‘Whoever invented Mondays can go to hell,’ Kathy moaned as she claimed two stools at the bar, still making the effort to perch gracefully despite her exhaustion. Leaning against the till, the barman didn’t glance up from his phone as she settled herself.
‘Henry Ford,’ she said, hopping up onto the second stool. Kathy ignored her with a heavy sigh, but she continued anyway, ‘Henry Ford. He invented the week/weekend split.’ Kathy propped an elbow on the bar and then raised her middle finger at her friend.
‘Don’t give me a damned history lesson,’ she growled before swivelling her elbow and pointing the tip of her finger at the barman. ‘Give me a damned bottle of red wine.’
‘Any preference?’ asked the barman, still not tearing his eyes from his phone. He can’t have been older than twenty and wore his South London accent with the same cockiness a rooster wears its wattle. He was slim and pretty, with brown skin as smooth as any woman’s and jet-black hair.
‘Make it two,’ she answered him, curling a smile at the corner of her lips when he looked up. Kathy raised both eyebrows at her friend in surprise.
‘Accept excess,’ she intoned a deep, theatrical voice, ‘Access to a better you.’
‘I know this!’ Kathy squealed, banging her palms down on the bar. ‘It was that plastics company- fuck! What were they called!’
‘W1 Surgery,’ cut in the barman as he placed two large wine glasses next to them. Kathy’s face darkened dangerously and she turned slowly to pin him with an icy stare.
’Listen up, chap,’ she spat, ’I’ve spent my day being talked over by pussies without pussies so please for your safety and my sanity, piss off and stick with the people who are obviously interested in what you have to say.’ She nodded at his phone which he had placed on the back bar. Despite his youthful arrogance he flushed, both in anger and embarrassment, and kept his lips tightly pressed together as he uncorked their bottles and unceremoniously dumped a splash in each of their glasses. Kathy was also tense, biting down on her bottom lip to swallow an apology that threatened to belch out of her as a drop from the wine splashed her face, scolding her with his shame. But she simply wiped it away softly, rubbing it between her thumb and forefinger.
The few moments of silence pulsed between the three of them awkwardly and the jazz and chatter in the bar rose above its previous hum, as the noise of the world often does whenever immediate silence knocks at the eardrum. The frequencies of everyone else’s conversations pierced their antennas and she heard a lawyer complain about the increasing number of his client’s indiscretions, and the clicking sound of a woman on a date with a very attractive younger man, texting her husband to say she was working late. A group of trainee doctors in the back corner took selfies with their cocktails and nattered about their estimated placements for the upcoming year after their DVTs in a few weeks. More than a few loners sat with their palms around a drink checking the news or Twitter or whatever else captured their eye onscreen. Blessings attracted a haphazard clientele because of its haphazard nature: the range of beer was as extensive as the cocktails, which weren’t cheap but were also far from weak.
Unlike every other bar on Commercial Street it stuck to what it knew best, meaning the interior exhibited the same faded, vintage charm it had for years and the ashtrays on the terrace were simply flowerpots. Given the chance, the staff were known to be genuine with customers (manners were not their strong point but they preferred a decent conversation when in the mood), and these customers more often than not became their friends and were dogmatically loyal to the ramshackle bar and its indistinct closing times.
When the barman moved away from them both scowling, Kathy stretched her arms behind her back and exhaled loudly as he walked off to collect empty glasses.
‘One of my Forbes Top 100 clients gave me hell today,’ she explained. ‘She thinks she deserves more than 20 per cent returns.’ She took a glug from her wine and then held it up to the dim chandelier hanging low over their heads. ’Do you ever wonder why it’s called ‘red’ wine? I get the white stuff, but red? Why not just dark?’
‘Tradition, probably,’ she shrugged, pretending to squint at her own glass.
‘Tradition gets you killed,’ Kathy said darkly, now looking down into the belly of the liquid. Occasionally, Kathy revealed a moment of insight into her family’s world, offering up memories caught between her words like seeds between teeth. But, like seeds, once they were spat out there was no way of recovering them.
‘As does smoking,’ Kathy continued, recovering her confidence and recomposing her features into the angular planes of beauty and deserving, pouting at her friend.
‘Maybe I don’t want to live forever.’
‘There’s quicker ways to commit suicide.’
‘Cheers,’ she raised her glass to Kathy, who smirked, raising her own in return. At that moment a group of men walked in, ranging between their late twenties and fifties, and positioned themselves at a large round table near the bar. They jabbered excitedly among themselves, jostling each other as they organised a round of drinks and the social pecking order that meant the youngest man was nominated to place the extensive order laced with showmanship. They would have appeared more civilised walking in on their hands and feet with their arses raised in the air, she thought, as she watched them over Kathy’s shoulder.
