Farewell to the Western World (part one)
Publication date: 21 March 2022
This piece comprises the first draft of several chapters from a novelette that I had intended to write, along with some notes that would have taken it towards some kind of conclusion.
Jennifer Glass was a lady who liked to have theories, and one of these was that Friday-night conversation in Britain's public houses peaked in quality at some point between the hours of eight and nine. Before that time, there was, she thought, too much trading of trivialities and mulling-over of minutiae. Later on, in contrast, the focus had generally drifted towards topics of larger scope and lesser understanding: the meaning of love, for instance, or the meaninglessness of politics; or, perhaps, the inexplicability of reality television's unrelenting popularity. But between those two extremities, there emerged, every so often, something actually worth listening to. This is why, in a small hostelry in Bristol, at around twenty past eight at the end of a typical working week—eighteen winters into the newest millennium—Jennifer found herself with fingers turning the stem of a large wine glass and ears tuned to the noise of a neighbouring table.
This most casual form of eavesdropping was something in which Jennifer had actively engaged on countless occasions. The previous settings for her pursuit could, if one was so inclined, be plotted down an axis of sophistication, from a high-ceilinged cocktail bar in Mayfair—where money combusted like the alcohol in a flaming shot—to a dank and sticky-floored free house near Crewe railway station. Having lacked the nerve to ask for a list of wines in the latter institution, and finding the lager that someone else had ordered to look too much like dishwater for her tastes, Jennifer had proceeded to ask for a strong coffee. The result of this request was a liquid so thin that she could see clear through it to the bottom of the mug; nevertheless, it was something to place in front of her as she directed an ear to a nearby conversation between two elderly men—a discussion of such rich substance that she very nearly missed her connecting train.
At the table attracting Jennifer's present interest, a red-haired man with a severe face was listening to a red-faced companion with a severe haircut. The latter clutched a pint glass containing a straw-coloured liquid branded Everyday Pale Ale—the cause, perhaps, of the man's rubicund glow—and he had just uttered a difficult-to-ignore boast: "That's nothing compared to this story…"
"There was this guy who worked for us," the red-faced orator began, before rendering this phrase a rather inadequate paragraph via the punctuation of a long wet gulp.
"The guy… He was called Anderson, or something like that. But I suppose that doesn't matter." With that conversational exertion, a second gulp was drawn. The man placed his glass back onto a circular beer mat near his non-drinking hand, taking care to centre the vessel within its port, and then swept his now-free right palm over the grey stubble that sprouted from his scalp. "Nice and hoppy that is," he added with a glance at the docked drink.
This one wouldn't win any prizes for storytelling, mused Jennifer with clear cause. Nevertheless, driven by an eagerness to know what had justified the speaker's prefatory boast, she stayed with the target of her earwigging.
"Well, this guy, he was sitting in a meeting. We were all there in the boardroom. Well, not all of us. I was in there… Um, who else was there?… Dina. She was definitely there… And Jeremy, I think?… Yep, I remember he was there, because it was his lead that got the meeting set up in the first place."
"Jeremy Gibson, from Accounts?" inquired the red-haired man insipidly. His interjection had been inspired only by politeness: the listener held no real interest in what, as he had astutely deduced, was a mere snag in the thread rather than something integral to the tale.
"No," resumed the shaven-headed man, "this was a while back. Gibbo's only been here a year or so. It was Jeremy Whatever-his-name-is from Production. Oh, and the bosses—Tweedledum and Tweedledee—they were in there too. And Lenny. I always forget him for some reason. Anyway…"
What promise that last word held, thought Jennifer, suggesting as it did both the termination of an aside and the imminent acceleration towards something of importance.
"Well, we'd sent Anderson, or whatever he was called, out on a coffee run. We'd had a bit of a session with the client at lunch, and we needed to sharpen up. Tweedledum—I think that's David's name—he was sitting there at the boardroom table spouting some bollocks to the client about cross-functional working in the company. You know, bragging about how well we gelled as a team. This was just as Anderson comes back in with a tray of drinks, takes one out, removes the lid, and pours the contents into Tweedledum's lap."
