‘Ice cream?’ you said and I said I’d have a 99 and you got up, patting the pocket of your jeans.
I was lying on my back, squinting against the sun, and I watched through a screen of small red tadpoles with squirming tails as you pushed back your hair, which was very thick and black and lay flat just for a moment before springing up in a crest like the fur of an angry cat. Then I turned onto my front because I didn’t want my nose to peel and closed my eyes.
There were kids in the river fishing for sticklebacks; I could hear them splashing and squealing and someone further along the bank was playing Walking on the Moon on their transistor. People passed and I heard the squeak of bike or buggy wheels and a man’s voice talking about seagulls. They could live up to thirty years he was saying and I wondered what had made him think of gulls so far inland…
And there must be a long queue I thought too, because the van wasn’t that far away and I pushed myself up on my elbows but all I saw was a kid on a tiny bike going much too fast, wobbling wildly with his dad racing behind.
‘Timmy!’ he was yelling. ‘Not so fast Timmy. You’ll come off!’
And then the front wheel swerved suddenly sideways and the kid flew off sideways as well, skidding and grating along the rough pathway so that bits of stick and gravel spattered against me and I got up, because I could hardly just lie there with him screeching to high heaven and blood pouring down his face.
Luckily there was a woman with a pack of tissues and I only had to hold the bike while she dabbed at him and he howled and clutched at his dad and the damp children came up from the river and stood round to watch.
I didn’t look for you because you must be almost back by now and it would look good, me being helpful, holding the bike, but by the time he’d been cleaned up and they’d gone, the dad carrying the kid and leaning sideways to wheel the bike, you still hadn’t come.
And you never did.
I went back to where we’d been lying and sat with my arms round my knees staring at the river and the tree on the far bank and the windows of the college opposite with the sun catching on the glass as if someone was sending signals and I suppose I knew you weren’t coming but I felt too afraid and empty inside to just give up and walk away.
The children dried themselves on grubby towels and went home with their nets and jam jars. The couple with the tranny sauntered off dangling it between them and the young man with a beard and sketch pad, who’d arrived after you left, finished drawing the willows and packed up and, although it was still warm and the sky was still postcard blue and my shoulders were red with sunburn, I felt myself start to shake.
‘You look great in that sundress,’ you’d said but it hadn’t stopped you going off for ice creams and not coming back and in the end there was nothing else to do but trail back alone along the path, where a million floating poplar seeds were falling like snow and there were still marks in the dust from Timmy’s skidding bike.
Thirty years ago and I still go back sometimes and wonder. Did something happen on your way to the ice cream van that just made you forget about me? Or had you planned it all beforehand; bored because I was three years younger and not as bright as you; because I was still at school and you were at university, reading chemistry? Which, if that was the case, was both cruel and cowardly and I’m still not sure that when I searched the local paper for something like Promising Student Hit By Swerving Truck – Still In Intensive Care, I didn’t think this would be the more appealing option.
Because then I would at least have felt better about myself. Tragic, rather than humiliated.
I might even have made something of my life.
Instead of which I’m still, thirty years on, waiting for you to come sauntering back down that path. Still hoping for a re-run, this time without the skidding bike, the screams and blood but with you in your torn jeans reappearing through the heat-haze, two ice creams melting down your hairy arms.
I did pluck up the courage, eventually, to go to your digs. That horrid, terraced house with sheets of tie dye hanging at the windows, walls covered in the Clash and the Pogues, slugs in the kitchen and leaking pipes lagged with stinking old sweaters. It was Stu who answered, with his glazed eyes and greasy clothes, and he said you weren’t there. Field trip, he said, looking shifty. He wasn’t sure where.
‘Want to come in?’ he said but I said no.
Early afternoons are always quiet. It’s mostly conference trade during the week and delegates don’t generally start arriving before five. It’s easy to keep an eye on Reception from the bar, while I get ready for the evening – check optics, chop lemons, top up the olives, that sort of thing.
It’s cosy in here, low beams, dark settles, a million dust motes dancing on the beam of sunlight slanting in to leave a golden puddle on the crimson carpet.
