When I first got the call, I thought he'd died. Two reasons. One: I've been to a worrying number of funerals over the past while - friends of my parents and worse again, parents of my friends. Two: Mam had called me on my mobile; the first time she'd ever done that because she'd always persisted in the belief that you can only call a mobile from a mobile, like they're CB radios or something. So when I put my phone to my ear and heard her choke, He's gone, who could blame me for thinking that Dad had kicked the bucket and that now it was just me and her?
He just packed a bag and left.
He packed a? It was then that I realised that Dad mightn't actually be dead.
Come home, she said.
Okay But I was at work. And not just in the office, but in a hotel ballroom overseeing the finishing touches to a medical conference. (Seeing the Back of Backache.) It was an enormous deal which had taken weeks to pull together; I'd been there until twelve-thirty the previous night overseeing the arrival of hundreds of delegates and sorting out their problems. (Relocating those in non-smoking rooms who had slipped and gone back on the fags in between booking their room and showing up for it, that sort of thing.) Today was finally Day Zero and in less than an hours time, two hundred chiropractors would be flooding in, each expecting
a) a name-badge and chair
b) a lectern, microphone and slide screen for their talks.
c) coffee and two biscuits, (one plain, one fancy) at eleven o'clock
d) lunch, three courses (including vegetarian option) at twelve forty five
e) coffee and two biscuits (both plain) at three thirty
f) evening cocktails followed by a gala dinner, with party favours, dancing and snogging, (optional).
In fact when I'd answered the mobile I thought it was the screen hire guy, reassuring me he was on his way. With this is the important bit the screens.
Tell me what happened? I asked Mam, torn as I was between conflicting duties. I can't leave here
I'll tell you when you get home. Hurry. I'm in an awful state, God only knows what I'll do.
That did it. I snapped my phone closed and looked at Maria, who'd obviously figured out something was up.
Everything okay? She murmured.
It's my dad.
I could see on her face that she too thought that my father had bucked the kickit (as he himself used to say.) (There I am talking like he actually is dead.)
Oh, my God is itis he?
Oh no, I corrected, He's still alive.
Go, go, get going! She almost pushed me towards the exit, clearly visualising a death-bed farewell.
I can't. What about all of this. I indicated the ballroom.
Me and Dessie'll do it and I'll call the office and get Ruth over to help. Look, you've done so much work on this, what can go wrong?
The correct answer is of course: Just About Anything. I've been Organising Events for seven years and in that time I've seen everything from over-refreshed speakers toppling off the stage to professors fighting over the fancy biscuits.
Yes but I'd threatened Maria and Dessie that even if they were dead they were to show up this morning. And here I was proposing to abandon the scene - for what exactly
What a day. It had barely started and so many things had already gone wrong. Beginning with my hair. I hadn't had time to get it cut in ages and, in a mad fit I'd cut the front of it myself. I'd only meant to trim it, but once I'd started cutting I couldn't stop and ended up with a fringe. I told myself I liked it, that I looked a little like Liza Minelli in Caberet but when I arrived at the hotel this morning, Dessie greeted me with, Live long and prosper and gave me the Vulcan split fingered salute. Then, when I told him to ring the screen guy again he said solemnly, That would be illogical, captain. Not so much Liza Minelli in Cabaret as Spock from Star Trek, it seemed.
Go! Maria gave me another little push towards the door. Take care of yourself and let us know if we can do anything.
Those are the kind of words that people use when someone has died. And so I found myself out in the carpark. The bone-cold January fog wound itself around me, serving as a reminder that I'd left my coat behind in the hotel. I didn't bother to go back for it, it didn't seem important.
When I got into my car a man whistled - at the car, not me. It's a Toyota MR2, a sporty little (very little) number. Not my choice - F&F Dignan had insisted. It would look good, they said, a woman in my position. Oh yes, and their son was selling it cheap. Ish.
Three years in the NYPD (no, really.) A year barmaiding when I first came to London, a year as reader in Clarice Inc, before being promoted to assistant, then junior agent. Made full agent four years ago and moved to LJK Agents a year and a half later.
What's your favourite smell?
Mark Avery, Jojo scribbled, wishing she could inhale him right then.