"Fuck!" declared the red-haired man.
The sentiment was echoed in a stifled chuckle from a lady on the next table, and the speaker continued: "Anderson just stands there grimacing, and all he can say is how a please wouldn't go a miss when asking for something. Then, as he leaves, he starts mumbling something about how we should be using reusable cups… You know, those bamboo things?"
"Yeah," said the drinking companion. "My daughter wouldn't stop banging on about them a few years back. I had to buy one just to get some peace."
"Don't you find," resumed the storyteller, "it's the odd details like that tend to stick with you? Of course, they had to fire him. Good job he'd got Tweedledum a water instead of coffee, so he didn't get burned… At least, not literally."
This last sentence—which was uttered with a decelerating pace, as if the conclusion of a fairy tale was being delivered to a somnolent child—led into a sharp self-congratulatory chortle. Jennifer took the speaker's exhalation to suggest pride in his third-rate pun. Yet she did not think unkindly of him. On the whole, Jennifer tended towards lenience in appraising the intoxicated. And she rewarded herself for this latest instance of charity with a generous gulp of Cabernet Sauvignon.
A few minutes after the recounting of the above story, a mildly drunk young woman in the snug of a three-bar Cotswold pub—a former coaching inn with original oak beams but a distinctly modern interpretation of pricing—exclaimed: "Did I ever tell you about this weird guy who came in here a couple of years back: the one who had a problem with phones?"
Encouraged by the warmth from a blazing wood fire, and not waiting for a response from her two similarly inebriated companions, the woman plunged straight into the anecdote. This came in the form of a monologue, which was lubricated by short slurps from a double dry-hopped beer and delivered at a volume that made all other drinkers in the small room involuntary Jennifers. (The speaker would not have needed references to secure work as a town crier.)
"It was a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the summer, but everyone except the smokers were inside because it was raining, and so this snug was pretty crowded. I was here on a date with Dan… in this very seat, in fact… and the guy on the next table kept on looking across at us, giving us these disapproving stares. Dan was showing me something on his phone… a video, I think… and then that reminded me of something I wanted to show him. So we were each holding our phones out for the other person to see.
"The guy… the one who'd been eyeballing us… he stands up, pulls the phones right out of our hands before we've got time to react, and says that he's confiscating them for twenty-four hours. He'll give them back at the same time the next day, if that's convenient. That's actually what he said. I mean, who steals something and worries about causing an inconvenience for the victims at the same bloody moment?
"Well, Dan stands up and looks like he's about to twat him. But the guy doesn't even come up to his shoulders, and Dan's not exactly a giant.
"So Dan changes his mind—maybe he was worried that violence wasn't quite right for the atmosphere of a date in a country pub on a wet summer afternoon—and he sits back down. Then the guy starts to give us this speech, explaining that he's taking the phones for our own good and that we'll have a better afternoon without them. He says something about this sort of technology being a mental crutch, and people losing the ability to describe things in their own words, or the will to bother remembering anything, because they can retrieve most things pretty much instantly and then just shove a screen in someone's face.
"I mean, no one likes to be told something negative about themself, do they!? But the funny thing was, you could tell he'd return the phones unharmed, and not tampered with. And I thought he actually had a point. It was just a fucking weird way of making it.
"A bit later, Dan's temper got the better of him and he called the police. They advised us to wait to see what happened the next afternoon. I guess they needed some time to work out what type of crime they'd file it under."
A chuckle escaped from a fellow drinker in the snug: an ex-copper. Like everyone else in the small fire-lit room, he was by this point listening intently to the tale being recalled.
The lady resumed: "We went back the next afternoon, and, sure enough, he was there with our phones. It was like he was a totally different person, though: all embarrassed and apologetic. He offered to buy us both a drink, and I was up for it, but Dan decided that we'd head somewhere else. You know how he is when his pride's been hurt.