On the wall the television shows silent pictures above red, running titles. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry leaps from a limo, bounds up a flight of steps, shakes hands with men in suits. A car explodes in vivid orange flames. A line of swimmers fling themselves into a pool…
And then, as I wipe smears from the mirror behind the bar, a car stops outside the reflected front entrance and two men get out.
They take their time. Stand looking over the gardens – deep orange dahlias against a background of delphiniums and ornamental grasses. Exchange comments. Laugh, bending towards each other and then straightening, stepping backwards as if someone is pulling their strings.
The sign at Reception reads Welcome Symons-Wymondley International.
‘Good afternoon. Ross Westbrook, Symons-Wymondley. I imagine we’re the first – flight was actually on time!’
The slick young man, suit so sharp it should still be on the dummy, strides across the foyer, shows orthodontically perfect teeth and grips me in a firm, professional handshake. He gestures to his companion.
‘David Taylor, our C.E.O.’
From his tone of voice he could be introducing God.
A tall man, slim, early fifties, dark-eyed, black hair flecked with grey, expensively styled and yet, as he gives an appraising glance around the foyer, he pushes a hand through it so that it lies, for one moment, flat then rises in a crest, like the fur of an angry cat.
‘Welcome to Watchet Hall. Your rooms are all ready,’ I tell him. The C.E.O. of Symons-Wymondley International. David Taylor. The man who, thirty years ago, went off along the river bank to get me a 99.
He smiles a warm, brief smile – a man used to meeting people who matter less than he does. Signs the register. Takes his key card. He is in the Cam Suite, first floor front, I tell him. The porter will take his bags.
‘A homecoming for you, isn’t it?’ I comment. ‘To your university, at any rate,’ as his head jerks back, a little puzzled. This less important person, he must be thinking, has read his cv – which is probably included in the glossy pack I placed on every conference room chair this morning. This man at the top of his game.
‘Derryn Matthews,’ I say – although it’s printed on my badge. ‘I used to be Derryn Robertshaw.’
The world may be full of David Taylors – we’ve had some here over the years and I always check them – but I’ve never met another Derryn Robertshaw.
And my legs, I realise, are trembling. Someone inside my stomach is plucking tight-stretched harp strings. My hand shakes as I press the bell for the porter and when I rest my fingers on the desk there are white pressure marks across the nails.
‘Good heavens! ’ He blinks. Pauses. Looks again. Takes a step backwards and smiles, open-mouthed and this time his eyes smile with his lips. ‘How are you?’ he asks. Oblivious.
‘I’m…’ And there I stop. For this is not a chance encounter with an old school friend, someone I once worked with or met on holiday. This is the only man I ever loved. Who walked out of my life without bothering to mention he was going, taking with him my confidence and all my teenage dreams.
Who has, quite evidently, forgotten every detail.
We met at the cinema, David and I – ‘Blow Up’ at the Arts to which Emma and I had gone because we had a thing about David Hemmings and hadn’t realised how scary it would be – all those rustling leaves and shadows and we kept thinking about the park we had to pass on the way home. Which was why we loitered in the foyer afterwards. Which was where we met David and his friend.
Dad didn’t like me going out with an undergraduate. He was too old for me, he said, and they were all the same; only after one thing. Which may have been true but at least he always had a pack of Durex and wasn’t like some boys, who were only too keen to say they’d be careful; it would be ok… Which was how Emma ended up pregnant at seventeen.
We went out for six months, David and I. The most – the only – exciting six months of my life, full of parties, discos, even his college hops. We did all those studenty things like punting and driving out to the Fens and in the really hot weather when he was meant to be working for his exams, we’d take a picnic to our special place beside the Cam.
And then he did what my father had always said he’d do, although I’m not sure even Dad thought he would do it in such a painful way.
If we’d had a row… If he’d said he’d met someone else – one of his intimidatingly intelligent fellow undergraduates perhaps… If he’d written during the long vacation, when he was going sailing in the Greek islands… It would have hurt. Of course it would. But I would have got over it.
