London and the South-East, page 1
About the Author
About the Author
David Szalay was born in 1974. London and the South-East is his first novel.
London and the
‘London and the south-east of England, which together account for over 30% of GDP, are markedly wealthier than the rest of the UK. According to data from the European statistical agency, Eurostat, the Greater London area is now the wealthiest region in the EU.’
The Economist Intelligence Unit
‘If women did not exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning.’
DIETER FLOSSMAN HAS been on Paul’s mind a lot these last few days. Managing his software firm in Stuttgart, it is unlikely that he thinks about Paul at all when they are not actually speaking on the phone. Paul, on the other hand, thinks about Dieter all the time. While he waits on the platform of Hove station in the morning; throughout the slow, stopping journey; when he sinks to the Underground at London Bridge, and when he is lifted out of it at Holborn, Dieter is foremost in his thoughts. Exactly a week ago, with very little fuss, after a single short, sharp pitch, he sold him a full-page, full-colour ad in the automation systems software section of European Procurement Management. (Dieter did not know, of course, that his ad would be the automation systems software section of European Procurement Management.) Paul faxed him an agreement form, which Dieter said he would sign in time for the positioning of his ad to be discussed at Paul’s ‘pagination meeting’ at the end of the afternoon. Paul went to the Penderel’s Oak. It was his first sale in some time.
On Monday morning, the fax was not there. A quick call to Dieter elicited an apology, and an assurance that he would send it through immediately. A further call, towards the middle of the afternoon, and Dieter’s secretary, Frau Koch, said that she thought Herr Doktor Flossman had already signed the fax, and that she would send it as soon as she had a minute. She took down Paul’s fax number. The next morning, there was still no fax. And then Dieter seemed to disappear for a few days. Paul was calling him so much he knew his fourteen-digit number without having to look it up. Every day, the first thing he did when he arrived at work was phone Dieter. Dieter was never there, only the severe Frau Koch. Herr Doktor Flossman, she said, is always busy. If he has something to say to Herr Doktor Flossman, he should put it in an email or a fax. Frantic, Paul got Elvezia to phone pretending to be his secretary. He got Murray to phone pretending to be his boss. He tried to flirt with the impervious Frau Koch, and when that did not work, stabbed the white mute key with his finger and unleashed a stream of obscenities. ‘You fucking fucking fucking fucking bitch … Yeah, not to worry. I’ll call back tomorrow. Oh, tomorrow’s the weekend, isn’t it. I’m playing golf up in Scotland. Yeah, very nice. Looking forward to it. You been to Scotland, Frau Cock …’
That was this morning.
And now Dieter is there, is saying, ‘Ah, Mr Barclay, we speak at last!’ His tone, wonderfully, suggesting that the wretched week of silence was simply unfortunate, that there was nothing sinister involved.
‘Better late than never, Dieter,’ Paul says loudly, still smiling.
Dieter’s English is faultless. It is difficult to tell, from his voice, how old he is. Paul imagines him to be in his mid-fifties; lean, sinewy, probably a mountain-biking enthusiast, a potholer, a weekend naturist. The voice is good-humoured in a boring, irritating, overbearing way.
Starting to doodle, Paul says, ‘How you doing?’
‘I’m very well. But I think that’s just because it’s the weekend tomorrow!’ And Dieter laughs – he laughs, as though he has said something funny. Paul laughs too, more warily, in what probably seems to Dieter a more English way – but what he takes for Englishness is in fact the sarcasm, more or less open, that Paul is unable to prevent himself from putting into his laugh. ‘Yeah, I know what you mean. I do know what you mean.’
Suddenly more serious, Dieter says, ‘What can I do for you, Mr Barclay?’
