Norman Parker watched himself on the evening news, annoyed that he’d grinned at the camera in a way he never intended. He saw himself as an impostor, having a grand old time at playing the man of the moment, his minders hotfooting him through a crowd of frantic reporters. ‘Good to see you. Thank you for coming.’ He knew he looked ghastly. He’d become that institutional thing that flashes by on the screen: an unbreakable suit, vanishing grey hair, a round face of feverish red. ‘Kind of you to show so much concern.’ His ballooning stomach pushed his tie almost out to a right angle.
What he did like about the latest footage - filmed as he was trying to slip back into his hotel - was the image of an elderly woman cleaner in the background, just carrying on polishing the windows of the plush foyer. She stayed straight-faced, spraying and wiping in an even rhythm, chewing gum, apparently oblivious to all of the hype.
The TV journalist rushed his words. ‘Norman Parker is refusing to comment on his failure to attend the first day of this all-important conference. But senior sources tell me there is no doubt it’s due to Mr Parker’s matrimonial problems.’
Then, from nowhere, a cheap-looking advert for a new seaside retirement village filled the screen. The residents looked so pleased to have finally found happiness, playing golf under the shocking red of summer blossoms. Norman ripped out the plug.
His deodorant was starting to fail him, warmed up into treacle under his arms, giving off that half-sweat, half-perfume odour. Was it too soon after the last cigarette to have another one? The camel on the packet just kept on walking through the empty, sweltering desert. It had been with him for years, always there when he needed relief. He hunched over near the window, depressed about how quickly the darkness had arrived with a cover of frost. He persisted with a large bottle of South African whisky, even though he found it had a disagreeable aftertaste. What he desperately wanted to hear were leopard-skin drums and charging female elephants.
He also wanted rid of his clothes, as he had the feeling they were tightening their grip on his wrists and ankles. He was surprised at how easily they slid off when he tugged at them. The room spun like a fairground carousel. A madman in charge of the pedal. No chance to jump off and make a run for it. He started jumping up and down. ‘Wowayow! Wowayow!’ His snorts of pleasure were new to him, but why was that not allowed? Who said he had to restrain himself at all times? He trampled on the clothes with vigour, causing a silver button to pop off and fly across the room.
The excitement didn’t last long, though. ‘My goodness,’ he said. ‘What an absolute fall from the sky!’ For the fourth time in half an hour he checked the door of his room, to be absolutely sure it was locked.
He rubbed his thumb over a small photograph of Joyce, taken at a time when her hair fell long behind her back, before she’d needed to start colouring it burgundy to hide the grey. He poured some more whisky and supped it viciously. He got hold of his glass and fixed his face down on the rim, creating suction, his nose right inside, almost touching the alcohol. He slowly breathed it in - smelling it seemed almost important as drinking it – then cradled the goblet above his head to see his warped, mischievous reflection.
He looked down at his naked front and pretended he had an audience, his hands on his hips. ‘Heavens! Billy belly way too broad. But am I not just a little bit desirable? No? Not just a little bit adorable as I turn and show you my ass, once so beautiful like the moon?’
A tinny voice rang out. ‘Do you need something, Sir?’
Norman’s eyes froze on the black box on his dresser. ‘Jesus!’ He’d forgotten to turn off the radio link with members of his team on the next floor up. ‘Heavens, no. I mean, I’m fine. Thank you.’
‘We’re going to turn in if that’s alright.’
‘Absolutely. Please don’t stay up on my account.’
Making low-level noises in his throat, he sat down on the edge of the bed and rubbed his feet together, letting the nails dig in, catching rough skin as he curled and then spread out his toes. He plugged the television back in and slumped down in front of a live performance of U2. One song in particular made him cry enough to fill a basin.
* * *
He tried his best to sound composed when he got on the phone to his driver. ‘Just a little tour along the waterfront. I feel so confined here. You don’t mind, do you?’ Norman knew the poor man was enjoying his favourite beer and a game of poker with some of the hotel staff.
‘Of course not, sir.’ The driver’s voice was mellow and reliable.
‘I hope we still have some of that Irish whisky in the car. We’re thankfully out of that South African stuff.’
Norman gathered together all of the newspapers that had blackened his hands and placed them in his satchel. He phoned his security staff and told them he needed some space: no need to clear roads or organise a singing and dancing escort.
