor said. “That means you don’t fly first class any more. You go economy. If at all possible, you don’t fly at all. You catch the train. And you don’t run up two hundred and forty pound bills at The Portofino every day. You have to think about eating somewhere else. Somewhere just a little bit more reasonable. Like that high class Chinese. You know – the one where the owner’s handwriting looks just like yours.”

“OK,” said Garfitt. A worrying new note – one of calm – had entered his voice.

“What?”

“OK. I mean” I can’t help but admire the way that you’re leading by example.”

“What do you mean?”

“How can we possibly fly business,” Garfitt asked, waving at Charlotte, “when you two send yourselves freight?”

There was a strangled snort from the news desk, as Claudia, Garfitt’s assistant, struggled to suppress a laugh.

“Get out,” Miller told him. “Clear your desk. Now. You’re fired.” “Are you sure Edward?” Garfitt said. “What for?” “For assault,” Miller said.

‘delighted,” he replied. “I’ll see you at the tribunal.”

He walked out, whistling a tune Miller couldn’t quite place. The editor retreated into his office, where he picked up his appointments diary. He sat behind his desk looking down at it, unopened.

Claudia came in without knocking, something she never did, and showed him a possible story for the next day’s front page: a story about a British lorry driver in Dover who was trying to sue his French employer for racial discrimination. Miller glanced at it.

“It’s fine,” he said, without thinking. “Carry on working on that.” He was struggling to gauge the gravity of what was happening to him. Garfitt’s whistling was going round in his head. He needed to get out; he needed to think. Claudia left without speaking. He hummed a few bars of Garfitt’s tune to himself, then stopped when he realized that it was “Leaving on a Jet Plane”.

“What else,” he asked Charlotte, ‘do I have today?”

She walked over, took the appointments book, and opened it.

‘mauldeth Hall called again,” she said, “to confirm that you’re going there on Friday morning. They said you need to arrive by eight thirty. I’ve booked you into the Intercontinental in Manchester.” Mauldeth Hall was his old school; he’d agreed to speak to the boys at assembly. His heart sank further. He was about to postpone the engagement when he remembered that it would get him out of London for a day.

“Tell them it’s OK,” he said.

“And today you’ve got lunch,” she said, “with your father-in-law. At his club.”

“Cancel him.”

“You cancelled him last Friday,” she said. For the second time. “Where does he live?”

“Brighton.”

“He’ll already have left.”

She closed the diary. “And this evening,” she said, “it’s your wedding anniversary.”

He looked over at her, but she was gazing into the distance, out of the window. He put his head in his hands.

Copyright ” 2004 by Robert Chalmers. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.