"I've never seen the guy again in here, but ever since then I've thought twice about getting my phone out in places like this. You know, we go out of our way to find these old pubs that haven't been ruined with quiz machines and wall-mounted TVs, and then we go and spoil them anyway with our own gadgets."
As the storyteller delivered this conclusion to the anecdote, several phones could be seen disappearing into the pockets and handbags of the people on the tables that surrounded her. Then, a man sitting on a bar stool—a regular at the pub who was known for being something of a wag—joked: "I'd 'ave just dropped your phones in your drinks and saved all the bloody 'assle." At this, the occupants of the snug broke out in snorts and guffaws, with the anecdotist laughing loudest of all; and for just a moment this cosy public room regained a glory that it had known in centuries gone.
As the cachinnations subsided in the Cotswold inn, there was a flare of merriment in a pub off Baker Street in London's Marylebone district. The venue in question benefitted from a curious internal architecture with several small booths, all enclosed by wooden walls extending two-thirds of the way to the ceiling and accessible by their own door, and each with an opening for ordering drinks directly from the large sickle-shaped bar to which they were adjoined.
The revellers from whom that flare emanated had chosen a booth simply because it was something in short supply; or, to put it more succinctly still, they were human. Now, though, some members of the group were regretting that decision—at least on a subconscious level—since it meant that their crapulent outpourings were doing little to signal their social vigour to the other pub-goers and were, instead, to a large extent bouncing back onto themselves.
The group comprised several employees from a firm based near Baker Street, and the nominal justification for this particular trip was the end of the first week at the company for a new colleague. This person had said little of note up to the present point in the evening. Conscious of the fresh ears that surrounded him, he had been awaiting a good moment for the delivery of his favourite story.
Seizing the opportunity presented by the arrival of another round of drinks, the employee dipped his moustache-crowned upper lip into a pint of This Is the Way—a beer heavy on Amarillo hops—and drew a long sip down his gullet before beginning.
"There was this bloke at the place I used to work. I think his name was Emmett."
"Fucking weird name," commented one of the listeners, an alpha-bore who was eager to steer the conversation towards protein supplements.
The newcomer pressed on, despite the handicap of a vocal timbre that suggested he was negotiating a mouthful of marshmallows: "He didn't like his manager, so he went out into the car park one afternoon and locked his motorcycle up with a chain. It was to stop him…"
"That reminds me," the bore cut in, betraying his low threshold for acceptability in a conversational segue. "I'm getting my Audi back from the garage this weekend after that moron put a dent in it."
Forgetting about nutrition and bodybuilding, the interrupter launched instead into a tediously thorough description of his car's technical specifications. The story of the chain and the motorbike, meanwhile, was left unfinished: the moustached man had done what he could and was happy enough to return his attention to the pint in front of him.
Several things connected the telling of those two-and-a-bit stories. One was the temporal proximity of their narration. Another was the hoppiness of the beers being consumed by the orators. A third was the fact that the transgressor on whom each tale focused was the same man.
"Man!" shouted Su Lau through the foot-and-a-half of air that separated her mouth and the screen of her laptop. "That's the last one!" Now it's just me, she added inwardly, as if she were ashamed, despite being alone, to disclose that conclusion to her thought.
Turning her head to gaze through the west-facing living room window, out of her upper-floor maisonette, Su surveyed the scene: a quilted hillside of social housing, allotments, and leafless secondary woodland. She had not hesitated in forming a favourable opinion about this vista when she had first taken it in, five years earlier, as a prospective buyer. Nor had she needed the estate agent to explain its merits to her. His attempt to do just this had been met with a sharply scornful rejoinder, prompting two backwards steps in his polished, uncomfortably tight shoes and a shift in his mode of communication to one heavy on listening. The place that Su was vacating, she proceeded to tell him, was a flat underneath the residence of an habitual stomper; and, thus, to find something within her means that came without this noise risk was most encouraging. The estate agent never got to reel off his set piece about how the suburbs of South London were a tinderbox ready for an explosion in the market; nor had he needed to.
