By Gary Raymond

He knew when he lied to her about what he did for a living that he would feel guilt, but he hadn’t expected the relaxation to come, the relief. I work in marketing. He didn’t know where that had come from. Everything he had planned to say to her when he finally found the right time to approach was forgotten in an instant, and he said, Could I just say I’m a big fan?

She smiled at him with a honed sincerity, the lean of the head, the hand to the hairline. He had been terrified that this moment would only go sour, that she would recoil from the interruption of her virgin cocktail, her virgin mimosa, the kind of interruption that must have happened to her too often. But she was warm to him, her smile was relaxed and he saw crows’ feet at the corners of her eyes that the glossies never showed. They looked good, Lash thought. Her voice, it was smooth and considered, and it sounded so much more mature now he wasn’t listening to it through those tinny headphones. Her voicemail, after all, was surprisingly formal, surprisingly flat, and it wasn’t this that had fascinated him about her. It was the testimony he had been enlivened by, the gratitude for good deeds, small and not so small, that grew and grew – her friends, her mother, her manager, her producer, her co-stars, her young son, former university friends, an old teacher. In the sixteen weeks Lash had been hacking her voicemail he had heard them all say thank you to her for one thing or another.

A few words about his working day at this point may shine a light on his willingness to be drawn to the silent good. He would make a point of not spending more than five hours going through voicemails, not more than that in one day. It corroded the soul, even more so if he found something rotten. Rot meant gold. Gold was the rottenest thing there was in Lash’s experience. So no matter what was being said, no matter how close to gold it may have been, at five hours the headphones were removed and the switch flicked off. But with her he had forgotten himself, forgotten his rule. There had been no gold, no rot.

He had practiced broaching a conversation over and over again. Could I just say I’m a big fan? And then he would laugh, exhale, drop his shoulders, bend his knees, he would become a bashful teenager. Would he shake her hand, hold his hand out for her to shake? Twelve hours and he removed the headphones. Brushed ash from his sleeve. She would not wave him away. She was too good-a-person for that. It seemed like the right time to meet her, seeing as she had just put an end to a not-very serious relationship with a co-star, and Lash’s editor had called him to say he was a week late with the story and shit rolls down hill blah blah blah. When you work for a newspaper you are always thinking about your ideal reader, but that reader has a million faces and a million tongues and when that reader goes to bed at night your words are resting in a million heads. And here was Philip Lash, with just one voice, wanting to spend time with just one person, one soul. Some nights Lash lay in bed and tried to crush those voices, tried to listen only to her. Some nights he played her voicemail message over and over, not because he wanted to, but because it gave him hope. He got drunk and almost left his own message. Thank you.

She declined the offer to buy her a drink, as she doesn’t drink alcohol and there is really no gift, no chivalry, in lining up virgin mimosas. Is it a virgin mimosa? he said, and she smiled and frowned and said well spotted and Lash didn’t mention that he had never even heard of a virgin mimosa before he started listening in on her, never mind been able to identify one in a bar. And how could he anyway? Why assume it had no alcohol in it? Alcohol is the invisible ingredient and it was absent. The invisible absence. It was the middle of the afternoon, sure, but it was still a wild assumption, but she didn’t seem to linger on it and Lash quickly moved the conversation on. He had been terrified of making a mistake like this, letting slip that he was anything other than a random stranger who had happened upon an actress he admired from her roles on stage and screen. That morning he walked around his apartment and said over and over again, Hello, my name is Philip Lash and I’ve been monitoring your voicemail for sixteen weeks. He was hoping it would get it out of his system.

Dirt dirt dig up the dirt. Lash had made himself a little jingle that at first was composed to mock his editor, but became a chant, a mantra, a lament. With her he wondered if there was a chance to start over. He wasn’t an idiot. He wasn’t expecting someone like her to go for someone like him, but my god, just a touch of a real person, someone who keeps all this poison at arms length. Dirt dirt dig up the dirt. Dirt is the task, why don’t they realise that? There’s no dirt on her. Even her co-star, with whom she had recently ended that non-serious relationship, spoke in soft and appreciative tones when he said she had been unfair and that she had led him on and how his wife had found out. Lash waited for the shoot to be over, and for her co-star to be back home in Beverly Hills, before approaching her that mid-afternoon in the bar. So you got nothing? his editor said. Nothing.

Lash was part of a very closed group. There were six of them who knew what was being done. And his editor had talent. He knew to put Lash on the morality cases, because Lash had a strong sense of ethics, he said. Lash is no good for chasing down murder victims, for instance. Where will he stand if we find out the mother of a murdered schoolgirl has been having it off with the milkman? He won’t like that. He won’t be able to turn those one sentence paragraphs into a moral judgment on the mother, and how she most likely contributed to her daughter’s murder with her own lack of morals. Pushing her away, making her unsafe with her own floozy behavior. Lash isn’t up to that. He’d say there are shades of grey, let the woman mourn. Put Lash on the celebrity infidelities. Just who the fuck do these people think they are? They play the game and we will take them down. They need us. They must be squeaky clean. And if they are squeaky clean, well then we’ll wait for them to fart in church and then we’ll kill the fuckers. They’re all fuckers. Everyone was a fucker in that office. No warmth, no love, no respect. Just how can we make somebody miserable? That was how Lash would describe it if he was ever put up on the stand in court and asked to describe the atmosphere, ethos, and mission statement of the editorial meeting rooms: How can we make somebody miserable?

It had never been in his mind to make people happy. He recognized happiness, but it just wasn’t for him, it wasn’t part of his world. And that’s the only world that matters when it comes to it. But he wanted some air, he wanted to prick the bubble now he realised it was a bubble. He knew she wanted out of a bubble too. The co-star with whom she had been having the non-serious relationship said that he understood when she said she was through with dating actors and that he understood the look in her eye. She was getting further from happiness rather than closer to it. She was in a spiral, and every man she made a connection with had no interest in her normality, just her talent and her passion and her darkness and her glamour. Lash wanted to get away from the corrosive swirl of the newsroom. She wanted to have normality. Poison all round. They talked for a while. She teased things out of him. He did most of the talking and everything settled, like sand on a plain. I know this is crazy, but would you like to get a coffee sometime, or a non-alcoholic cocktail? Why would that be crazy? Well, you know, who you are, and I’m just a guy in marketing… I’m not from Mars… I know I know… So let’s have a coffee… or a non-alcoholic cocktail… you can have alcohol… I can?… Sure, I’m a very gregarious tea-totaller, y’know… well, that’s good to know… So I’m saying yes to the date – you did just ask me out on a date didn’t you?… Ha well yes I did, although I don’t know how… Well, don’t worry about that for now, you write your number down here and I’ll write my number down here and we’ll check our diaries and go from there… yes, that would be good, I’d like that. And Lash wrote down his number on the napkin, and she wrote down hers, even though he already knew her number.

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This story was shortlisted for Open Pen Issue Seventeen.

Gary Raymond is the editor of Wales Arts Review.

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