In the darkened hallway Roland could smell the roses. The firm had sent them, last Monday; it was a little personal touch they prided themselves on, sending bouquets to the wives of the partners who’d been forced to work the whole weekend in the office. Again. They lay on the hall-table, still in their cellophane, along with the accompanying card. “To Nikki”, it said, “compliments of Sweeney Fletcher Anderson & Co.” She’d torn the card in two. It’s their way of saying sorry, he’d tried to explain the first time they’d sent them; that, and the bonus. Especially the bonus. “A couple of years, that’s all”. Already Roland was the youngest partner ever; if he kept going he’d soon be Managing Partner, and then…. “Just, no more roses, ok?”, Nikki’d said. “Of course”, he’d soothed. But still the flowers arrived, even though he thought he’d told them not to. Or maybe he’d just forgotten.
He headed out the front door and sat into the car. As he gunned the engine he felt a small dart of pain in his foot. Really, he thought, this business with the flower was her problem, not his. All those tears and broken crockery were because her career had… well, stalled. ‘Resting’, wasn’t that what actors called it when they couldn’t get any work? Maybe this new play would make something happen for her; and then again, maybe it wouldn’t. “€urobola” was about a deadly virus which is spread by handling money. “It’s a, a, a …searing indictment of the world wuh, wuh, wuh…we live in”, Reggie had stammered over the white tablecloth in the restaurant where Nikki had dragged Roland along to meet the proud author-director. “Do you think Sweet FA might wuh, wuh, wuh…want to sponsor?” ‘Dweeb’, Roland had wanted to scream but didn’t as he looked across at Reggie’s earnest face, his ridiculous sideburns, his cheap school-swot glasses and expensive shoes (what kind of anarchist wore Tuttys, anyway?). “Sweeney Fletcher Anderson”, he’d replied, ignoring Reggie’s casual deployment of his firm’s nickname, “have always been committed to the arts”. Maybe the firm would throw a few quid in; he might even ask – after he’d seen off Cronin. Cronin was Roland’s one remaining rival for Managing Partner; fair-haired, plump, old-school, first in the car-park, last in the office. And no fool; Cronin had very nearly caught Roland out a couple of years back, when Roland’s draft of a merger agreement failed to take account of a recent change in M & A legislation. Roland had managed to blame his trainee, a girl named Andrea Harper who’d later the same day been escorted red-eyed from the building, but it had been a narrow escape.
The city glittered in the violet pre-dawn. A red traffic-light briefly halted his progress. He nodded amiably at the driver of the sleek new car beside him: white shirt, vivid tie, a dark suit jacket hung in the back. How prosperous this city had once again become, with more and more men like him – and even some women too, he thought – rising and dressing in the dark, on the road before daybreak, determined to make their mark, to take what was rightfully theirs. After the bleakness of the last five years it was like landing on the shores of a new world, a world in which he and those like him were the new conquistadors, while old-timers like Cronin were left for dead. Conquistador: he liked the sound of that. Might be a good name for a yacht.
His car glided through the junction and up onto the bridge past the sleeping forms huddled under blankets against the railings. The great galleon of the building came into view. Around the shimmering lake waters of the entrance plaza artfully-placed bronze ducks maintained their Zen stillness. The firm’s title hung above the main doorway, in letters of block gold; how might the names be reconfigured, he wondered, so as to accommodate his own? As he descended the ramp into the underground car-park he noticed once again the little stabbing pain, in both feet now; was it some sort of gout perhaps, or even something worse? He was young and fit, but maybe he should visit the firm’s surgery for a check-up, just in case. Three of the partners had had heart attacks in the last eighteen months, including Quinn, the Managing Partner, now about to retire, whose job and corner-office would surely soon be his. And anyway, thought Roland, as he eased the cart into its usual spot, he’d need to be in the whole of his health from here on in, now that he was going to be a father.
He undid his belt and sat for a moment smiling ruefully to himself. Nikki hadn’t told him her secret, but he knew. They’d had the children/no children conversation two years ago, soon after they’d married, Nikki agreeing then there was no room for a baby. But lately he’d known something was up; she really was a pretty hopeless actor. He’d found the box for the testing kit while he’d been putting out the rubbish-bins two days ago. At first he’d been furious, although he’d managed to restrain himself from confronting her. At least this explained her curiously unsettled mood, and her lack of enthusiasm between the sheets in recent weeks, which she’d claimed were down to the intensity of rehearsals with bloody Reggie. He had begun then to imagine how it might be: the swaddled bundle of life in the crook of his elbow, women simpering around him. Someone (a boy, Roland was certain) to… do things with. His own father had been remote, austere; but he, Roland, would be different; he and Nikki. Thank God she hadn’t developed a sudden craving for toothpaste, or kiwi fruit, or coal. Even this morning, as he’d dressed as usual in the dark, groping beneath the bed for his shoes, he’d almost said it to her; he’d almost leaned over to kiss her on the forehead as she slept, and whispered I know. But in the end he hadn’t bothered.
