“It would be really fucking nice,” John says, “if we could go for six months in this place without a game of musical fucking desks.”
He puts the last two pot-plants down next to his keyboard and huffs, reaching out to remove a dead leaf from one of them.
You know,” Burr says without looking up from the screen. “We really should have a team swear-jar, we’d make a fortune.”
John ignores him. “Okay, Beryl can’t stay here, there’s not enough light. Burr, can she go next to you? It’s the least you can do, seeing as you stole my window seat.”
“Wait...” Peggy looks across at what Burr has started to think of as the John Laurens branch of the Woodland Trust. “I thought you said Beryl needed to stay out of direct light?”
She’s supposed to be working on a three-page feature about school libraries, but Burr notes that she’s actually leaning back in her chair and checking Facebook (he presumes) on her phone. Peggy, Burr, Lafayette and Herc Mulligan have all been installed in their new positions since the end of last week, but IT, for reasons known best to themselves, only moved John’s machine over this morning.
“No.” John tuts impatiently. “That’s Jerome. Beryl’s the African violet.”
Burr clears his throat. “I think you’ll find I didn’t steal it.”
“This seat. It wasn’t yours. Anyway, I’m team leader so really it’s mine by right.”
“Yeah, well the point is, I had a seat by the window when we were downstairs, and now I don’t. I’m an artist, I need natural light.”
Burr looks at him. “You design infographics about crop yields, you’re not a medieval manuscript illuminator. Natural light is unlikely to help you in any way.”
“Unfair!” John takes a yellow highlighter from the pen pot he’s placing next to the left-hand screen, and points it at him. “Sometimes they’re about regional crime rates.”
He sighs. “Look, fine, put your plants wherever. But don’t expect me to water them.”
“Thanks, Burr. And don’t worry, I’d never trust you to water anything.” John grins sunnily, and Burr marvels, not for the first time, at how easily some people are pleased.
He does feel a certain sense of triumph about the window seat, and not only because everyone else wanted it. It’s hardly the most spectacular view -- the back of a pub, a bit of the street, a wall of purpose-built apartments with shitty tacked-on Juliet balconies so the owner can hike up the rent. But it’s something that isn’t the inside of this office. He looks back at the screen and brings up his email. An advertising brief about an 8-page supplement for National Potato Week. A long and patronising screed from Thomas Jefferson re: the importance of double-checking photo credits. And, obviously, Alex.
To: Burr, Aaron
From: Hamilton, Alexander
Hey, how’s life on the dizzy heights of the second floor?
To: Hamilton Alexander
From: Burr, Aaron
Well for one thing, it’s not the second floor, it’s the first floor. You’re on the ground floor. How long have you lived in this country now? This is why you’re always late to meetings.
To: Burr, Aaron
From: Hamilton, Alexander
Whatever, our system’s better. Your way is pointlessly confusing. What’s it like TELL ME.
To: Hamilton Alexander
From: Burr, Aaron
It’s exactly like it was downstairs, but further away from the ground. I’m next to the window.
To: Burr, Aaron
From: Hamilton, Alexander
Cool, is it like in the Hitchcock movie? Have you seen a murder yet? If you see a murder you have to tell me because I’m head of the Investigations Unit now.
To: Hamilton Alexander
From: Burr, Aaron
Thanks Alex, I was actually aware of that since you tell me roughly three times a day.
He minimises Outlook and goes back to staring at the the business section of the Gazette in InDesign. He’s not annoyed, he tells himself. He’s not in any way resentful. He’s just got a lot of work to do.
By 10.30 his day is already deteriorating. He’s made no headway on his work due to a barrage of phone calls from newsdesk, who’ve been changing their minds about tomorrow’s front page roughly every five minutes, and everyone he actually needs to speak to is ignoring all attempts at communication. He’s thinking of heading downstairs for a coffee (the fact that the canteen is in the basement and he’s now even further away from the only vaguely decent source of caffeine is another point against the latest desk move), but then Eliza materialises behind him, the way she does.
“Jesus Christ!” He mentally apologises to his long-dead grandparents for taking the Lord’s name in vain. “Sorry, you made me jump.”
She smiles, but it’s strained. His heart sinks a little.
“Can I have a word?”
When they’re in her office she shuts the door, and his heart sinks still further. It doesn’t help that all the offices in the building are constructed entirely out of glass, so it’s like being told off in a fish tank.
“Aaron.” Hardly anyone calls him by his first name, but Eliza always does. Her voice is as soft and careful as the silk shirt she wears. A small, detached part of his brain observes that pale blue really is her colour. “I’ve just had Maria on the phone. George would like you go down and see him.”
This is not good. If it was in any way good, Washington would just have come up. If he’s getting his PA to call Burr’s boss to inform him he’s been summoned, then… well, it’s not good.
“When he gets out of conference. You know what this is about, don’t you?”
“Aaron, did you rewrite Lee’s column when you were on lates last week?”
“Can I just explain--”
“You really can’t keep doing this, Aaron.” She sighs, leans her elbows on the desk. “You just can’t. This is not your job.”
“The column as it stood was libellous.”
“In your opinion.”
“He was leaving us wide open to legal action. There’s no way he could have substantiated those claims about Lord Haverhill.”
“Well then, you should have alerted the appropriate staff member. There’s at least one production journalist on duty at all times, for this exact reason. It wasn’t your call to make.”
