Authors: Jim Powell
What I have decided to do is simple. It is cowardly. It is pathetic. But it is simple. I shall pull off the road and call home. If my wife has returned, and if she answers, I
will say that my journey has been delayed, that I will be home at about eight p.m. If she has not returned, if she does not answer, I will turn the car round, go back to Somerset and stay there.
Then I’ll commence the divorce proceedings.
God, the A303 is a boring road. Is there any more boring road in England?
If the fifth car that passes me is white, I will stop and make the call. No, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Because if it isn’t white, I’ll have to start all over again
and there’s a limit to how many times I can count five cars without forgetting what number I’ve reached, and then I might find myself making the call when the fourth car is white, which
wouldn’t do at all. Let’s just say I’ll make the call quite soon.
Perhaps there are some more pills in the glove compartment. I could do with a few right now. There don’t seem to be. Why do they still call it the glove compartment? Nobody wears gloves
any more. Perhaps the people who design cars do. If it were up to me, I would call it the gunk compartment. Everybody has gunk.
I’m pretty pleased with the decision to make this call. Several things about it appeal to me, most of all its clarity. It is a binary decision. Either this will happen or that will happen.
No third dish appears on the menu. The vegetarian option is off. Each alternative comes with its own assembly instructions, and helpful diagrams showing A, B and Z, and something that may be an
Allen key. Or a screwdriver perhaps.
Each alternative will later come with its own consequences. I’m not interested in the consequences at this point. I couldn’t care less about the consequences. I want a decision. I
want to know what will happen now. Since I haven’t the faintest idea what I ought to do, it was a brilliant idea to delegate the decision to an inanimate object. A telephone, in this case.
Got to have confidence in the staff, and inanimate objects are a lot more reliable than human beings, in my opinion. If you want to get anywhere in life, the A303 for example, you have to know how
If I asked you which was prettier, a cobweb or the Taj Mahal, how would you answer? Exactly. You couldn’t. You’d say it was a ridiculous question. I could delegate the question to
God, and let God get on with it, but I don’t really believe in God. In fact, I’m not sure I should be giving him a capital letter. I’ll withdraw it at once. Words don’t have
capital letters when they’re just thoughts, you may object: thoughts are all in lower case, like websites. That may be true of other people’s thoughts. Mine do have capital letters,
where appropriate, along with various other formatting.
Where was I? No, I don’t believe in god, at least not today, but I do believe in Fate. I probably believe in some combination of the two. Let’s call it Gate for convenience. And I
like where Gate seems to be leading me. Not that I have the first idea where it is leading me. It could be anywhere. That’s all right. Anywhere will do.
I think the car behind may be following me.
There may be another reason why my decision appeals to me. It’s a gamble. That’s fashionable these days. You can’t turn on the TV without seeing adverts for gambling. I think
it must be compulsory now. It’s the next stage in the ascent of capitalism. First phase, the manufacturing economy. Second phase, the service economy. Third phase, the gambling economy. I
expect we could all earn a decent living by cashing in each other’s chips.
I have always gambled.
I’ve earned my living by gambling, by betting on whether the price of a commodity will rise or fall. I have traded futures. We don’t call it gambling, of course, especially not now.
At least, I don’t imagine we do. I wouldn’t know since I’m not employed in futures any more. I expect we call it, oh I don’t know, predictive commodity analytics, or
something. Only with capital letters. It would have to have capital letters. And initials. ‘We use our own PCA model here,’ I expect Rupert Loxley says to his clients, not that he
probably has many clients these days. Serve him fucking right.
It’s not a large step from betting on whether coffee will rise or fall to betting on whether Matthew Oxenhay will rise or fall, so I’m pretty cool about it. The only rule of gambling
is a calm acceptance of whatever happens. I have dwelt in this small niche where the financial markets embrace Buddhism. Om I god.
Not only have I gambled, I’ve been superstitious with it too. I would trade some commodities on a Thursday, but not on a Tuesday. I would sign important deals with my left hand, even
though I’m right-handed. My colleagues thought I was a genius. Perhaps best of all was that I would buy coffee futures only when it was raining. That started as a joke. One day in the
’80s, it occurred to me that my last few trades in coffee had been on days when it had rained. After that I started to do it deliberately. I kept a notebook which compared my record in buying
coffee with my record in buying other commodities. My record on coffee was above average.
I’m oversimplifying here. I didn’t buy coffee every time it rained, or my firm would have owned the world’s supply several times over. What I mean is that, when I was wondering
whether it might be a good moment to buy coffee, when I was mulling it over on the Northern Line on the way to work, I let the weather that day make the decision for me.
For some reason, I got fired. What had constituted genius for forty years now constituted being a prat. Takes one to know one, as I said to Rupert Loxley. I may not have said that to him. I have
called him a great many things in my head, all of them abusive, and I now get confused as to which of them I’ve actually said to him in person. Let’s just say that he wouldn’t be
in the least surprised to know that I consider him a prat.
The car behind is still following me. Of course it is. It wouldn’t be behind me otherwise.
Anyway, I got fired. When was that? It was on a Friday. That’s when it was. A Friday about five months ago, if my memory serves me right, which it doesn’t often these days.
There have been times since, I must admit, when I’ve thought I might be going a bit off the rails. No one else has noticed, or not much. You’d have to know me pretty well to tell
anything was wrong. I’ve managed to keep a lid on it. But I haven’t deceived myself. The fact is that I seem to have depended on the job rather more than I thought I did. So, when it
wasn’t there any more, it drew attention to various other failings.