He exited at the seventh floor and hurried down the hushed corridor. Outside it was still dark, but he could see out over the river a seam of light breaking in the east. He loved the way the city came alive in the mornings, a jewelled beast awaking from its slumber, although the view was not as good from his office as from Quinn’s. Briefly he allowed himself to dream of how his appointment would happen: the farewell party for Quinn, the stirring applause as his name was announced, and the frozen silence which would greet Cronin’s “retirement on health grounds”. As he stood at the window, he became aware of how uncomfortable his feet were; maybe if he gave them room to breathe whatever swelling there was might go down. He perched on the swivel chair and lifted his left heel onto his right knee. Undoing the lace of black leather brogue he noticed a small scratch he’d never seen before. The shoe did not come away easily. He undid the other shoe: a scuff mark on the toe was definitely new. Again an extra effort was required to prise the shoe off, although the pain disappeared almost immediately. Maybe it wasn’t gout after all. He picked up the left shoe and looked at it. The eyeholes, the thin laces, the elaborate stitch patterns, these were all familiar, but there was something not quite right. He peered inside; there on the underside of the tongue in gold lettering was the manufacturer’s name, faded in parts, although the “T” and “ys” were still visible. The dark luxurious interior of the shoe made it difficult to see in further where his size – 9 ½, always and forever – was also inscribed. He opened the laces and lifted up the tongue.
A gust of rain rattled the window, as if someone had thrown pebbles against the glass. The forecast had mentioned the possibility of showers. The early morning sun was beginning to leak onto the streets, and in the slanting rain the high glass and shining steel of the offices across the river were burnished in a melancholy copper light. Roland sank back in his chair, his mouth slightly open. He could feel his heartbeat racing now, his face suddenly heating as the blood rushed to his cheeks. Something was wrong here, something was terribly wrong. He stared into the shoe once more, as if by staring hard he could will the number he could see, the holed comma of the number 9 – alone – to disappear. Where in God’s name was the ½, he asked himself: the glass ½ full, the second ½, the other ½ – ah yes, indeed, his “other half” – and what the fuck was going on? Slowly he lifted the other shoe, widening the sides so as to inspect the ox-coloured cave of its interior. Again he saw gold letters, the “Tutt” still visible – and again as well he saw the single digit, the one dialled in emergencies, a balloon adrift trailing its string, the tiny foetal embryo that was – and only was – the number 9. Now he held them up together, side by side, the shoes he’d dug out in the darkness from under his own bed that morning. If not mine, he thought, then whose, although in truth he already knew. In disbelief he gazed into them, the 9s in either hand morphing into a pair of immaculately-trimmed sideburns on a stammering, bespectacled, would-be theatre impresario. In his bed. With his –
“Everything alright, Roland?” said Quinn, who’d exercised the Managing Partner’s prerogative of entering without knocking. He looked disdainfully at Roland’s stockinged feet. “Boardroom in fifteen”, he continued briskly, “it’ll be official then, but I can tell you now, of course. I’m sure you’ve guessed anyway. May I present our new Managing Partner!” Roland nodded glumly as Dympna Cronin appeared over Quinn’s shoulder, smiling wanly. “A great choice, no doubt you’ll agree”, said Quinn. Cronin glanced demurely at the carpet. “Anyway, I’ll leave you two to it. See you in the boardroom”. Cronin remained just inside the door. “Well…congratulations, Dympna”, said Roland, extending his hand. “Thank you”, said Cronin. She turned a polished heel and was about to leave when she stopped. “By the way”, she said, waving a piece of paper she was holding, “we might have a word about this. Andrea Harper: she’s suing us. Well, you, really”. She tapped the piece of paper. “Not great reading, to be honest. Maybe you should take time off while we see if we can sort if out. We’ll get you lawyered up, of course”. Unable to speak, Roland was aware of a small flesh-coloured hole in the toe of his left sock. “All the same”, said Cronin, shaking her head, “I wouldn’t like to be in your shoes.”