“It just seemed like the obvious thing to do. We were right on deadline, and I’m a trained journalist. I’m perfectly capable of--”
“You may well be a trained journalist, but you’re not currently working as one. You’re design team leader. And you didn’t just make a small edit, you rewrote the entire thing!”
“It was also really bad.”
She runs a hand through her long hair, shakes her head. “Aaron, you’re in this position because you’re really, really good at it when you want to be. But if I’m going to rely on you, I need you to behave like you’re actually part of the team you lead, you know?”
“I do get where you’re coming from. I’m aware things here haven’t always gone the way you’d have liked. And I’m not going to tell you to pick a side, because God knows that goes totally against company policy, and I’m sure we’ve all heard enough slogans about One Team, and Group-wide Engagement to last us all a lifetime. But at the same time…” she shrugs, throwing her hands up. “Pick a side. You know?”
“Yeah.” He nods. “Sure.”
“Thanks. Speak to George. Look, it’ll blow over soon enough, he just likes to get these things sorted.”
She looks away and picks up the phone to make a call, so he gathers this chat is over. As he leaves, she says, “Aaron?”
“Could you close the door on your way out?”
He meets Alex for lunch, and they walk through the mall on the way to the park, so Alex can get a Diet Coke from Burger King.
“Your eating and drinking habits continue to perplex and disgust me,” Burr remarks mildly as they head back outside. He warms his hands on his latte. The sun’s out today, but the wind has an edge to it; the nights are closing in, and winter is on its way.
Alex shrugs. “All caffeine sources are as one to me. Just so long as they’re in constant supply, I’m good.”
He pauses to suck on the straw, his dark eyes fixed on Burr as he does so, his cheeks hollowing briefly, then releases it and grins widely at Burr like a pony-tailed Cheshire Cat. Burr really wishes he wouldn’t do that. He finds it confusing, and he dislikes being confused.
They sit down on one of the benches at the top of the hill, overlooking a little outdoor theatre area where the terraced seating is colonised on weekdays by schoolkids on their lunch breaks. One of the kids is playing music through tinny phone speakers. Another gets up to dance, and there is some shrieking, and laughter. Burr winces.
“Why do we always sit here?”
“Because you hate seeing people have fun, and you like complaining,” Alex replies.
“That’s hardly fair.”
They watch the kids for a while. The dancing one sits down again. “D’you reckon that’s grime?” Burr muses. “What they’re listening to? There was a piece on it in the Events guide last week.”
Alex is chewing the straw, but he lets it go in order to laugh out loud. “Uh, no it is not. Burr, were you ever cool?”
Burr frowns. “Well, I’m not convinced you’d know either.”
“I know! I’m head of Investigations. We investigate things. Also I’m down with the kids, and you’re old and out of touch.”
“No I’m not.”
“You listen to Jazz FM.”
“If you weren’t old and out of touch, you wouldn’t be saying things like ‘down with the kids’. Also, fuck you, you’re a year older than me, and you can stop telling people it’s the other way round, if you don’t mind.”
Alex shrugs, gazes out across the park. “People believe what they want, Burr. Not my problem.”
Burr sighs, and unwraps the sandwiches he threw together the night before. Chicken salad. He feels if he can manage to make his own lunch at least one day a week, it’s like he’s retained some kind of control over his life. It’s a shit theory, but it’s better than nothing. He doesn’t ask if Alex is eating, because he knows full well he probably talked an intern into fetching him a tray of chips from the canteen and then inhaled them at his desk as he typed.
“Hey,” Alex says. “So I saw you going into George’s office earlier. Was it the Lee thing?”
“Nah, s’okay.” Burr swallows his mouthful. “You know what he’s like, he just wants things done properly. He wasn’t exactly happy with me, but he’s furious with Lee.”
“He should be. Lee’s a complete fucking liability, he’s going to get us all in trouble one of these fine days.”
“Yeah, well.” Burr shrugs. “What can you do?”
But Alex is just getting warmed up. “Seriously, he should have been fired years ago. I still don’t know what the hell Washington was thinking, giving him that column. I warned him this was likely to happen, but he doesn’t listen, you know? No disrespect, but the guy infuriates me sometimes.”
“You’re just pissed off he didn’t give that column to you.”
“This is not jealousy, it’s good judgment. You know it, Burr.”
“Well, maybe he had his reasons.” Listening to Alex complain bitterly about the editor in chief who made him head of the Investigations Unit, while Burr is still marooned up on the first floor, is starting to get old. “Anyway, point being, Washington is not currently my problem, Eliza is.”
“Eliza’s not a problem, Eliza’s great. Everybody loves Eliza.”
“She’s not your boss! Look, I’m just not having the best day. Let’s leave it at that.”
“Do you want ice cream?” Alex’s eyes are on him, and Burr is staring at the grass because he knows exactly what Alex’s face looks like right now, and it makes him hurt a little bit. “I’ll buy you one if we walk back the other way.”
“Thanks, Alex, but you don’t have to buy me an ice cream. I’m not five.”
“Okay, well. Just thought it might help.”
They walk back to the office the way they came, and Burr feels the heavy inevitability of the afternoon sink into his bones, as he half-listens to Alex’s continued rant about Lee.
“See, this is the kind of thing that happens when the checking system falls apart. We all knew when they fired half the copy-editors, it was a disaster waiting to happen--”
Burr twitches. “Subs,” he corrects automatically. “They fired the sub-editors… or in some cases farmed us out to other departments. You’re getting your American and your British mixed up again.”