No, wait; she could not write that. Quickly she scored so many lines though it the page almost tore. What had others put? A quick flick through previous editions showed that some bow-tied old guy had written the aged must of a rare first edition'. Another, his tie even bigger and floppier, The fresh ink of a new author's first novel.'
Richie Gant (no tie at all because who wears ties with a t-shirt) had written Money' and his crassness had sent shockwaves through the entire industry. But, Jojo thought reluctantly, she had to admire the guy's honesty
What makes you depressed?
A pause, then more heavy pen scoring.
What's your motto?
Richie Gant must die!
Nope, couldn't put that either.
Jesus. She'd wanted, really badly, to be asked to do this questionnaire, but it was way harder than she had expected.
Which living person do you most admire?
Which living person do you most despise?
Mark Avery's wife? No, no, no. It's got to be me - see next question
What traits do you dislike most in others?
Women who hit on married men.
What would you change about yourself?
Apart from my boyfriend having a wife and two children?
How about her perfectionism? She wondered. Her tenacity? No, she thought: it had to be her calves. They were too hefty and leather knee-boots were a no-no for Jo-jo. Even stretchy sock boots were a bit of a struggle. A common enough complaint perhaps, but on Jojo, the zip wouldn't go all the way up even on ankle boots. Worst still, she insisted her calves had the mottled consistency of corned-beef. As a result she nearly always wore tailored trouser suits to work. They had become her trademark. (Another goddamn one.)
How do you unwind?
Having sex with Mark Avery. Or, if he's not around, a bottle of Merlot and a wild-life programme, especially the ones about baby seals
What makes you cry?
A bottle of Merlot and a wild-life programme, especially the ones about baby seals
Do you believe in monogamy?
Yes. Yeah, I know, how can I ? I'm a hypocrite. But I never meant for this thing with Mark to happen. I'm not that kind of person.
Which book do you wish you had agented?
Easy, she thought, not that she'd ever fess up, even under torture. It was Fast Cars, the current talk of the town. A great novel except that Richie Gant was the agent not Jojo and he'd secured a 1.1 million advance at auction. Jojo had had similar coups but nothing like as high and she had been disgustingly envious even before Richie Gant made a special trip down the hall to her office to wave the contract at her and crow, Read it and weep, Yank.
Where do you see yourself in five years time?
As a partner in LJK Agents. And hopefully a lot sooner than five years. Like, as soon as someone retires.
At LJK there were seven partners five based in London and two in the Edinburgh satellite. Then there were a further eight agents who weren't partners, and while there was no way of knowing who the board would pick to replace the next retiree, Jojo had hopes that it might be her. Although there were three agents who'd been there longer than she had, she brought in a lot of income to the agency for the last two years she'd generated more than any of the other agents.
What's your favourite phrase?
What doesn't kill us makes us funnier
What are your distinguishing qualities?
I can whistle for a taxi and swear in Italian. I do a great Donald Duck impression and I can fix bikes.
What five things could you not live without?
Cigarettes, coffee, vodkatinis, the Simpsons what else? A regular heartbeat? More cigarettes
What achievement are you proudest of?
Quitting smoking. I think. It hasn't happened yet..
What's the most important lesson life has taught you?
Bad hair happens to good people
About Anton. The important thing to remember is that I am not a seductress. In truth, I'm the least fatale of femmes. If there was a competition, I would come so last a new category would have to be invented specially for me.
A potted history of how all this came about: I was brought up in London and, after several stomach-knotting years my parents ultimately split when I was fourteen. The year I turned twenty Mummy married an Irishman and moved to live with him in Dublin. Although I was quite old enough to live on my own I went too and eventually made friends, one of my closest being Gemma.
After being a drain on Mummy and her beau Peter for a year or so, I got it together, got a diploma in Communications, then got a job writing press releases in Mulligan Taney, Ireland's biggest PR firm.
But after working there for five years, I lost my job and could not get another one. This roughly coincided with Mummy and Peter separating. Mummy returned to London and I like a malign shadow followed her. Though my heart wasn't in it I managed to get some freelancing work writing press releases, but remained too broke for any weekend trips to Dublin to see my old muckers. Meanwhile, some time after I had returned to London, Gemma met Anton; though Gemma visited me occasionally, Anton was too skint to accompany her.