He concentrated on his walking and got the lift down to the lobby. Everything still ached, despite the attempt to soak his muscles in liquor. Things became slightly misty as he walked, as though a thin veil covered his eyes.
The regal car pulled up in front of him, the headlights making him flinch. The two small flags at the front were folded around on themselves, the wind too icy to allow them to wave. He knocked his head slightly as he got in. ‘I need some space to read through all this stuff,’ he said to his driver.
He lay out the newspapers on the tray in front of him.
‘Anywhere in particular?’ The driver smoothed down his thick moustache, which loomed large on his skeletal face.
‘Let’s just drive’ said Norman. He caught sight of his own sullen face staring up from the papers. He wasn’t at all surprised by the media sensation: it was like a bird with only one wing had been thrown to a pack of wild dogs.
‘You’re helping sell a lot of papers today,’ said the driver.
Norman looked down at one of the headlines: PARKER SEPARATES FROM JOYCE
‘You just sit back, sir. It may be windy, but it’s a perfect night for a drive.’ He put on some melancholic Brahms.
‘They always use the most ridiculous and unflattering profiles, the ones that make me look inept and dreamy.’
‘That’s their job, sir.’
Norman knew that nothing could be done with his basic ingredients: bloated grey face; eyes underlined with what looked like smudges of ash; incredibly fine white hair, haphazardly pasted around the side of his dented head. The relationship with the media had always been a sore one, and it didn’t help when that big overseas paper referred to him as Norman ‘Porker’. He’d been promised it was nothing more than a typo, but the damage had been enormous, to say the least.
They drove past a deserted container terminal, where large stevedoring cranes stood about like docile, alien creatures. The wind slammed hard against the trees along the waterfront, pushing some of the smaller ones sideways. The sea splashed up over the railings.
Norman noticed that the headline had only used his last name, while his wife had been accorded the honour of being referred to by her first name. By simply being referred to as Joyce, she suddenly became the mother of the nation, worthy of sympathy. He read the headline out loud a few times, putting heavy stress on the word ‘separates’.
The driver looked at him with wide eyes through the rear vision mirror. ‘Do you want to stop off at the lighthouse?’
‘That would be nice.’ He remembered paddling there when he was a child, and thinking how wonderful it was to have sand, shells and changing sheds so close to the city centre. The beach was deserted when they pulled up, and the light from the moon revealed the water peeled way back from the shore. He could just make out a dinghy lying on its side in the mud, while birds with beautiful long legs were just visible, bobbing along in search of food. How could creatures like that live in such a busy place?
‘Are you going to get out, sir?’
‘Not here. Too many cars going past.’
Norman took out his diary to record some notes: the columnists, the exact phrases, the names of the papers, the page numbers. It gave him some kind of satisfaction to know he was able to gather it all together, analyse it, have some kind of control over the words. His eyes burned into the article that enraged him the most, the one that spelled out the misery of what he’d written to Joyce the Tuesday before. He’d agonised over it, and had even considered asking his speech writer to touch it up and take out the parts that were bound to cause trouble and pain. He’d battled on, though, started and restarted, made five attempts at writing it out by hand, but then finally settled on a typed version. Three hours later, with sore hands and heavy eyes, he’d finally risen from his desk, knowing there was no chance of making the final draft read any better.
With the Academic Festival Overture in C playing behind his head, Norman read through the now very public copy of his letter.
It is with great sadness that I type this letter to you
tonight, the anniversary of our first ever date. I asked you
about that day only last month, but you seemed unable to
recall even the slightest detail. I told myself you
were just punishing me for what has become of our lives. I
truly believed we were happy then, when we told each other the
names of all the children we were going to have. Is it so
wrong to want to remember that time, to try to understand how
that kind of beginning can lead to this kind of ending? I
realise now that having a family was something paramount for
me, a wish I thought you shared. I’ve been pretending it
didn’t really matter. I fear I’m writing this and you will
never really understand - just another missive from an over-
reactive Norman. I could go on fighting, but I know you have
long given up your corner. A few months ago you said: Love is
a word for dreamers, and I’m not going to live in a dream
world. You’re right. I cannot pretend we have a reason to stay
together. The surprising events of the past few years have
changed me, as I am sure they have changed you. It all seems
like madness, I know, to upset this life that seems so perfect
now, but you will thank me one day. I give you back your life,
Joyce. I will always love you and I will always continue to
Tears made their way down his cheeks.