When he approached the bar to order, the young one threw a sloppy grin at her and was met with a stare that offered the same potential and threat as a black hole.
‘Smile, love,’ he called down the bar. She cocked her head and frowned at him with a comical, confused look as Kathy’s eyes narrowed.
‘Why?’ she asked him loudly.
‘Oh, don’t you know?’ Kathy chimed in, swivelling round so she, too, was facing the man, looking him up and down. ‘If you smile at him it gives him a free pass to look at your boobs.’
He shoved his hands in the pockets of his suit trousers and rolled up onto the balls of his feet, his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth.
‘Yeah? Well, when you wear something like that I don’t need a free pass,’ he sneered, raking his eyes over Kathy’s strapless jumpsuit which was much less modest now she had removed the blazer that kept it appropriate for the Arena. His blonde quiff jiggled as he nodded, proud of the remark. Before Kathy could respond she hopped off her stool, noting the incorrect pause in the middle of his sentence that revealed him to be an Essex boy, born and bred. She couldn’t stand Essex boys.
She swayed her hips, walking towards him and said, ‘Well, baby, when you got a bulge like that neither do I.’
She grabbed his belt buckle and pulled him towards her. He stiffened as she slowly undid his belt, smiling into his eyes. His friends cheered.
‘What are you doing?’ He tried to sound casual but she could see the pulse racing in his neck, drowning as the situation took him out of his depth.
She squatted so her head was level with his crotch. Suddenly, the entire bar fell silent and they watched his mouth drop open as she slowly undid the button and pulled down his zipper.
‘Stop it,’ he said to her quietly when she hooked a finger in his waistband. His hands hovered just above her head unsure of where to land. The group of men were all standing, now, deflating at the scene before them as the mock camaraderie was replaced by discomfort. Even the barman had disengaged himself from his phone.
The playlist skipped to the next song and in the silence she could hear the roar of her blood sparkling in her brain and his damp, shallow breaths. She rose slowly, still holding onto his waistband. She didn’t allow him to drop his gaze. Holding her face inches from his she roughly did up the button and zipper and fastened his belt in place one hole tighter. When she had pulled the leather strap through his belt loop she took a step back and let her smile that had been slowly dissolving disappear completely.
‘Ok,’ she said to him, before turning away to reclaim her stool at the bar and take a sip of her wine. Kathy’s head had followed her round with a huge grin winning out over her shocked brows.
‘That’s some shining armour you got there, lady,’ Kathy laughed.
‘Had it specially made so I could bend at the knees,’ she quipped, upending her glass and draining it. The glass quivered in her grasp as she slammed it onto the bar, painfully conscious of her flushed cheeks. The other customers shifted uncomfortably in their seats, whispering to each other and passing her shocked looks, which Kathy threw back at them imperiously. The man retreated back to his pack who were shooting disgusted glances at the two women and she saw some of their fists curls into balls of anger. She shuddered and reached for the wine bottle, a violent scene playing out in her head that left her lips stained with a different shade of red to the wine they were drinking.
The barman was pulling the fifth pint in the order when he called over to them.
‘Do you want to start a tab mate?’ The man scuttled back to the bar and pressed his thumb on the PrintPay reader, shooting daggers at the two girls. Kathy flashed him a cartoonish smile and he once again backed off. The conversation levels in the bar gradually returned to normal.
‘Damn,’ Kathy was saying, ‘I wish I’d filmed that.’
‘I’m sure someone did - keep an eye on the Feminazi hashtag on Twitter.’
‘You’re so dry. If you were a man I’d think you were funny.’ The girls giggled at that and refilled their glasses, putting the workday to bed and discussing their weekends. Milo’s party had been a disaster, apparently, with everyone making a swift exit after prematurely drinking him dry. Kathy had taken care to break a tap in his loo in unashamed jealousy of his Zone Two abode. She told Kathy about her father’s party and bumping into Bateman and Raoul.
‘His husband was there?’ Kathy frowned, swirling the liquid in her glass. ‘What’s he like?’
‘Same as he is on TV. Cool, calm, collected. Total snake. The perfect match, really. So I can’t understand why Bateman’s straying.’
‘Maybe he loves this other person,’ Kathy shrugged.
‘Oh, come on, Kath. The only thing that man loves is power and the money that buys it. Why do you think he went to bed with a politician?’
‘Well then, that just proves my point,’ Kathy persisted. ‘This person must be pretty special to jeopardise all that for.’
