She had been a whirl of colours for several summers before it all had to settle.
The money was forced from her like the last leaking of blood from an exhausted artery – and she – its personification. Marie was tired. Her eyes stared from her face like slowly staving fruit upon a stricken tree, quivering violently, violently as she sipped the last dregs of coffee – as coarse as stone stealing over the tongue. The boyfriends had left. The money was running out. And she sat, sat like a porcelain doll in her apartment – the make-up ever-thick on her face, the mini-skirt clinging short at her thighs, drinking coffee and watching the crowds clot in Grosvenor square, and waiting. Now it was the young men below who were in a whirl of colours, their tight dextrous bodies threading through the scenery like ants, assembling microphones, holding placards, screaming, shouting. She needed a job. She started to cry.
Hopefully something fruitful would emerge from journalism – especially with all what was going on, she thought and hoped – her arranged interview being at 9 am. For already she had tasted the deceptive syrup of failure – had experienced such bitterness, and learnt little – only shock after shock of pain like the seeds splitting from an overripe fig. The restaurants did not want her – no, the restaurants did not want the girl with the strange staring eyes and slight sear of alcohol topping the breath like a layer of caution. She told them it was breath-freshener. It didn’t wash. Neither did the boutiques want her – perhaps it was the wedge-cut bob and the beauty spot, the strange steel in the voice and the crack in one shoe which was seen in her smile, perhaps, perhaps. She did not know.
She arrived on Fleet Street the following morning just before 9 am – the taxi cabs moving dolorously along the road, as menacing as blood clots – moving unfortunate individuals to one kind of monotonous organ or another. The mild march sun was experimenting in the sky – shocking spangles of light through the glass façade of what Marie thought must be one of the famous places to work in the World. Reporting for a newspaper! Sometimes, it did serve, having friends in high places. Well, she called them ‘friends’, those ‘friends’ that pronounced her name as if it had an upwards intonation at the end, stalling at her apartment, serving themselves drinks and drenching her with mouthfuls of ‘MarIE, MarIE, MarIE.’ It made her quite sick to think about it now. Feeling the polo-neck thick against her skin, she adjusted hastily before filing up the allotted stairs in the allotted building at the allotted time. She just did what she had been told.
She reached an impressive expanse of office room lacquered in linoleum, waxed a perfect white. It made her guilty to touch it, her shoes slamming on the floor with a rude audacity. It was as if any serenity has to be interrupted by one individual or another – there was no smell, no sound, everything could just melt into –
‘Is this Marie to see Mr Aton?’ A perfectly polished voice piped, verging on the cruel interrogative. Blinking rapidly, Marie found it corresponded with the mouth of a tiny trim of office girl – the sharp-cut dark hair, forced nasal tones, red lips – as if the whole body had been forced into some fantastic role, wavering in front of her as if upon a pair of steel pins.
‘Yes,’ Marie managed.
‘Right this way.’
Marie’s head swum. Perhaps she was tired, or had not eaten enough – the previous days food lying untouched, unwrapped on the table, settling like corpses into the general furniture of her existence. Very little interested her. The television would usually stutter uselessly in the corner like a desperate patient, the protests in the square below may bubble over into the foyers, furl out into the streets, the spring evenings would haemorrhage the sunlight dry. All was wasted on her closed blinds and cold face. Not that she cared. Not really.
She just wanted the interview to be over.
The office girl slammed mechanically to a halt outside a severe oak-panelled door, a complete pause as if some silent controller had slipped the key from her mechanisms. Even her mouth, as if layered in metal, went cutting the words to a piercing clarity –
‘You just go straight in.’
Marie knocked automatically against the cold surface and pushed the handle. The door slid open with a disconcerting lack of resistance.
Her eyes met a room largely a wash of pale blue – somewhat like the colour of wallet-worn banknotes, and very little else – a frighteningly ornate artificial cactus in front of the single window blind, and a central table, which, on one side, sat Mr Aton, and an absolute chaos of papers which covered both table and floor. The paper almost matched the colour of his skin, against which the only noticeable attribute was the mottled, well-fed red of his cheeks, puffy eyes and the slight sprigs of hair at either side of his head – emerging like two-badly potted plants. He had his feet propped up on the table and did not rise to meet her.
‘Marie, I presume?’
He asked the question almost as if he was attempting to tell a joke.
Marie responded cautiously ‘Yes, Sir.’
‘Want to be a reporter for The Mirror, do you?’
She continued the adjacency. ‘’Yes, sir.’
His facial hair was poorly shaved and greying, scraping clearly against his face has he spoke with increasing emphasis – almost to the extent where Marie could have sworn she heard the noise of it, like the sharp shock of sandpaper.