‘Not too loud?’ asked the driver.
‘Louder if you want. Let’s continue further along the coast.’
How had Joyce been able to hand over such a personal letter to a journalist? ‘One can only imagine,’ howled the paper, ‘how desperate the situation must have become when Mr Parker’s wife felt that her only remaining option was to call up a newspaper and share her sorrow with strangers.’
Norman then noticed a photo stuck to the dashboard. It showed a gracious woman and two handsome children. ‘Is that your wife and kids?’
‘Very fine looking.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
Norman felt ill. The children in the photo now frightened him, standing beside their awkwardly seated parents, with not a hint of a smile on any of their faces, the worry of the legacies they would have to follow etched on their foreheads. Somehow the little boy and girl seemed like ghosts, as if they weren’t really there.
‘Are you okay, sir?’
He told the driver to return to the hotel at once. He kept his eyes on the pavement and the cars parked along the route back to the city. He was convinced the children might disappear from the image if he dared return their gaze.
* * *
Back in his room, Norman looked around for something to keep his mind focused. But the next moment he again found himself being driven by something stronger than his own will. He lay on his back in the middle of the floor, in the shape of a magnificent star, arms and legs stretched out as far as they could go, sharp pain in his muscles and joints, his head filled with nervous, pumping blood. He couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or closed, but he knew he was moving; the carpet burned his arms and legs. The whole episode - complete with heavy breathing, fits of uncontrollable laughter and then uncontrollable crying - lasted no more than a couple of minutes. Then he stood up and stared at nothing with great intensity.
After about five minutes the newspapers came back into focus and he was able to dress, putting on what he liked to refer to as his armour: a black Savile Row suit. Instead of reaching into his case for his usual one-colour tie, however, he zipped open the small compartment at the side and felt around for his colourful bow ties. He found one with streaks of silver and gold. It was much more original than the fusty, traditional tie, and was something that could maintain the smile when the wearer was not in the mood. He got on the phone and asked for food and more cigarettes, plus an urgent meeting with his team.
Norman’s men arrived one by one, and he could see their septic eyes snatching glances at his suit and bow tie. ‘Who says I can’t look smart late at night?’
‘God, they have a cheek,’ said one of his staff, in reply to a query about what the tone of the media had been. ‘This is a private matter and has no bearing on the workings of the big machine!’
‘Except I fear the workings of the big machine do depend on the workings of me,’ said Norman. He pushed his fingers hard into his closed eyes.
He smoked by the window and spent a few minutes appraising the seven men before him. He didn’t like them and couldn’t trust them. He often felt as though their hands were slipping into his pockets or reaching up inside his jacket when he wasn’t looking, feeling around for something secret. He even dreamed they had the ability to slide their arms into his body, with their hands gloved and lubricated, gaining access through thin openings in his thighs, able to feel around for signs of indecision or incompetence.
He helped himself to the tapenade, chicken and blue cheese that had been brought up to his room, and then looked down at the carpet, where only minutes before he’d pretended to be a starfish. ‘We just have to keep our heads together and move forward. That’s why I’m going to the conference tomorrow.’
‘Wonderful,’ said one of the men.
Norman could only focus for a couple of minutes on the debate that followed. After a while he looked up to see the men staring at him, waiting for an answer to a question. ‘Goodnight gentlemen. I think sleep is the answer.’
All but one of them departed.
Norman pretended to be sorting through papers on his desk, his back to his most senior advisor.
‘What a bloody mess, Norman. What were you thinking?’
‘I can tell you this dream I’ve been having lately, if that’s any help. I’m at the top of this snow-covered mountain, walking along a thin path in a blizzard, with sharp drops on either side, attached by rope to these other climbers, like a row of convicts walking along an icy tightrope. If I slip, we all fall together. But it’s me I’m worried about, not the skill of the others.’
‘It’s impossible to take those simple steps, knowing how easy it would be to slip and fall to a terrible death. I stay like that and there’s nothing anyone can do, because the path is too narrow for anyone to double back or go forward to help me.’
‘I see.’ The man opened his eyes wide.
‘But don’t worry about it,’ said Norman. ‘It’s only a dream.’ He went over to the window and felt the silkiness of the curtains. He wanted to pull them down and cover himself.
‘Well, that’s all very well, but the public really does need to know that you’re strong.’ The man wore slippers beneath his fleece and jeans, his ginger hair flat on one side, his eyes puffy.