“I know, but apparently I can’t call people subs without laughing, because at heart I’m twelve years old. Let’s just give in and go with the official one.”
“If we must.”
“Okay, so when they fired the production journalists--” Alex breaks off to hurl his empty paper cup in the direction of a nearby litter bin. To Burr’s irritation, it goes in. “--Anyway, my point is that they should all be fucking thanking their lucky stars you were there to save their collective ass. Who was on the desk that night, anyway?”
“Well, there you go.” One of Alex’s hand gestures happens to trigger the automatic door and they head in past reception. “Like I say. Fucking disaster waiting to happen. Hey, Burr--”
“Hm?” Burr pauses on his way to the stairs. He could take the lift, but he won’t. It’s just another thing, like the chicken sandwiches.
“You wanna go for a drink after work?”
“Depends, are you thinking of leaving at a reasonable time?”
“Sure.” Alex smiles like someone who’s never even considered sitting hunched over his keyboard till one in the morning, eating Kit-Kats from the vending machine, and then coming in again for 8.30.
“Okay,” Burr says, and nods. “Yeah, that might be nice.”
When he gets back to his desk, everyone is crowded round Herc’s desk. Herc himself is grinning, and Peggy is shrieking with glee.
“What’s so funny?”
“Oh, Burr, you have to see this.” Peggy looks delighted.
Lafayette goes back to his seat next to Burr’s. “It’s that guy again from, you know, where is it?”
“Bristol,” Peggy supplies. “James Reynolds.”
“Yes.” Lafayette smiles. “That guy.”
Burr frowns. “The Clarion editor?” The weekly is one of a clutch of papers from the south west recently acquired by the company, and so far the integration has proved rocky at best. “What’s he done now?”
“Insisted on laying out this whole supplement himself,” Peggy explains. “Says he’s always done it and he’s not going to stop now. Oh my goodness, it looks completely shit!”
“Oh, man.” Herc shakes his head. “It is fucking awful, you have to see it.”
Eliza is out of her office now, attracted by the commotion. She stands behind Peggy and Herc, arms folded. “Dear God,” she says. “That is painful.”
“Right?” says Peggy. “Why would you even do that to a headline? I mean, how?”
“And what the fuck is going on with that ad?” John puts in.
“Okay.” Eliza nods once, and starts to head back to her office. “That’s it. I’m getting on the phone to the Bristol office. I’m not having this.”
Halfway to her door, she doubles back. “While I’m out here…”
Lafayette wordlessly pushes the biscuit tin toward her, and she takes a chocolate chip cookie. “Just to get me through this call,” she mutters.
“Well, you made them,” Lafayette points out. “So I think you are allowed to eat them.”
Before Eliza slips back inside the fish tank, she turns and smiles at Burr. He’s forgiven, then, for now. He smiles back, cautiously.
“Burr. Burr!” Peggy’s still standing there. “Don’t you want to look at this absolute clusterfuck of a design job?”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Spoilsport.” She pouts and flops back into her chair.
“Seriously,” John says. “Some people need to learn what they’re good at and then stick to it.”
“Yeah,” Herc says. “Why do all these writers think they’re shit-hot designers, anyway? It’s not like we start rewriting their copy whenever we feel like it.”
Burr looks up. An uncomfortable silence descends.
“Oh, no offence, man,” Herc says mildly.
“Oh God, Burr, we don’t mean you!” Peggy rolls her eyes. “Argh, you’re the worst.”
He doesn’t look at her, but allows an icy smile to form on his lips.
“Great, well thanks for telling me.”
“Come on, Burr,” Herc says. “You know we’re not talking about you when we say this shit. We just need to vent sometimes.”
“Yeah.” John shrugs. “I mean, you’re the exception, in that you can actually do all the things. If you couldn’t, we wouldn’t put up with you. Right, Laf?”
“Sure.” Lafayette scoots closer on his chair. “Burr, you look sad. Would you like a hug?”
Burr feels the smile defrosting, just a little. “No thanks, Laf. You could maybe pass the biscuits though.”
Lafayette slides the tin along the desk to him. Burr has imposed strict rules on himself when it comes to the products of Eliza’s stress-baking, but well. It’s the way things are going today.
It’s funny, he thinks, how the atmosphere of an open-plan office changes throughout the working day. Sometimes it’s like the whole floor is sunk deep in silent concentration. Other times, the moods of the various teams clash: magazines will have a lull and begin an animated conversation about Game of Thrones just when news design is on deadline. One day on the run-up up to Christmas last year, sport production started a game of football in the middle of the office, which went down spectacularly badly.
Sometimes, like now, the entire room will seem to spontaneously erupt in simultaneous noise for no particular reason. In their case, the subject of the Royal Baby has cropped up yet again.
“Okay,” John says. “For those who missed it, I’m running a book on royal baby names, and time of birth to the nearest half hour. Pound a pop.”
“Yes, yes, I’m in,” Lafayette raises his hand.
“Merci, mon ami. Peggy and Herc have claimed theirs, too. Burr?”
“You can’t have Charlotte, or 5.30 on Thursday afternoon,” Peggy interjects. “They’re mine.”
“God forbid,” Burr mutters. “We’ll be stuck here all night if it happens before six. Look, I honestly don’t care when she drops it as long as it doesn’t affect me. Well okay, give me Sunday, 9 pm. I’ll be at home, and it’ll be someone else’s problem.”