A flash of sun reflecting off a window in one of the hillside's blocks of flats—all of which were built with the same murky-red bricks and a characteristic nondescriptness—forced Su's eyes back to the spotless earth-tone walls and restored oak floor of the living room.
Most of the pictures and ornaments in this part of the maisonette, things that she had painstakingly arranged on moving in, had by now receded into the background. She would have been more likely to notice their absence than their presence, in the way that one's deafness to a soothing repetitive sound lifts when the noise ceases. The weekly visit from a cleaner ensured that Su did not even need to worry about dusting the items.
There was one picture, however, that had stayed resolutely in the foreground. Hanging on the wall opposite the west-facing window, it was a poorly composed photo taken almost fifteen years earlier—in late spring 2003—of Su and her five closest university friends on the day of their graduation ceremony. She would forever remember their shared sense of excitement at entering a world of freedom and possibility. They had made plans for mutual adventure that were as vague as they were grand. But the intent, while genuine, had withered away in the face of several graduate scheme successes—including a journalism placement for Su—and one accidental pregnancy. Su had promised herself that she would take a career break once she had amassed some funds for travel. Living alone, however, had proved to be an economic challenge, and whenever she found some slack in her finances there was always something that soon tightened them back up. The act of peering at the lifesome faces in the photo—something that she had done countless times—kept her from forgetting the broken promise.
After glancing back at her laptop screen, which bore the trigger for her above-mentioned outburst, Su crossed the room to contemplate the faces once more. What she had just read was a message that Elle, whose bright countenance lit up the picture's right margin, was expecting her first child. This left Su—whose short figure had lost an arm to the photo's left edge—as the only member of the sextet who had not entered into, or stepped on the path towards, motherhood.
Su knew that it would be wise to give herself a few minutes before she replied to the pregnancy announcement. She was not so sociopathic as to think that her speciality knee-jerk sarcasm would befit the moment. Only when she was ready to type something vacuous, phatic, and thoroughly safe—like 'huge congrats' or 'massive hugs'—would she go back to the laptop and put fingertips to the worn characters of her keyboard.
Su's own sexual history was one in which contraception had been employed with unfailing rigour. This was a handy counterpoise to the knack that she had developed in her early twenties—and not shaken off till her early thirties—for finding men with whom a one-night stand was a relationship half a day too long. Even among more recent partners, no one had given her cause to contemplate if she might one day want a child with them. Several years back, though, Su had written an article for a broadsheet in which she had interviewed several women who had chosen to pursue lives free of childbirth. Each had presented rationales that Su had found compelling—combining, as they did, social and ecological motivations, as well as alternative routes to fulfilment such as adoption.
Completing Su's history was an ongoing streak without physical intimacy that dated back to the night, two summers previous, on which the minnows of Iceland had shocked England in the knock-out stages of the European Football Championship. A soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend had persuaded her to watch the game with him, but Su held no interest in the sport and had derived barely more excitement from his instigation on the sofa, during the half-time break, of some egotistical manoeuvres that he considered adequate preliminaries to lovemaking. Her affection for the coordinated clapping and chants of the underdog fans had, at least, ensured that the night was not totally lacking in entertainment.
The recent reclusion only served to exacerbate the surge of loneliness that arose in Su from her present scrutiny of the graduation photo. Elle's news had smothered the already-fading prospect for youthful adventure like a candle snuffer over a dwindling flame. And without being conscious of picking up her phone, Su found herself calling her mum.
Su's parents had moved to London from their homeland of Hong Kong just after she, their only child, was born. They were delighted that Su had chosen to stay in the capital after university. Nevertheless, in yet another iteration of an age-old story, there were numerous facets of Su's adult life in which her mum saw a need for change. She wasted her money on a cleaner. She needed to put on weight. She had too boyish a hairstyle. She wore the wrong amount of make-up: too much for work and errands; not enough at formal occasions. And, as emerged during the only argument between the pair in which her mother ever achieved a state of true fury, Su favoured too low a neckline. Despite this, and the daughter's spasmodic reciprocations, the mother–child bond was as strong as limpet teeth.