‘It was something small that did it, but I’m not sure you’d understand.’
Norman turned around to face him. ‘It’s the thing about not having children. I’ve tried blocking it out. But then she wanted her own room. You know there’s been nothing for a long time. Just dry kisses, which have slowly moved away from my lips to my cheeks.’
The man folded his arms. ‘I’ve been in a single bed next to my wife for years. You just need to find other pleasures like the rest of us.’
Norman looked out the window. ‘It’s also that I’m here in the best darn position one could imagine, and yet what I’m consumed by is the need for something very basic.’
The man was gone. Nothing else shared. No attempt to console. Norman felt more alone than ever. He undressed lazily and crawled into bed, curling up into a small ball, just like he used to do when he was a child.
* * *
He came to with a start the next morning and felt considerably better. He shaved and took a shower and slipped into another one of his suits hanging behind the door. This time he put on a normal tie with stripes of mauve and brown.
He checked that his personal notes were secure in his briefcase and then rang the hotel reception to announce he was ready to be picked up. But as he placed his hand on the door handle, he suddenly felt the urge to yell out, to say something absolutely crazy. He stood there quietly, his head down towards the carpet, his briefcase feeling foreign in his hand. Then, coming from nowhere, he pictured himself walking to the conference in an old pair of slippers, shorts and a singlet.
He walked down the corridor, still enjoying his vision. He shook hands with several of his colleagues waiting down the hall. ‘Did you hear me yell out the word bugger just now?’ he asked his personal secretary. ‘I could swear that just now, just before I opened the door to leave my room, I yelled out the word bugger. Are you sure you didn’t hear me?’
On arrival at the conference venue, he had to push his way through the journalists and photographers gathered like hungry sparrows. This time he tried not to grin. He almost stopped to speak to the young TV reporter who’d been such an expert on his absence the day before, but he remembered what his team had advised him. ‘Thank you for coming.’ He closed his fists even tighter, knowing his mouth was lifting at the sides.
He gulped with relief when he got inside the warmth of the conference centre. Down a corridor he saw what he presumed to be members of the choir due to perform later in the day. They were dressed in what looked like medieval costumes, with colourful, frilly skirts that seemed to rise and move on their own. Several of the men and women got excited when they spotted him, giggling themselves into huddles. He gave them a wave. ‘Morning!’
‘Hello, Mr Parker,’ yelled a young boy with a ducktail haircut, and who must have only been about six or seven. ‘I’m going to sing you a song,’ he said, before being hushed by his mother. The small lad’s chubby cheeks rose up and covered his eyes.
‘Good for you,’ said Norman.
The chairman greeted him with a slap on the back. ‘There’s apparently a crisis, if we believe what we see on the television.’
Norman wondered if he really was expected to say something. ‘No comment. Thank you for coming.’
The chairman laughed, but Norman could hear it was forced. Above his head, along some small windows in the ceiling, he saw a tiny bird thump into the glass. A sparrow? He wondered if it had been injured, or had managed to resume its flight.
He was taken through to a large hall where special teams had started work on strategies for the coming year.
‘We’ve scheduled your speech in for eleven o’clock,’ the chairman said quietly. He had a small stain on the sleeve of his cheap brown suit, which he’d been wearing since the 80s. Big flakes of dandruff were visible along his thinning hairline.
‘I’m very much looking forward to it,’ said Norman.
The chairman coughed. ‘I don’t think it would hurt to ... to refer to this thing with Joyce as well.’
Norman looked around to see where he might be able to get an alcoholic drink. He was concerned he might not be able to cope with all the faces and just find himself reduced to flummery. He opened his briefcase to ensure his speech, mostly written by his aides, was in order. He didn’t have a clue what he could say about his separation.
He was invited to sit in on one of the committee meetings. When he entered the room the delegates went quiet and looked him over for signs of disorder. He returned his gaze to the chairman, convinced that tears would come to his eyes. He took a seat near the back of the room, still avoiding any direct eye contact with the 30 or so delegates. The chairman left Norman on his own, telling him he would come back to fetch him a little later.
His legs started to go numb and his head seemed to go cold. He could feel himself being catapulted somewhere else. This has never been this bad, he said to himself. He closed his eyes and tried to see if he could tune back into the dialogue around him. He heard nothing. He opened his eyes, but found the lights too bright to handle. How will I ever turn this around? He felt his lips shrivel, the bottom one dividing up into little individual sections, like the holes in a harmonica.