“Fuck that, man, I’m in on Sunday.” Herc frowns, and Burr smiles back.
“Eliza!” Peggy calls, and Eliza’s head pokes out from behind the glass door. “You want in on the royal baby sweepstake? Name and time of birth.”
Eliza hurries over. “Is Charlotte taken?”
“Sorry.” Peggy smiles.
“Damn. Okay, Sophia! No, Elizabeth, after me. Um, Saturday morning. 6 am.”
“Done.” John writes it in. “That’s a quid to you, madam. Pay me whenever.”
“I think it’s nice for the Queen,” Eliza says. “To be having a girl, I mean, after the three boys. And for the King too, I suppose.”
“Yeah,” Peggy agrees. “Although, to be fair, who gives a toss what King George thinks?”
“The Queen? Probably?”
“He’s not the one doing the work, is he?”
“At least they’re providing us with a bit of entertainment,” John says, and snaps his notebook shut. “Least they can do, the spongers.”
“Oh well,” Eliza says, turning back toward her office. “I’m going back in my cage if this is going to descend into another meeting of the design team republicans. See you guys later, and don’t forget I’m doing appraisals next week.”
John groans. “See? This is why we need a revolution!”
“Agreed.” Herc nods and folds his arms.
“What does that have to do with appraisals?” asks Burr, and frowns. He can’t help noticing that very little seems to be getting done this afternoon.
“Nothing,” John admits. He’s still holding the ballpoint pen, and now he’s clicking it on and off in an annoying fashion. “Anyway, where do you stand on the monarchy, Burr? Let me guess -- on the fence?”
“Off with their heads!” says Lafayette suddenly, in a ridiculous parody of his own accent, and someone from magazines gives him a sour look from from the next bank of desks. He grins back, and Herc dissolves into laughter.
“Yeah, still hilarious, Laf,” Burr says dryly. “Honestly, it’s just not an issue I can be bothered to get exercised about.”
“Burr,” John says, and points the pen at him across the desk. “As we may have mentioned once or twice before, you are the worst.”
“Fine,” he says. “I’m the worst. Now, can you all do some work, please?”
The royal baby issue is destined not to go away, however. Mostly because of the Royal Baby Issue.
At half past three, they hear a familiar voice reverberating around the first floor.
“Oh, great,” says Alex, who came up on the pretext of discussing the spread for pages two and three, and for some reason is still here, occupying the empty chair next to Herc. “Why do I always plan my visits at the worst possible fucking time?”
“That’s easily rectified,” Burr points out.
“I’d have thought you and him would get on better,” Peggy says. “You know, because he’s your countryman and all that.”
Alex makes an unimpressed face. “I guess technically, I mean he’s from Virginia… but besides that, the guy is just a prick.”
“Yeah, that’s fair,” Peggy says.
“Complete prick,” agrees John. Herc nods, eyes on his screen, and tugs absentmindedly at his hat. Lafayette shrugs. Burr says nothing.
“I should probably go while I still can,” Alex mutters, but he makes no move to actually leave.
“What is his job title anyway?” Peggy asks Alex. “I can never remember.”
“Chief content editor.”
“I’m not even sure what that means,” Herc says.
Alex shrugs. “It means ‘not managing editor’, I think.”
“That must piss him right off,” John says with satisfaction.
“Well, it’s not like John Adams actually does anything anyway. Not sure whether that makes it better or worse for dear ol’ Thomas. Is he coming this way? I can’t see.”
“You’re about to find out,” Burr says.
“Good afternoon, design team!”
Jefferson. He’s here all right, and he’s wearing a purple waistcoat. It’s impossible to miss, much as Burr would like to try.
“And Alexander too, what a delightful surprise -- you know, I was just thinking how funny it is that I seem to run into you more often up here than I do at your own desk.”
Alex smiles tightly. “Hi, Thomas.”
Jefferson casually turns his back on Alex and proceeds to behave as though he isn’t there.
“So, who do I need to speak to about the Royal Baby? Where’s Eliza?” He peers over their heads, but Eliza’s office door is firmly shut.
“I’m afraid she’s in a meeting,” Burr says. “Feel free to talk to me.” He smiles.
“Uh, sure... Aaron.” Jefferson perches on the edge of Burr’s desk and then somehow proceeds to spread himself over the general area. Lafayette quietly moves a stack of weekend magazines and a desk fan out of his path.
“So obviously we can’t predict exactly when this happy event will take place, but the more we can get done in advance, the better. We have Samuel Seabury camped outside the hospital, so when it happens -- trust me, we’ll know. Now, Madison and I have put our heads together on this, and we’d like to devote the first eight pages of whichever day’s paper it is to the royal arrival, including the front, so--”
A splutter comes from behind where Jefferson is sprawled. “Eight?”
“I’m sorry, did somebody speak?”
Alex rolls his chair closer to the spare desk and peers round Jefferson’s imposing presence like a fledgling bird poking its head out of the nest.
“You’re giving eight pages to a woman having a baby? What, is she giving birth to a Komodo dragon or something? Is the kid made of burnished gold? What?”
“Oh, Alexander. I’d forgotten you were there. Listen, I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, and I don’t particularly care, but the fact is this royalty shit actually sells papers, which happens to be our business. Not that you’d know that if you looked at the circulation figures.”
“Oh, don’t give me that bullshit.” Alex jumps up and comes round the other side of the desk so he can harangue Jefferson to his face. “Readers want actual news, they like substance. You can’t treat them like they’re stupid -- they’re not stupid!”