The point is, and this is the important point, that it’s never too late to change. That’s why I’m so pleased with my decision. It will bring change. Don’t ask me what
sort of change. That’s the type of question old farts used to ask when I was at university. ‘It’s all very well knocking things down, but what are you going to replace them with,
blah-blah-blah?’ Something better, you old fart. Change is good. Whatever comes out of this change will be good. All being well, I’ll even start liking myself again. I found myself
quite liking myself this afternoon, as a matter of fact. That came as a surprise. It’s been years since I last liked myself. Things must be getting better.
That car has turned off. It can’t have been following me. Well, it was following me, because it was behind me for ten miles. But it wasn’t intending to follow me. Now I come to think
of it, there may be some pills in the glove compartment.
I really ought to make the call.
It’s getting late and it’s not far to the M3 now. What’s the time? 6:35 and 30 seconds. Peep. Peep. Peep. There was a sign to somewhere back there. London, possibly.
What did I say the time was? 5:35. That’s right. No, I said it was 6:35. But it’s 5:35. The clocks have gone back an hour. They do that at this time of year.
When I was younger and some mates and I had spent several hours in rambling conversation, sorting out the world’s miseries, sometimes we would stop and examine how we had reached that
particular point. We would retrace the straight lines, the arcs and the tangents, the logic and the non sequiturs that had led from this topic to that topic, and thence to here.
Driving up this pissing awful road, I am trying to work out how this all started. How I’ve reached the point of being about to make this call. To answer the question, there are about
twenty-seven different explanations and the mix ’n’ match option is available. You can take the liquorice thingies and the pear drops, but pass on the gobstoppers and the toffee crunch.
There has been no one single cause. There has been a cauldron of toxic ingredients, simmering for years and suddenly coming to the boil. Like if you put sodium cyanide, strychnine and batrachotoxin
into a pot, gave it a good stir and chucked in a stick of dynamite. OK, I’m showing off. I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. I was looking at Angela Jones’s legs
when we did Chemistry.
Where was I? Well, why don’t we go back to my sixtieth birthday party.
When I was small, my mother showed me how to grow a carrot from a carrot. She filled a jam jar with water, cut the top off a carrot, ran a cocktail stick horizontally through
the stub and suspended it over the jar, just touching the water. In time, roots sprouted, and when they were long enough and strong enough, the plant was translated to the garden and new carrots
grew. This was one of the many exciting ways in which I was prepared for adult life.
It was on my sixtieth birthday, five months ago, May 2008, that I remembered this. We were having a party at home. I say ‘we’, but what I mean is that Judy was having a party and I
was a guest, which is not surprising since I am Judy’s husband and the party was being held in my honour. It was a small affair. I insisted on that when Judy proposed the idea, hoping my
instruction would be ignored in favour of no party at all. I think about twenty people were there: our close friends and family. I say ‘our’, but what I mean is Judy’s close
friends and, though they are our children, what feels like Judy’s family.
I wasn’t remotely sober when the evening started. That was the first mistake. After forty minutes or so, I made my excuses, left the lawn and withdrew to the house. I was intending to
visit the cocktail cabinet and down a large Scotch for additional fortification. Which I did. Having done so, instead of returning to the lawn, I poured a larger one and went upstairs.
I spent a few minutes in front of the bedroom mirror, taking an inventory of myself at sixty. Several things had gone missing since a previous inventory ten years earlier. Two teeth. A thousand
strands of hair. Vaguely contemporary clothes. A reliable erection. There had been some gains, though. Let’s not forget those. An interesting pot belly in the making. Plenty of lines going in
various directions. Not of W. H. Auden proportions, but impressive. A pair of bi-focals. Summing it up, I felt that I looked spectacularly normal. Exactly what you’d expect of a well-fed
Englishman at sixty. A perfect makeweight in an identity parade.
I then walked to the bedroom window and looked out over the lawn on a perfect May evening. One advantage of this perspective was that I couldn’t see the house. The garden is all right, as
long as you like gardens where stray leaves get court-martialled and birds can’t crap without written permission. The house dates from the time between the wars when the country had
temporarily mislaid its architects. It sprawls in all directions at once, like a jellyfish on a beach, devoid of structure. It has three bedrooms and the same number of utility rooms. We could
never think what to do with them, so we bought things we didn’t need to fill them. The only advantage of this house is that Judy likes it so much she has stopped demanding a move every five
The scene from the window was a distillation of life present, of life cumulative to date. I was in the house that several decades of meaningless endeavour had procured, looking down on the wife
that several months of conventional courtship had procured, on the friends that the procured wife had deemed suitable for such a house and such a marriage, on the children that several episodes of
drunken sex had procured, and on the partners that said children’s market value had procured. None of it seemed to have a great deal to do with me. And nothing whatsoever to do with how I had
imagined my life forty years earlier.
It was this that made me think of the carrots. Because what Judy had done, it seemed to me, was to cut me off in my prime, suspend me in water for a while, then transplant me to other soil, her
soil, to produce a different carrot. I felt a pang of nostalgia for the original carrot that had been sacrificed to this endeavour. Thinking of that metaphor now, it seems to have lost the epic
quality of a Biblical vision that it had when it occurred to me, but still to represent a truth. All I would change is to extend the accusation levelled at Judy, and include myself on the charge
sheet for letting it happen. I would also indict Life, which has less capacity to wriggle out of that charge, or any other. Life is the ideal defendant when one is looking for a conviction.