‘Or as weak as he thinks all women are, and therefore a safe bet that she’ll keep her mouth shut.’ Kathy said nothing but she could feel the drop in temperature between them and, keen to avoid venturing further into the dangerous territory of Bateman’s affair, she changed the subject.
‘Anyway, I have something exciting to tell you.’
Kathy was the perfect audience for her story about Robert and demanded to see the texts they had exchanged when the it was over.
‘Nice reply,’ Kathy nodded, impressed, ‘Where you going for dinner?’
‘No idea, I don’t know what Zone he’s in.’
‘So no guesses on his DV?’
‘No - and I don’t really care.’
‘You’ll end up eating at a takeaway in Five,’ Kathy muttered, handing the phone back. ‘Speaking of which-’
‘Takeaways in Five?’
‘No - Christ, have you finished your bottle already? Here, have some of mine - right. What was I saying? Right.’ Kathy frowned as her friend fell about laughing. ‘Shut up! This is serious. How are you feeling for the DVT?’
‘Fine,’ she said, stopping her giggles before continuing. ‘Are you not?’
‘I’m feeling the pressure to get into Two,’ Kathy admitted. ‘But I’ve been really looking after myself this past month to squeeze out the best results. You know, not drinking midweek etc-’ Kathy looked at the glass she was holding in her left hand and paused. ‘See, this is why you’re a bad influence Miss My-DV-Is-Through-The-Roof-And-I-Don’t-Need-To-Worry.’ It wasn’t at all unusual for people to do a lifestyle overhaul in the month before the DVTs. Other methods for scoring high included a wacky diet fad each year (this year it was raw food), a militant daily cardiovascular exercise regime in the month beforehand, endless yoga classes, self-help podcasts and anonymous digital sharing support groups. The DVT was not merely a test of professional and spending ability, but also an assessment of mental health, physical health, holistic emotional well being and intellectual capabilities. In Zones One to Four online presence was a fifth factor, but it was these first four elements that streamed children for school and were the cardinal pieces of evidence for securing entry into ranked universities, and later, careers.
‘Please - you know mine could drop just as much as it could go up,’ she said to Kathy almost pleadingly. Kathy shook her head.
‘Nope, we both know that’s not true. Not unless you fall so ill you can’t work. Your track record’s too good.’ Kathy was right. Her degree was merely a formality after her immensely successful years at work, and so her DV was based purely on her work output. She was one of the few whose work success was so secure it outweighed the other components. Perhaps if she didn’t smoke or drink, or slept more, or spent more, or tweeted more she would qualify for Zone One. She didn’t care enough to find out. Had she not started smoking because something deep in her once whispered the long march to her eighties would be too much to bear?
‘I could get depression,’ she mumbled to Kathy, her cheeks burning with shame.
‘Ha!’ Kathy chimed. ‘Since when? Anyway, knowing you, you could probably claim sick leave saying it was temporary. Really - you can do no wrong. Unlike us mere mortals.’ Kathy took a sip and sighed deeply. ‘I’m worried I’ve peaked. That I’ll never get into Two. My DV’s plateaued since we graduated; my work results are good, but they’ve been the same this year; and it’s not like my shopping’s ever been minimalist. I’m at the top of my game,’ she shrugged, spinning her glass by its stem, ‘and here’s my glass ceiling.’
‘You don’t know that. Maybe once you pay off your uni fees-’
‘It’s going to be another three years is what they told me last DVT. Doesn’t take a genius to work out that’s not the stuff of a Two resident.’ She took another sip from her glass. ‘Whatever.’
In the evening dim Kathy’s clenched face looked like a teen’s hidden underneath the thin, glamorous layer of make-up; her large, bright eyes welled up and her brows carried the wounded confusion of a child destined to be the stress ball for the parent they adore unconditionally.
‘I don’t like the needles,’ she offered, leaning forward to squeeze Kathy’s forearm in support. ‘Hated it since I was a kid. When you’re in that chamber and you can feel them coming at you…’ She trailed off, grimacing.
‘I know,’ Kathy nodded in agreement. ’A simple ‘how are you’ would suffice.’
‘Yeah, you don’t need a machine to fish my well-being out of my brain,’ she shuddered.
‘I wish we could have our phones on us during it. Something to play with, you know. I get so bored.’
‘Maybe in the Outer Zones where their software’s not tested. Although I doubt there’s enough room in the chamber with you.’
’Why do they run reports on your stuff if you work in One to Four?’
‘See what you’re spending, what your social media is generating, your influence-’
‘No I know all that,’ Kathy cut across her, ‘but why not Five to Nine?’
‘Maybe they assume no one will have any influence working in there. Maybe they don’t want to know.’
‘The jump from Five to Four must be fucking hard,’ Kathy mused. ‘Although I suppose most don’t jump in the Outer Zones, just people in One, Two and Three.’