Burr thinks that point is probably debatable, but he’s really not about to get involved. Jefferson merely looks at Alex for a few seconds, as though he’s not quite sure who or what he is. Then he turns back to Burr.
“So, what we’d like is if you guys can come up with some page straps to run across the tops -- you know the kind of thing better than I do: throw some gold in if you can, make it regal. Or you could go with pink for a girl, I guess.” He shrugs. “Always been fond of purple myself, but that’s just me.”
As Jefferson goes through probable content (first pictures of the new arrival, panel of comments from fervent local royalists, royal links to the county, top ten royal facts…), Burr hears a noise which he decides is probably Alex slamming a door on his way out. It’s impressive really, as all the doors up in the building are designed specifically not to do that.
“Absolutely,” he says to Jefferson. “Sure. No problem.”
Jefferson’s smile is wide and gleaming. “Now, you guys just work your magic,” he says. “See you later, design team.”
Jefferson takes his leave like an actor walking offstage, and Alex reappears with an open bag of salt and vinegar Kettle Chips, having apparently made it as far as the vending machine in the kitchen. He shakes his head. “I really can’t stand that guy.”
“Thanks for telling us,” says Burr. “We’d never have guessed.”
“Personally,” Lafayette says, “I would really quite like to have a pound for every time someone told me to work my magic.”
“We’d all be rich,” says Peggy.
“I’d just like the magic,” John says. “Then I wouldn’t need the money.”
“Logic,” Burr says under his breath, “strikes again.”
Alex leaves eventually, Lafayette having taken care of his spread on management payouts to his satisfaction. “See, if you want something doing, ask an immigrant,” he says, high-fives Lafayette, and sails out of the room.
“Aw, I like him,” Peggy declares. “He’s fun.”
“Mm, in small doses,” Burr says. “Tiny, microscopic doses.”
“I thought you were friends?”
He looks up, surprised. “We are.”
Peggy shakes her head. “Okay,” she says, turning back to her screen. “I’m just going to do my work now.”
Burr has to go downstairs a little later, to see if he can find a copy of the previous year’s Business Awards pull-out. Eliza asked him to come up with some redesigns for Washington the week before last, but he just hasn’t had a chance. The business editor is not answering his phone, and when he gets down there, there’s nobody at the desk.
Washington’s PA holds up a hand.
“Sorry,” he says. “Didn’t see you were on the phone.”
He looks around as he’s waiting. There is no sign of Alex either; his desk, notable for its chaotic piles of paper, collection of empty drinks cans and a coffee mug that contravenes several health and safety guidelines, lies abandoned. Burr’s gaze drifts to the place he himself last occupied in this room, apparently now the home of the webdesk. He sat there for the previous eight months, through a particularly vicious round of redundancies and three different job-titles. That’s almost a record in this building, which has more reshuffles than a deck of cards. His old seat was the perfect distance from the newsdesk for Alex to throw screwed-up balls of paper at his head. At least Burr doesn’t have to put up with that any more.
“Hey, Angelica. Just getting in?”
She’s dressed for the outdoors -- zip-up leather jacket and a laptop bag slung over one shoulder.
“No, I’m on earlies this week. Just been out interviewing the man with the goose problem.”
“God, is that still going on? You should have sent one of your flunkeys over there.”
His gaze slides over to the newsdesk, where there always seems to be a parade of interchangeable kids just out of college. He never remembers any of their names, but nine times out of ten they’re a white boy called Matt, and as none of the Matts stay very long, he doesn’t try all that hard.
“Short-staffed again this week,” Angelica says. “And obviously Madison’s covering the lobster festival. So, needs must. The guy swore blind the bloody birds would be on the roof all day, but of course by the time we got there, they’d flapped off. So, all we’ve got are the shitty phone pics he sent us, and he’s cut the heads off in most of them. Headless geese. What is it with all the livestock, lately, anyway? So pleased I worked my way up to head of news for this.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Hey, is Monty in today?” He gestures at the business desk. “Wanted to talk to him about this redesign job Eliza’s got me on.”
She shakes her head. “Called in sick. Something wrong with his throat, was it, or neck? I wasn’t listening, to be honest.”
“So,” she says. “How’s life upstairs?”
“Yeah. Fine, you know. Just… slightly further off the ground.”
He figures he can just go on using that line until people stop asking the question.
When Maria is off the phone, she helps him hunt through her meticulously-kept archive until he’s found the publication he’s after.
“Thanks,” he says. “You’re a lifesaver, as always.”
“Anything for you, babe.” She flashes him a red-lipsticked smile. “We miss you down here, you know!”
“Mm, I think that might just be you, Maria.”
She gives him an assessing look, and changes the subject.
“So… Theo stopped in this morning. Just tying up some loose ends.”
“Really? Sorry to have missed her. How is she?”
“Good, I think. Sounded upbeat. Doing some freelancing. She said to say hi… I think she’d have liked to see you but you know what she’s like. Always in a rush.”
“Yeah. Well, that’s… Good for her. Glad she’s okay.”
“You two don’t keep in touch, then?” Her gaze is soft and sympathetic, and he avoids it. He’s not really sure how or why he gained an ally in Maria. He’s grateful for her support, but sometimes he finds it hard to deal with.