‘’Have you had experience?’
‘Yes, sir.’ She lied promptly. She needed the money.
‘Interesting. You’re a pretty thing aren’t you?’ He mused with a bold line of flirtation, rising to his feet, cracking the balls of his heels in his slick suede shoes. ‘But you know what the prettiest thing is Marie?’’
His eyes glittered manically, his voice caressing very syllable in a way that could have almost been considered indecent – so slow and languorous.
‘’ The prettiest thing that can be, is the cold hard cash from a good old story. That’s what we want here. You get me a good story today my love, you got the job.’’
Marie stuttered, rather taken aback. Her tongue felt swollen as she licked her lips nervously over the single word ‘’Alright.’’
Mr Aton grinned, clapping his hands together conclusively. A little ash fell from his sleeves, if anything sweetening the already prevalent smell of alcohol which accompanied the room – the exhausted fan in the corner assured that. Across the table, he handed the still standing Marie a notebook and pen – she wavered slightly, hesitantly.
‘’What’s up sweetie?’ Mr Aton growled menially ‘You want a drink, huh? This too early for you?’
He bumbled over to what she presumed was a kettle, but appeared externally closer to scrap-metal. There were half-emptied tumblers on the table, still glittering in their glasses, which were evidently of greater interest.
‘I take black coffee,’ Marie squeaked suddenly, as if making confession.
He looked at her quizzically, the smile creasing his heavy brow before it hit against his lips.
‘Say, you’re a strange one, ain’t you?’ He swayed back towards her again, his step hindered by an apparently tight-starched shirt and trousers. ‘’ Remember, what we want today is a headline-filler, something that will get people going, get ‘em excited. Be it abortions in backstreets, drug houses, those riots at the minute … whatever. But it’s got to get ‘em going, you know what I mean?’
The questions were evidently rhetoric. His voice was increasing to a drawl, a drawl dripping intoxication, self-absorption, whatever those media fat cats feed themselves – Marie thought. He talked and talked.
‘You get out there my love and you get a good story, back here with it by 9 pm, cash on the table, cash in our hands. Or I can collect it from your address; you sent it in the mail – yeah? Yeah. ‘
His speech finally finished with a magnitude which made it evident that Marie was to go right away.
Back on the street. Less than 12 hours – so little time.
The crowd careered onto the black and white crossing which lay under the warp of feet like a bar of perfect white had been melted to reveal the dirty tarmac beneath. It was disconcerting. Marie ran clutching her notepad and what felt like only a lungful of breath. She had to hurry.
Where to go? Perhaps back to what would likely be now an avalanche of voices and bodies outside the embassy in Grosvenor square. She would try the surrounding streets first, she concluded it more time-efficient, as her heels clattered on the cobbles of emerging alleyways, goods vehicles screamed past, people grappled with newspapers as they walked, as if arresting live birds mid-flight. The camera, which she had largely forgotten even preparing this morning, slapped against her chest like a lost piece of over-emphasized costume jewellery. Just playing the part, just playing the part –
Halfway into some unnamed territory she stopped at a noise which wavered in the air like a cat in pain. On closer observation, the source was actually a woman, not much older than Marie herself, half-curled, half-crouched against the walls gored with graffiti – ‘GET EM OUT’, and such.
‘He left me,’’ The woman shrieked disconsolately ‘He went and left and – ‘’
A needle hung from one of her exhausted arms, stuck fast into the skin like a steel leech. The network of veins under the skin glowed translucent, even to Marie’s eyes, like a sickly, sewn in bruise. The woman looked up, saliva dripping down her chin, looked up with eyes whose fruit had long-died, and now just the exhausted crop of her body, waiting, waiting. Her lips parted like a wound.
It was not a picture of the press. It was a picture of human suffering.
Marie could not do it, she walked on frantically, her eyes starting to smart. She could not even see a story in the situation she had just passed – but how, why? She did not want to think, only walk, walk as if the floor was moving over her feet, people tearing at the concrete with footfall after footfall which wore it to liquid. Something to get the people excited. She saw a woman groped by a policeman as she was dragged along, still clutching her placard ‘OUT OF VIETNAM’. People might like that, even if they did not care for the cause. The woman’s cause was meaningless – as meaningless as her piercing yells and frantic stare.
Marie swallowed nervously. The camera lay thick and black against her fingers like a coffin – what the crowds wanted was only a snapshot of some sensationalised suffering. Not a smile on a face. Not the sky. Not the sky which as Marie looked up, seemed bright enough to puncture the pools of tears wavering in each eye. They wanted someone to hurt, they wanted people to burst - people to burst in all directions like flowers torn apart from within so people could feed themselves on the daily shades of human suffering, congratulate themselves. Oh how lovely it was! She laughed aimlessly, emptily.