‘Well, it’s about this ad, Dieter.’ Paul maintains a weary, we’re-both-busy-men-of-world tone of voice. His style, as a salesman, is modernist – that is, he is almost an anti-salesman, scrupulously avoiding any of the formulaic patter, the importunate over-sincerity still taught in the training room. From the start, he had felt his way towards a more subtle style – offhand, low-intensity. It is a style that has served him well; though in truth, less and less so in recent years. Is this because it is becoming more difficult to sell the space? It seems to be, and Paul sometimes wonders why this is, what has changed. Possibly the prospects, through unending exposure to salesmen and sales techniques. Possibly, he sometimes feels, he himself is losing the underlying pressure, the vestigial old-school salesmanship that is always essential, even to a modernist. It seems likely that he brings less energy to the task than he used to. Possibly it is the product itself – the various publications in the Park Lane portfolio are no less useless now than they ever have been, are still simply pretexts, utterly stripped down, for selling advertising space. With the possible exception of the in-flight magazines – very much the firm’s prestige publications – it is unquestionably a waste of money for anyone to advertise in them, for the simple reason that they have no readers. Some are sent out as junk mail, but in most cases the only copies printed are those sent to the advertisers themselves. In any normal sense, then – certainly in any sense that the advertisers would recognise – these publications do not actually exist. They are like a stage set, an illusion, a fiction sustained from the sales floor. This minimalist approach to publishing had been very successful at first. Now, though, it seems more and more difficult to sell the space. Or maybe it isn’t. Paul is never sure. Perhaps his memory is playing tricks on him. He sometimes thinks it would be worth improving the publications, or getting some proper publications – becoming, in essence, a proper publishing company. But then the whole point, the whole idea of Park Lane Publications is that it is not a proper publishing company.
He was in the Penderel’s Oak with Murray when Andy walked in to tell him that Flossman had phoned. They had been there since twelve, in an awkward, dark, dead space near the toilets and the cigarette machine. Lifting his eyebrows, Andy made a drinking motion. A few minutes later, treading with his eyes on his brogues, he was holding pints. He landed them on the table, shoving them among the many empties. ‘All right,’ he said plummily, pulling up an upholstered stool. ‘All right, lads.’ He turned his head to take in the muted ragu tones of the pub. The other people there were mostly tourists putting away late lunches, traditional pub fayre – pies and square-cut chips, the sauce in sachets, the cutlery wrapped in maroon paper napkins. ‘Michaela in today?’
Paul shook his head – an emphatic no.
‘Will she be in later …?’
‘What are you doing here, Andy?’ Paul
‘What are you doing here?’ Andy laughed.
‘Don’t fucking laugh.’
‘Just a quick one –’
‘You don’t have time for quick ones! What’s your problem?’ Andy’s boyish smile wavered, went slightly bewildered. Paul said, ‘You’re not here to have a laugh. You’re not going to make any deals sitting in the pub all day. No wonder you never make any deals.’ Andy was not smiling any more. ‘Why aren’t you on the phone, now, calling people?’ Flushed – his full face as crimson as the lining of his chalk-striped suit – Andy said nothing. There was nothing for him to say. In his five months at Park Lane Publications he has made only one ‘deal’ – sold a quarter-page mono ad to a Belgian keyboard manufacturer – and that in his second week, when everything seemed to be going so well.
Slowly, with showy sadness, Paul shook his head. ‘You’ve got to sort yourself out, mate,’ he said. ‘You’re taking the piss. If you don’t make any sales it’s because you’re in here all day. You don’t make enough calls. It’s a numbers game. You’ve got the leads. You just need to make the fucking calls.’
Andy nodded. ‘Yup,’ he said. ‘Yah.’
‘Go back to the office,’ Paul said. ‘Go back to the office, and get on the phone.’
Andy gulped down half of his pint. Then the other half. ‘I’ll see you later then, yeah.’
‘See you, Murray.’
‘Yeah, see you later,’ Murray muttered. And then, when Andy had gone, ‘He forgot his umbrella. Fucking tosser.’
He was soon back, though. Within minutes.
Paul said, ‘What are you doing here? Why aren’t you on the fucking phone?’
‘There’s something I forgot to tell you.’