“Things got... difficult, after the redundancies. There was some bad feeling, I suppose. People always end up taking sides. I don’t know. We just saw things differently.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that.” She lowers her voice. “But see, this is how upper management screws us over, isn’t it -- everyone’s too busy squabbling amongst themselves to notice they’ve been shafted.”
“Mm.” He clears his throat. “Theo, um. She wasn’t really happy that I took the design job.”
“Is that what she said?”
“Not exactly. But I think she saw it as siding with the enemy. And, you know. It wasn’t just her.”
Maria sighs. “You do know nothing you did would have made a blind bit of difference to those people’s jobs? We’ve got a union for a reason.”
“Listen.” She folds her arms and looks him in the eye. “You make the decisions you need to make in this life. And then you just do that thing, okay, and frankly fuck anyone who doesn’t like it.”
“That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose.”
“It’s the only way, babe. Believe me.”
Strangely, he finds he does believe her. It helps, a little. He smiles weakly, and she smiles back. The moment passes.
“I see your mate’s busy making trouble for himself.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Alex?”
In answer, she points in the direction of one of the glass-walled meeting rooms that run the length of the ground floor. The figures inside are silhouetted against the light from the window. Both appear to be gesticulating wildly.
“Ah,” he says. One of the silhouettes is readily identifiable by its frankly impressive quantity of hair. “He got hold of Jefferson, then.”
“Yeah. That’ll end well, I expect.”
Maria folds her arms. “Trouble with this place -- too many over-inflated male egos rattling around, getting in each other’s way. No offence, babe.”
Alex was never going to be ready to leave by six. Burr hangs on as the other members of the team make their escape. John, Laf and Peggy call out their goodbyes as they head off to the bar that does happy hour cocktails; an establishment Burr avoids like the plague. Herc picks up his rucksack and slings it over one shoulder; it’s one of his college days. He’s studying fashion design one night a week, along with working a second job as a doorman at a club in the city. Burr wonders where he gets the energy from, and envies him for it.
“Gotta make tracks,” Herc says, and smiles his easy smile. “See you tomorrow, Burr.”
“Yeah, see you.”
He envies all of them, truth be told: their camaraderie, the way they just fit together as a group. He can’t quite seem to do it, and it’s not just because he’s their boss. He gets on well enough with everyone, but he’s always felt separate. Alex, he thinks, has already made himself more at home with his team than Burr ever will, and he doesn’t even work on the same floor now. He still has no idea how Alex finds pretexts to show up in their corner quite so often, or how he manages to combine chronic procrastination with being a raging workaholic. It would seem easier just to try and behave like a normal person.
After they’ve gone, Burr passes the time updating the CV he keeps on a thumb drive in his bag and overhauls on a semi-regular basis. He has a folder on the server where he saves examples of his own work as potential portfolio material, and every week or so he copies the pdfs to the drive and empties the folder. None of that takes him very long, but there’s no point getting stuck into actual work when he’s about to leave. And he doesn’t want to go downstairs and just hang around, waiting for Alex as though he has nothing better to do. By the time the email pops up on his screen, he’s resorted to straightening objects on his desk.
To: Burr, Aaron
From: Hamilton, Alexander
Yo, you still there? Are we doing this?
He smiles, and shuts down his machine without bothering to reply.
“Where d’you want to go?” he asks, as they walk out of reception. “Hangman’s?”
Ales makes a face. “Nah. It’ll just be full of fucking reporters. I need to take a break from work shit.”
“That’ll be a novel experience for you,” Burr says. “How about the Bell? I could do with some kind of food.”
“Fine by me.”
In the pub, he buys the first round and then adds a cheeseburger to his order, because fuck it. It’s not even as though today has even been particularly awful, in the grand scheme of things; God knows he’s had worse. But something makes him want to throw caution to the wind this evening. Or let it feel the breeze, at least.
It’s an old building, full of odd corners, low-hanging beams, and random changes in floor level, liable to catch people out when they’ve had one too many. Burr and Alex slot themselves into a small booth-like area toward the back of the main room, embellished with a combination of old reproduction ads for tobacco and ale, horse brasses, and black and white photographs of the city in its heyday. When the food arrives Burr picks at the bits of decorative salad surrounding the burger. Alex steals one of his chips and eats it.
“You could have got your own food, you know.”
“Well, you didn’t say you were getting curly fries.”
“It’s not like I asked for curly fries, they just came with it.”
“In that case, you won’t mind if I do this.” Alex takes another two, puts them both in his mouth at once, and then sighs. “Some days,” he says, around the mouthful, “I’m just so done with this shit.”
Burr guesses that he’s not talking about the food. “Did you go another round with Jefferson this afternoon, by any chance?”
Alex shrugs. “We have to have a meeting with George tomorrow. Apparently.”
“Ah. Good luck.”
“It’s just -- Jefferson… Everything he does is so--” He breaks off. “I feel like the guy is barely a journalist at this point.”
“He’s a gossip-monger. A salesman.” Alex glances at Burr’s cheeseburger, lying untouched while Burr chews lettuce leaves. “Are you even going to eat that?”
“Yes.” He picks it up and takes a large bite to prove it.
“He’s all gimmick,” Alex says.
Alex gives him a sharp look. “If you sit on that fence any longer you’ll do yourself a personal injury.”
“Could say the same about you and your high horse. Anyway, give me a break, will you? I’m tired.”
“What’s up?” Alex takes a sip of beer and observes him over the rim of the glass. Burr hates the way his dark eyes feel like they’re looking all the way through him. He hates the way foam from the beer stays on Alex’s upper lip until he licks it off again, and he hates the fact that he noticed.