Then the sickness. The riots, just get to the riots. A child screamed somewhere behind her. Sirens were everywhere – melting the crowds into chaos like a hot knife. She reached the corner of Grosvenor square and stopped, her heart heaped in her mouth.
For now, under the doubtful eye of the midday sun were heaped hundreds and hundreds of people. The striking male screams of comradeship which still buzzed in the voice box, the square which had been aligned, prepared like chocolate box, was now seeping into flame and disarray. People oozed and thickened outside the embassy. CND banners, placards, sticks, bats, men and women shamelessly bloodied, hands, arms. Her eyes were the only lens. The pad was like putty under her hands .Everyone so endlessly distant – ignorant armies clashing, suffering, screaming under the mock-Georgian apartments.
A young student with tousled hair stumbled up to her.
‘It’s gotta get ‘em going,’ He declared, the façade of bravado failing to match the face which is somehow symbolic of a privileged education – one of the bright young things swallowed by the promise of revolution. She could tell how he nestled his hand in the indent in her side, just below her hip, that he was an educated man. He lent his placard against his leg momentarily.
‘’I ‘ve already been arrested twice, come to nothing. What will it take ‘em to notice us? Paint the banners in my own blood? Some say it’s already been tried…’
His voice was distant, her limbs too unhinged to even attempt to write. After a moment she smoothed a hand over his in order to enclose his fingers back round his placard. His skin was a cold damp. Everything desperate – the strange suffering look in his eyes as she left him, left him to run to her nearby apartment, taking the steps two at a time, slamming the door, dropping next to the table to write and write and write. Her pen scraped the paper like a knife scores skin, she was desperate, one lip bleeding. There was a vague crash. The task was soon over.
On Marie not arriving in the Fleet Street Office, Mr Aton was not worried – probably best to go over to the girls place and collect the article himself. He had full faith in that she had done it, he saw some kind of prospect in her, in her eyes, how she held herself – held herself like her body was broken in a way she was attempting to conceal, something interesting. And it was interesting stuff that sold papers! – This he declared grandiosely as he wallowed in the back of a smoke-plunged cab towards Grosvenor square. Selling papers, a second nature as a suck on a cigar! He could see the confectioners’ windows sparkling as if in obligation as the last copies of today were being sold – headlining with some untoward death or other - ‘RIOT MAN IN BLOOD BANNER SHAME’. Some student bled to death on the street, and oh, Mr Aton said to himself, how the people lapped in up! He had the city at his very heels!
He laughed heartily, tipping the driver as he pulled up at the edge of Grosvenor square. He knew the way straight to the apartment – in the next apartment along he had once eaten salmon en croute and listened to lukewarm love songs on the radio with one leading lady or another. All these little trivialities! He looked out onto the square, now only studded with a few students, crumpled placards, and bushes consumed from the core by fierce little flames. At the foot of the apartment stairs, some lad in a Cambridge collar lay bleeding quietly, fingers still curled round a placard reading ‘Get them out’. Not exciting enough for the headline. Mr Aton shook his head – hopefully Marie would have something.
‘MarIE, MarIE,’ He whistled jovially, emphatically, under his sweeping breaths, shuffling up to her door and trying the handle. There was no resistance. Well, as his father always said, there was no resistance with an Aton boy either when it came to ladies, and oh – had he heard of her before!
He swept in, immediately developing half-baked assumptions from the unopened food and largely unfurnished expanse of white walls and cream carpet. Marie was waiting for him. She stood there, just behind the writing desk, in the corner of the room nearest the window onto the square. She looked almost strangely beautiful; her head tipped slightly sideways – the natural inquisitress perhaps! The girl so many people had turned away – and yet the long brown hair which caught slightly in the breeze, the polo shirt soft over young flesh, and that skin – Mr, Aton thought – a skin so porcelain, so perfectly pale! The glitter around her neck wound tight in what could have almost been considered the immaculacy of teardrops. There was something dramatic about the whole event – Mr Aton had been walking automatically towards the writing desk as he entered, and thus continued, the impossibly neat desk containing only a single marked sheet, a camera and a mug. He snaffled the sheet read greedily, hoping it would complement the good page of handwriting beneath, a sizeable article–
‘SOCIETY GIRL GOES HER OWN WAY’
He paused a moment. The camera, open on the table, had been cracked open like an unripe fruit – the roll of silver film scraped away. She just did want she has been told.
His voice. ‘MarIE, MarIE, MarIE!’
Her heels were six inches off the floor. The coffee, black, was still warm.