‘Flossman?’ Hurriedly, Paul stubbed out his cigarette. ‘When? What did he say?’
‘Um, I don’t know. That you can call him this afternoon if you want. And he’s going somewhere on Monday.’
‘Um. I don’t know. China?’
‘For fuck’s sake. When did he call?’
Andy hesitated. ‘About an hour ago?’
‘For fuck’s sake …’
‘Is there a problem?’ Murray enquired.
Paul stood up. ‘I’ve got to go back to the office, mate.’
‘You’re not serious …’
‘Yeah I am, unfortunately. I’ve been trying to speak to this cunt all week.’
‘You staying here, Murray?’ Andy said. He said it – so it seemed to Murray – with a sly, mocking smile.
‘No,’ Murray said, without thinking.
‘What …’ Andy seemed surprised. ‘You’re coming back to the office?’
Squinting scornfully, Murray shook his square head. ‘Why wouldn’t I?’
‘Well … Marlon.’
Still Murray did not seem to follow. ‘Marlon?’
Smiling as though the whole thing were some kind of joke, Andy said, ‘He says you nicked one of his leads. He’s telling everyone he’s going to punch your lights out.’
‘What, that little shit?’
‘I’ll punch his fucking lights out.’
For a moment, there was an uneasy silence. Murray was still sitting down. ‘Should we go then?’ Andy said. Slowly Murray swallowed what was left of his pint, and stood up, a tall man in a shapeless blue suit. Quite pale, he did up his jacket and they followed Paul towards the front of the pub. ‘You coming back?’ Paul said when he saw Murray. Murray nodded. ‘What about Marlon?’ Murray shrugged – like the nod, a small, tense movement.
Despite the hurry, and the drizzle, when Andy said, ‘Should we have a quick doob?’ Paul stopped. ‘Get a move on then.’ They were in an alley near Lincoln’s Inn Fields, grey old office buildings looming on all sides. Murray seemed nervous, making strange munching movements with his mouth and staring at the words CITY OF WESTMINSTER on the side of a dumpster. Paul was also preoccupied, impatient. If Andy’s good at anything, he thought, it’s making spliffs. In the rain, the wind pouring intermittently down the alley, he made the spliff in the palm of his hand, dipping into his pocket for what he needed. The result was something that looked like it had been manufactured by a machine. They smoked it quickly, in silence, ignoring the inquisitive looks of purposefully striding passers-by.
The entrance to King’s House, a nondescript office building on Kingsway, is on a side street, a glass door tinted greyish brown. Wobbling slightly, the small, gloomy lift went up. There is some other company (Winchmore Leasing Ltd) on the first floor; Park Lane Publications has the second and third floors; the fourth floor has been vacant since the spring. Paul looked at his watch, an old Swatch with a red plastic strap. Three twenty – four twenty in Germany.
Tony Peters’ team occupies one half of the upper sales floor, Paul’s the other. The room is long and low – when salesmen stand on their desks to ‘power pitch’, their heads are not far from the off-white ceiling panels – and usually loud with overlapping voices. There are windows down both sides – on one side the sad, unleaving plane trees of Kingsway; on the other a grey jumble of roofs and fire escapes. Even with so many windows, at this time of day, and this time of year, the room would be dim were it not for the extensive strip lighting. Paul stopped at the cooler to drink several paper cones of icy water in quick succession. Frustratingly, the dryness of his mouth was almost unaffected. In his intoxicated state, everything seemed unnaturally intense, and at the same time not real – as if he were lying in a hot bath imagining it all. ‘Come on!’ he shouted – he heard himself shout – as he crossed the grey carpet towards his team at the far end of the room. ‘Get on the fucking phone!’ He shouted it only out of a sense of obligation, and everyone ignored him, except Elvezia who looked up sceptically from her magazine, then let it fall shut and started to leaf through some old index cards. It was, everyone understood, Friday afternoon. Paul took off his jacket and sat down. There is a large whiteboard on the wall behind his desk, on which the names of the ten members of his team are written, and their total sales, and their sales this week – a column filled with zeros. Different-sized zeros, some blue, some black, some red, some green, but all zeros. Some of the zeros – Andy’s for example – have been there so long that it is probably no longer possible to erase them. In the total sales column some of these indelible zeros have been incorporated into later, larger, multicoloured numbers.