There was to be neither praise nor reproachment on this occasion, for the call went unanswered. Returning to her laptop, Su responded to the announcement with "This is such wonderful news x x x"—refusing to demean her writing with exclamation marks but succumbing to the pull of cruciferous kisses—before opening a new browser window. Journalists showed no less marked a faculty for envy than the practitioners of any other profession, and it was a few days since she had punished herself with a trawl for familiar names in the bylines of recent articles.
With her work as a freelancer, Su knew that she was, at best, in a rut. The act of writing a story yielded none of the excitement that it had in her early career; she was as unsuccessful now as she had ever been with the major outlets; and she found herself increasingly in need of supplementary income from more mundane editorial tasks—including that least dignified assignment of all, which was tidying up someone else's messy slide deck. Furthermore, she was experiencing unprecedented levels of frustration at her inability to fashion a single turn of phrase, like paragon of virtue or charm offensive, that she felt might one day be a cliché.
Therefore, when during this latest perusal of her peers' online successes Su spotted the name Martin Ballcock underneath a story in the culture section of The Guardian, she shouted at her laptop screen for a second time that morning and was ready to admit to the rut in fact being a crisis.
She flashbacked to the social event during freshers' week when she had first encountered Martin, who was a fellow undergraduate at her university. He had worn his hair in curtains above an unthreatening face—one that a cartoonist might have drawn as an exercise in gentle goofiness.
"You're English is so good," Martin had told Su, after working up the courage to deliver this blandishment via a clumsy execution of some of the standard motifs of lustful intention. Despite her swift consumption of a bottled mix of vodka and sweet lemon flavouring at the start of the event, Su lacked the confidence at that age to see herself as a possible object of anyone's desire. Her reply, though, had betrayed no such diffidence: "Well, it should be. It's my first language, you numpty."
After rising above the event's surface hum of bashfulness and bumbling unease, this insult had landed with a piercing sharpness. Yet it was the shame of what he had just said that penetrated most deeply into Martin. His own profuse apology was met with a playful but well-meaning retraction from Su; and with neither of them eager to have to break ice elsewhere in the room, despite the mutual discomfort, they pressed on with their conversation and found that it grew easier from there. Martin, having endured seven years of crude wordplay at secondary school, was relieved to talk with someone who showed no interest in his surname. Su was still to overcome her youthful embarrassment about reproductive anatomy and did not dare broach the subject.
Martin did not make any further advances after that first interaction, and the pair enjoyed a decent friendship. For three years, they looked out for each other—one would offer up photocopied notes, for instance, from a lecture that the other had missed—and they shared in the anxiety of imminent deadlines and the adversity of exams. She had even found a large towel for him the time that he had somehow locked himself out of his room while drunk and naked. Then, after exchanging promises to stay in touch at a farewell garden party, they went their separate ways.
Clicking on the link to Martin's piece in The Guardian, Su wondered whether he had found a signature theme for his writing. Specialization, she had been told by several journalists, was a possible route to greater success. In her own case, she had been contemplating the issue of fraudulence—not the kind committed by unscrupulous bankers, but the dishonesty in the way that people presented themselves. Indeed, she referred to the current bracket of time as the Age of Phoneys, in which status and prestige could be secured with unprecedented ease just by saying the right things. Whether you were a politician or a celebrity, real action, she believed, had never been less important. Some people might have considered that to be an uncharitable summation of modern inclinations. Others might have felt, instead, that too much charity was being offered towards preceding generations. For her part, Su was convinced that fakery and artifice were reaching their zenith in contemporary society. And, within this, she was most interested in the deceptions that people applied in describing their everyday life.
This topic, she knew, was not one to be confronted head-on. Overt exposés would have been too vulnerable to libel for the tastes of any broadsheets and insufficiently titillating for the tabloids. Rather, she would need to be more subtle and to chip away at the foundations of the affliction with a view to slowly undermining it. In order to do this, she would need to find an initial target for her chisel. And in the person on whom Martin's article in The Guardian focused, she thought that she had identified this mark.