So I never actually met him until he had left a broken-hearted Gemma in Dublin and come to London, to set up an independent media production company. (He and his partner Mikey had had enough of making dull infomericals on safety in the workplace and wanted to move into television; it was much more likely to happen in London than in Dublin, they reckoned.)
Anton's version of events was that his one-year relationship with Gemma was over; she said they were just taking a break, that he simply didn't realise it yet. Weeping softly down the phone she told me, I'll give it two months, then he'll see that he still loves me and he'll be back.
However, she feared that he might be distracted by a London girlie and as I was in situ, I was ideally placed to be Gemma's Man on the ground'. My brief was to befriend Anton, stay tight and if he as much as looked at another girl I was to poke him in the eye with a sharp stick' or throw acid in the girl's face.'
I promised I would but to my eternal shame I did neither. I loved Gemma, she had trusted me with Anton, her most precious, and I repayed her trust by betraying her.
It was almost as if Gemma had had a presentiment. Half-apologetically she had said in one phonecall, I know I'm a neurotic, jealous mad-woman and I want you to stick close, but please don't get too fond of him. I can just see it, you'll be hanging out, roller-blading, having your photo taken at Trafalger Square, Madame Tussauds She faltered.
Carnaby Street, I supplied. We'll go there on a red bus.
Yes, exactly, thanks. There you'll be, having a lovely platonic laugh. Then one day you get an eyelash caught in your eye, he helps you get it out, then Whoops! You're standing right next to each other, close enough for a snog and you see that it's been a slow burn and you've been in love with each other for ages.
I promised Gemma that she had no need to worry and in a way I kept my word. There was no slow burn and caught eyelash stuff. Instead I fell in love with Anton the first time we met. But Gemma had also described him as The One. It was something he made a habit of, it seemed.
But that was all ahead of me and I had no idea that any such thing would happen when, two days after Anton arrived in London, I picked up the phone and dialled his Vauxhall number. What I was aware of was that I had a duty to undertake; how best to keep an eye on him? I could sit in a car outside his flat and stake him out. Except I didn't want to. A preliminary meet-and-greet session over a couple of drinks, would be the thing, I decided. Depending on how that went, I could introduce him to other people, who might agree to share the monitoring.
We agreed to meet at seven o'clock one Thursday evening outside Haverstock Hill tube station. I had rented a hovel in nearby Gospel Oak walking distance.
As I ascended the hill to the tube station the air was sparkly clean and smelt of lush grass; the cool relief of Autumn had just arrived. Day-glo August glare had given way to clear pewter light; the reek of overheated dustbins had been replaced with the musky crunch of golden leaves and a recent rain shower had washed away the last of the Summer dust. I was calm now that it was Autumn. I could breath again.
Until I realized that, with my typical lack of organisation, I didn't know what Anton looked like. All I had to go on was Gemma's description, which was that he was, Gorgeous. The ridiest of rides.' But one woman's ride' is another woman's not even if he was the last man on earth.' Arse, I chided myself, narrowing my eyes at the distant station, hoping there wouldn't be too many good looking men there. (That thought must have been a sign that I was gearing up for some version of madness.)
But as my eyes searched, I noticed that someone outside the station was watching me. Instantly I knew it was him. I knew it was him.
I didn't physically stumble but I felt as if I had. In shock all my thoughts jolted and rearranged and in an instant everything had changed. I know it sounds absurd but I promise it's the truth.
I could have stopped. As early as then I knew I ought to turn back and erase the future, but I continued putting one foot in front of another, as if an invisible thread lead me directly to him. There was clarity and fear and an unignorable sense of the inevitable.
Each breath I took echoed loud and slow as if I was scuba diving and as I got closer, I had to stop looking at him. So I focused my sight on the pavement discarded tube tickets, stubbed-out cigarettes, crumpled coke cans - until I was next to him.
His first word to me were, I saw you from miles away. Straight away I knew it was you. He picked up a strand of my hair.
I knew it was you too.
While throngs of people hurtled in and out of the station like characters in a speeded-up movie, Anton and I remained motionless as statues, his hands on my arms, completing the magic circle.