“Nothing, just… doesn’t matter. Felt like a long day.”
“Eliza thinks you don’t really want to be there.”
“Upstairs. In her department. She thinks you feel like it’s a step down, like you’ve settled for second best and you’re just biding your time until you can work your way back up again. You make her feel undervalued. Like you consider her skills and training are worth less than yours.”
His eyes are still fixed on Burr, unwavering. Burr ducks his head. “That’s ridiculous. I’ve never said anything even remotely like that.”
“You never say anything. You don’t have to.”
“Well, I certainly never intended to imply -- Of course I value her skills. But, you know, it’s a grey area…” He doesn’t normally allow himself to be put on the spot like this. Fucking Alex. “And since when were the two of you best friends, anyway?”
“I like her. Nothing wrong with that. Why, are you jealous?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Burr blinks, and scrambles to regain control of the conversation. “Anyway, look... I do my job. Sorry if I don’t act act like I’m overjoyed to be there every second of the day, but I was basically forced into this role. It was never a real choice -- you know that. This was never what I actually wanted.”
“Sure. So what do you actually want?”
Burr looks down at the table. Then he pushes his chair back and reaches for their empty glasses. “I want another drink. Same again?”
When he comes back from the bar, Alex is hunched over his phone, absorbed. Burr puts the pint down in front of him and he reaches for it, hums an absent-minded thanks without looking up. It’s normal for him, but it needles Burr.
“Don’t know why this is suddenly all about me, anyway,” he says. “You’re hardly going to be satisfied staying here for the rest of your career.”
“What are we talking about now?” Alex drags his attention away from his phone at last.
“Just, I know you. You’ll be off to one of the nationals before long. Why wouldn’t you? You want to get ahead, nothing wrong with that. And it’s not like you owe this place any great loyalty.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on the job. I’d rather be investigating pension fraud or whatever here -- shit that actually matters to people -- than doing some big exposé for Mail Online on whatever fucking celebrity went out of the house without makeup yesterday.”
“Come on, wouldn’t you?”
“Well, I’m not likely to be doing either,” Burr points out. “So I wouldn’t know.”
Alex frowns. “See,” he says. “This is what I don’t get about you. It’s like you’re always wanting to be somewhere else, have what someone else has got, but… if you’re going to get to that place you kind of have to be where you are first. Right? Otherwise you’re always gonna be nowhere.”
“I have literally no idea what you just said.”
“Ugh, never mind!” Alex growls with frustration and pokes at his phone some more, shifting restlessly in his seat. “You should talk to Eliza. That’s all I’m saying. Oh, also, she had the baby already.”
Burr frowns. “Eliza?”
“The Queen. It was on Twitter. Earlier than expected, but mother and Princess both doing fine, apparently.”
“Wow.” Burr chews ruminatively, and swallows. “Well, that’s fucked up the sweepstake. Not to mention the front page.”
When those drinks are finished they have another round, then take it in turns to point out that they should probably be going home soon, until they realise the barman has called last orders. Burr has been alternating with lime and soda after the first two pints, at which point Alex switched to a consistent flow of JD and Coke. Irritatingly, he appears completely unaffected by any of it, while Burr just feels fuzzy and tired.
They make it out of the pub at last, the cool autumn air slapping Burr in the face as they step into the street. He automatically goes to turn left, because that’s the direction of his flat. Alex turns left with him.
“You do know your place is the other way?” Burr says.
“I know. But I’m coming home with you.”
“Funny. Don’t remember inviting you.”
“I just realised I’m out of bread. You have to make me toast.”
“Do I? Why do I have to do that?”
“Because I want toast. And I’m out of bread.”
“Your logic is impeccable.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot.”
They walk north and west, running the gauntlet of nightclubs and chicken shops, threading themselves through narrow medieval lanes and past the blank, never-quite-dark glass faces of office buildings. Along the riverside, disused warehouses reflect in the dark water, some bearded with creeper, gently dilapidating, others already claimed by the developers for luxury apartments. Students hang out on the bridge near the university accommodation -- smoking, kissing, communing with their phones. Burr eyes them gloomily as they pass.
“Hard to believe were were ever that young.”
“I absolutely don’t believe you were,” Alex says. “You were born old. Anyway, speak for yourself. I intend to remain in the first flush of youth until such time as I declare otherwise.”
“Yeah. You know, you could still get home quite easily from here, if you double back and take a shortcut down Charter Street.”
Alex is walking slightly ahead of Burr. He turns at this and waits for Burr to catch up. The smile on his face strikes Burr as both gut-twistingly sweet and faintly smug.
“Nope,” he says. “Toast, remember?”
They cross the bridge and continue along the river path. Behind them, faint cries and shouts of laughter fade into the night. The moon hanging in the cloudless sky is almost full, and Alex walks looking up at it with his hands in the pockets of his jacket. Burr resists the temptation to tell him to watch where he’s going.
“You have to admit,” Alex sighs. “This place does have its moments.”
He’s stopped walking, so Burr does too. They stand together at the water’s edge and peer down into it. Sure enough, the white disc of moon hangs there too, its form now indistinct and shifting with the current.
“It’s not enough,” Burr says, half to himself. “Not for me.”
“No.” Alex pushes himself away from the railing and back onto the path, with a kind of fluid grace that takes Burr by surprise. “Me either. But then, I’ve never expected it to be.”