‘Most people only get two chances to jump from the Zone they were born into. The DVT for school streaming and the DVT after you leave uni.’
Kathy hissed in the air between her teeth, ‘Remember that one? I was so stressed.’
‘Which is weird, if you think about it, because there’s nothing you can do about it. Although I’d been streamed at Two…’ She paused and poured a glass of wine from Kathy’s bottle into her glass. It was rare for Londoners to have been streamed into the wrong Zone for schooling, whereas children from other cities had less of a guarantee coming into the capital for work.
‘Wait,’ Kathy turned to her, frowning, ‘if you were streamed for Two how come you ended up in Three after Cambridge? You didn’t have any debt to pay off.’
’My DVT results after finals said I was a ‘mercurial’ character, so my Value was a range rather than a number. They put me in Three to shock me, I think,’ she smiled sadly.
‘Weird. I’ve never heard of ranges that big before.’
‘You should see what’s in my pants,’ she winked at Kathy.
‘Is that why you went so mad at Pride that year?’
‘Kinda,’ she said, pushing her tongue against her bottom teeth. They’d had one hell of a weekend, having secured their jobs and been assigned their Zones based on that DVT. They had joined the National Pride parade with a bloated sense of worth, although it was anger that had kept her partying through to Monday morning. Anger and a lot of drugs.
‘That comedown was a bitch.’
‘I’ll bet,’ Kathy said, stifling a yawn. ‘What are we doing for it this year?’
‘Same as we do every year - get dressed up, dance, march around and then party all night.’
’We should host a party.’
‘We?’ She could see exactly what Kathy was angling at.
‘Ok, by we I mean you - you should have a party at yours. With both of us as hosts, of course.’
She laughed. ‘Maybe - but I don’t know enough people I like to fill up my flat.’
‘It’s Pride! People will just wander in off the streets, you know that.’
‘That fills me with confidence,’ she giggled. ‘Maybe. Can you ask me again when I’m stone cold sober?’
‘Drunk you is a far better judge considering you’ll be wasted at Pride.’ Kathy’s head bobbed up and down, proud of her sound reasoning.
‘Good point.’ The young barman’s forearms were distracting her as he shook a cocktail by his ear. She tilted her head as she watched him. Had he always been that attractive? He certainly was now, with his unnecessarily serious gaze sweeping the floor.
‘It’s home time.’ Kathy’s voice rang in her fantasy like a church bell. Her elbow was propped on the bar and she noticed she was stroking her lips with her fingertips. She quickly rested her chin on her hand instead.
‘I’m going to stay for a bit.’
Kathy was pulling on her coat by this point, standing beside the stool. She looked up as she slid her left arm into the sleeve, opening her mouth to say something before narrowing her eyes and glancing slyly at the barman.
‘No one would believe me if I said you’re worse than me.’
‘That’s because you talk the talk.’
Kathy snorted. ’Yeah, but you do a lot more ‘walking’.’ She turned to the barman. ’I need to settle up.’
The women hugged after Kathy swiped her thumb and left, waving as she walked out the door. She fished in her bag for the cigarette she’d been gasping for the past hour.
‘Got a light?’ she asked the barman, sneakily zipping her own in the inside pocket of her bag. Lighting up outside she checked her phone to see a message from Kathy already:
He looks like a teenager.
She smiled, hunched against the wind on the street and took a drag. Her eyes watered from the smoke that swam into her eyes when she clamped the cigarette in her teeth and typed out a reply. She sat down on the bench and put her phone on the table in front of her, looking up at the sky that had not been black for years because of the millions of lights from the city infecting its surface. Her phone buzzed again:
The ‘R’ of the message blurred slightly and she blinked hard to bring it back into focus. What about Robert? She puffed on the cigarette, enjoying the smoke rolling down her throat and holding it in her chest for a few moments before flooding her mouth again and exhaling. She watched a middle-aged twosome hold each other up as they stumbled past, giggling and whispering secrets only couples think are important. They fell against the plastic screen in the bus stop on her right, blocking the advert for a tooth whitening serum. They grinned at each other like labradors and rubbed their noses softly. Then his hand moved to her backside and clenched and, as if he’d pressed a magic button, she leaned up to press her mouth against his so quickly she almost fell over in her heels. They were in that awkward decade when you have to be drunk to want to have sex with each other, she thought. The next decade they wouldn’t want to at all.
She puffed on her cigarette, knowing she should go home. The wind bit at her neck and she shivered, thinking of her narrative penned by machines. Stubbing the fag out on the table, she put her phone back in her pocket and turned to the door, seeking heat inside.