At that moment he would’ve loved a reliable, wet whisky. He tried to open his eyes again. This time, though, he couldn’t even find the energy to move the muscles in his eyelids. He remembered moments over the previous few months when people with complex problems had looked up to him for leadership and wisdom. They read his silence as the sign of a great mind engaged in the search for a greater understanding, not realising that he’d simply been chewing over some trivial matter. The intermittent fluttering of the lashes? The widening and sharpening of the eyes? The slight raising of the head? He was simply being misread.
The low hum of the delegates became audible again and then someone whispered in his ear. ‘You dropped this at the door, Mr. Parker.’ A young blonde woman, whom he recognised from previous conferences, placed a folded-up piece of A4 on his knee. She was already gone before he could say thank you. He opened the paper and saw the haiku poem he’d written earlier in the car. He read it again to check he’d counted the syllables correctly.
up the red carpet
into a cold, double life
down slippery steps
He thought it didn’t read too badly at all.
‘Any chance of a shot?’ he said to the elderly woman who seemed to be in charge of a refreshments trolley nearby. The deep hollows in her cheeks and the dark half-circles under her eyes shocked him. He wondered if he looked just as bad.
‘Of course, Norman,’ she said endearingly. ‘I thought they probably had something flash organised for you somewhere else.’ She sniggered behind a shaking hand.
He found it amusing that she felt comfortable using his first name, and he thought he’d match her cheekiness. ‘Don’t suppose you have something stronger?’
‘This hour of the day? Now wouldn’t that be nice.’ She winked and poured some coffee. ‘Here, this’ll give you strength for those pesky reporters.’
He could tell she was logging away their little chat, something she would probably tell her grandchildren: the day Norman Parker asked her for a hard drink in the morning.
Through the small glass panels in the door, he caught sight of the chairman having a discussion with a group of other officials, expressions of grave concern on their faces.
He took his place back on the plastic chair, knowing full well that eyes were following his every movement. The coffee was instant, with the taste of something that’s been sitting on an element for too long, but he hoped it would be enough to make him steelier.
The elderly woman stood over him again, three gold teeth shining out from her smile. ‘You’re wanted outside, Norman.’ There was something winsome about her, something motherly and embracing. He thought it was a shame he couldn’t just chat with people like her. When he stepped out into the corridor, with its linoleum floor polished to excess, he saw his deputy had arrived as well. He bowled straight over to them, attempting to put a bounce in his step. ‘I see the military backup has arrived.’
His deputy said, ‘You look tired, my friend.’
‘Just a little.’
‘You fell asleep in there, which is terrible timing,’ said the chairman. ‘We’re trying to tell the world that everything’s all right.’ Some of his flakes of dandruff shifted precariously and threatened to tumble onto his face.
Norman was surprised to be spoken to like that. He reached out to shake his deputy’s hand.
‘Luckily you didn’t drop your little poem outside in the street,’ said the chairman. ‘The media would’ve had a field day.’
‘Didn’t you like it?’ asked Norman. He grinned.
The chairman lowered his eyes.
The deputy said, ‘I can always give the speech in your place.’ He smiled mechanically, rolling back on his heels.
‘If it’s feeling a bit hectic, there’s no problem,’ the deputy added. He smelt of soap, with his dark hair looking freshly cut and styled. He sucked on some kind of mint. ‘You could give yourself more time to let all this die down.’
‘Yes,’ said the chairman. ‘Maybe it’s best you don’t do it.’
Norman felt his chest tighten. He frantically blinked, wondering how he could make himself seem more in control. There was a split second when he thought he might pass out. ‘Actually, I think I’d rather do it.’
‘Are you sure?’ asked the deputy.
The chairman and deputy exchanged a dark look, as if holding their breath, waiting for the other to talk first. At that very moment, though, someone came over to tell them that the main hall was ready for the address and the delegates had started taking their seats. The bustle became louder once the large doors to the main hall were opened, like big slabs of stone being hauled back to reveal a dark tomb. People scraped their chairs as word spread. At long last, Norman Parker would be making an address. He made a conscious effort to keep his lips together, tightened the noose around his neck and then let his feet lead the way.
© Copyright, 2010. Seamus Kearney. The Drunken Starfish.