His gaze lingers on Burr for a moment, then swings away as he walks on ahead. Burr follows.
He lives in what is basically a rectangular box. It’s not cheap, because nowhere is cheap, but it’s cheaper than the flats on the other side of the building, because it doesn’t overlook the river. That’s fine by him. The river smells some days, anyway.
He puts the kettle on and holds up two slices of granary bread. “Okay?” he says. If Alex wants toast, Alex will get toast.
“Thanks. Just a word of advice, though, you should get a proper toastie loaf, it’s way better than real bread. I recommend Warburtons.”
“God, you’ve really turned into one of us, haven’t you?” He puts the bread in the toaster, and fills the kettle. “Frightening. And so wrong. Tea?”
“I think you know the answer to that.”
“Okay, taking back my previous comment. You sure you want coffee? It’s nearly midnight.”
Alex just shrugs, so Burr gets the cafetière down off the shelf with a resigned sigh.
When the kettle has boiled he puts the two mugs, along with Alex’s toast, down on the kitchen table. Burr is determined not to allow Alex to get as far as the sofa -- it just seems like a bad idea. He pushes the coffee put across to Alex, and they return inevitably to the topic of work, like dogs worrying at a bone.
“You say it’s not enough,” Alex says, spreading butter on his toast. “By the way, do you have anything else to go on this? Like, something sweet? But you could leave just as easily as I could. Why are you still here?”
Burr goes to the cupboard, and passes Alex a mostly-full squeezy bottle of honey. “Sorry, we don’t do jam in this establishment. I just think it makes sense to wait for a bit. See how things pan out.”
“Man, you’re such a go-getter.”
“I’m thinking long-term. Look, a paper shuts down every five minutes these days. It’s not like the nationals are immune. Far from it. At least our place is relatively stable at the moment.”
“Oh, fuck stability.”
“Yeah, well,” Alex says, “I guess you don’t miss what you never had.”
The expression on his face makes Burr regret the dig. There’s a dark humour there that has nothing to do with immaturity, and reminds him how little he actually knows about Alex’s past. He’s always been something of a mystery: unplumbed depths beneath an ever-shifting surface.
The toast disappears, and the conversation stutters to a halt. Alex yawns.
“You should probably go home now,” Burr says, without any particular conviction or expectation.
“Probably. I worry though.”
Alex chews his bottom lip. It’s distracting, and Burr thinks he probably knows it. “Well, the ongoing bread situation. Nothing for breakfast tomorrow.”
“Since when did you even eat breakfast? And why are you so annoying?”
“I don’t know.” Alex leans forward across the table, looking steadily at Burr. “Why are you so fucking dense?”
Alex hunched over, his upper body resting on his folded arms. Strands of his hair have fallen down out of the stupid bun he’s put it in. Down in the street, a motorbike starts up and roars off somewhere. Burr thinks that he could probably look away now, if he tried. He doesn’t try.
“You know,” Alex says quietly. “At some point one of us is going to have to get up and move around the other side of this table.”
Burr doesn’t even know why they’re still talking, yet somehow they are. “What makes you think that?”
“I don’t know, maybe it’s my impeccable logic.”
He closes his eyes. Breathes. Then he takes the two mugs and the empty plate, walks past Alex and puts them in the sink. He runs the tap. Behind him, Alex’s chair scrapes on the floor as he pushes it back. Burr rinses the mugs and sets each one carefully down on the draining board. He doesn’t know why he’s doing that. He needs to put the dishwasher on anyway.
Alex puts a hand on his shoulder, and the warmth from it spreads beneath the thin fabric of his shirt.
“Hey,” he replies, half-mumbling.
“I mean, if you really want me to go,” Alex says. “I’ll go.”
It’s the uncharacteristic note of uncertainty in his voice that gets him. Burr twists round so that they’re standing face to face. He’s never stood this close to Alex before. He thinks it’s been a while since he was this close to anyone, maybe not since Theo left. It’s almost too much. Alex’s eyes are heavy-lidded, dark-rimmed, his lips slightly parted. Burr wants to get away, but also he doesn’t. The edge of the sink is a hard line pressing into his back.
His mind begins to sift through all the reasons this might be a terrible idea: perhaps he is lighting a touchpaper, somehow sealing his own doom. Perhaps not. He cannot help but weigh the probabilities, run checks and balances on the outcome of every action. It’s just who he is. But then again... Alex’s face is so serious, it makes Burr want to smile.
“No,” he says, in answer.
He puts his hands on Alex’s hips, tugging him forward, and kisses him. He tastes like coffee and alcohol and toast. He tastes like a thousand possible endings. After all, how a story turns out depends on so many factors. It matters how you look at it. It matters how you decide to put all the pieces together on the page.
He pushes his fingers through Alex’s hair, destroying the ridiculous bun, and Alex sighs into his mouth. They stand there, kissing, until the hard ridge of the sink in his back becomes painful and he shifts away from it, tipping against Alex as he does so. He finds Alex’s arms around him.
“Hey, it’s late,” Alex says, but he’s saying it into Burr’s neck, softly, one hand creeping up under the hem of his shirt. “We have work tomorrow.”
Burr shrugs, as best he can given the circumstances. Alex is newly pliable against him, happy to be maneuvered into position so that Burr can kiss him again. Because he can, it occurs to him. This is his move to make, and one that he has already made.
“It’s a dying industry,” he says, indistinctly. “You might as well stay.”