Without preliminaries, Paul picked up the white handset of his phone and punched in Flossman’s number. The long pulses of the foreign tone in his ear, he pulled off the plastic lid of his tea, fished out the sodden bag, and burned his mouth with an impatient sip.
‘Oh hello,’ Paul slurred, smiling, ‘it’s Charles Barclay.’ Not, of course, his real name. His sales name, his nom de phone. For various reasons, most of the salespeople use pseudonyms. In some cases because their real names are considered inappropriate – too foreign-sounding, too difficult to spell. Andy for instance, who is of Polish descent (Andy is short for Andrzej, not Andrew) has a surname consisting of a dozen consonants, mostly Zs and Ws, and one isolated vowel, somewhere in the thick of it. His sales name is David Lloyd. (When selecting a sales name, the names of banks are often felt to have the right tone – one young man made a promising start to his career as James Natwest.) In Paul’s case, his real name – Paul Rainey – was not particularly problematic. He has had numerous identities over the years, though; switching whenever a dissatisfied advertiser is furious enough to demand his dismissal, and he is ‘sacked’. ‘Nicholas James’ was ‘sacked’ in February, since when he has been ‘Charles Barclay’. ‘I think Dieter tried to get hold of me a little while ago, Frau Cock,’ h
‘Oh, yes, Mr Barclay.’ Frau Koch’s tone seemed changed – more congenial. ‘Yes, but Herr Doktor Flossman is in a meeting himself at the moment.’ For fuck’s sake, Paul thought. ‘In about twenty minutes, I think, he will be finished,’ she said. ‘You will call back?’ Startled by this unexpected transparency, Paul said, ‘Right. Fine. I will call back.’
‘Thank you, Mr Barclay.’
‘Thank you, Frau Cock.’ He dropped the handset into its plastic berth and looked at his watch. Three twenty-seven. Drink the tea, he thought, have a fag, then phone Flossman again. Satisfied, his plan thus in place, he slid his chair back on squeaky wheels, put his feet, his scuffed black lace-ups, on the desk, and waited.
Smirking, walking slowly, it took Andy ten seconds to traverse the sales floor. Paul watched absently as he walked towards him, knowing that he should say something along the lines of ‘Where the fuck have you been? Why aren’t you on the fucking phone?’ He was unable to summon the energy. The office was hot and soporific, the hubbub of voices dull. He felt the warmth of the tea touch his fingers through the cardboard cup. Still smiling, Andy sat down. He seemed to be waiting for something. His face expressionless, Paul stared out over the sales floor. ‘Where’s Murray?’ Andy said.
Paul shrugged. ‘Dunno.’
‘He was in the smoking room. He said he was coming back here.’
‘He hasn’t been here. Why aren’t you on the fucking phone?’
Suddenly serious-faced, Andy dug through the snafu of papers on his desk, trying to look purposeful. Then he saw something that made him smile again. In a boxy pale grey suit and large-knotted lilac tie, Marlon was strolling, strutting, towards them. His head, in its colour and texture, reminded Andy of Silly Putty – something from his prep-school days. There was a time when every boy in the school, it seemed, had to have a little red plastic egg containing a blob of flesh-coloured putty, and Marlon’s broad nose and prominent chin, as well the semi-glossy surface of his pink scalp, all recalled it. He spends so much time in a Covent Garden gym that many of his fellow members are under the impression that he works there – which in an informal, voluntary way he more or less does. Not mopping the changing rooms, of course, or manning the till in the shop, but helping people with the machines, and dispensing detailed advice on warm-downs and stretching. ‘Where’ve you been?’ said Paul. Marlon held up a long cup of soya milk latte.
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