I might still have gone back occasionally to what I thought of, with pathetic sentimentality, as ‘our place’ but I wouldn’t have tried to recreate, with such desperate intensity, that afternoon. As if, by sitting on the same rug, in the same dress, with the same copy of Samson Agonistes unread beside me, I could conjure up little, speeding Timmy, send him crashing off his bike and then see, over his father’s shoulders, my black-haired David coming along the path carrying two cones with Cadburys Flakes sticking out of the top.
No wonder I failed my A levels, got a hotel job and married Ian. Kind, reliable, boring Ian who deserves better but is probably too boring to realise it.
Like being in a house during a power cut. Life with the lights out.
Things are going on around me. Scott Westbrook darts about the foyer, a well-trained sheepdog, rounding up bags and laptops. Sam, the porter, takes them deferentially, sensing a generous tip. A black Mercedes pulls up outside. A sudden breeze shakes the overloaded hanging baskets in the portico and crimson begonia petals drop to lie like pools of blood on the polished slate. The cd changes and the musak which merged so blandly with the pale pile carpet, the tastefully framed prints of fenland scenes, the floor length brocade curtains with their plaited swags, alters to something livelier and more dangerous. Spanish, with undertones of bull ring.
David’s steady, open gaze above his smile – the kind he must give to reassure his shareholders – stays fixed on me. The old acquaintance he, the businessman superstar, is pleased to acknowledge. Doesn’t even notice my unfinished sentence.
During the night it starts to rain. Sleepless, I hear the first few hesitant drops, followed by angry fistfuls flung against the windows, overflowing gutters to drown the geraniums in the bed below.
It’s dry by morning but the sky, as I drive into work, is dark with low-slung clouds as the porters sweep compost and broken begonia heads from the steps.
I am sent – ‘deployed’ as Mark, the conference manager, calls it – to the conference room to check supplies of bottled water, document wallets, notepads and complimentary pens, then wait, invisible, in case photocopies are needed or the projector breaks down.
Delegates check iPads or stand chatting in confidential groups. Some work on their laptops. One scans the Independent.
Outside the tall windows the rain re-starts, heavy drops whipped sideways by gusts of wind to snap the heads of the few surviving dahlias.
David – elegant in grey with pale blue shirt and dark red tie – materialises at the platform table, flanked by minions, and the groups break, take their seats and look attentive as he welcomes them, hopes they have had good journeys and slept well. On cue the lights dim, a violin plays wistful phrases and on the screen behind him the words ‘Symons-Wymondley Leading The World In Agrochemicals’ appear above dramatic miles of dust bowl, crossed by the tiny shadow of a plane and transformed in moments into shimmering fields of golden wheat. ‘Leading The World’ morphs into ‘Growing The World‘, the words expanding as they fly towards us until they swallow us entirely, the single violin becoming a full orchestra of throbbing chords.
Followed by silence, lights and applause. David inclines his head in modest acceptance and introduces the Financial Director in city pin stripes, who projects coloured graphs and pie charts and talks in trillions as I creep away.
It is, one of the delegates tells me in the bar at lunchtime – a cynical Australian, his suit a few degrees less sharp than most – a ‘motivational get together’. Senior managers sharing success and planning strategy – he grins at his own management speak – across the global family and David is ‘the man’.
‘Turned the company on its head in the past five years. He’s one tough operator, I tell you,’ he says, turning towards the buffet where he piles his plate with chicken vol-aux-vents and battered prawns.
Outside wild gusts blow across the grounds, flinging crows about the charcoal sky like the charred fragments of some disastrous fire. A gardener crouches among the flowerbeds staking delphiniums. Great bracts of grasses, whose light and fluffy heads swayed elegantly in yesterday’s breeze, droop dark and weighted down by water.
And all, it transpires during the afternoon, is not as golden as those glorious fields of wheat. There has been dissent, my Australian friend tells me later, and some delegates have questioned whether Symons-Wymondley should operate in countries with repressive governments.
The Board’s view is that higher yields can only benefit the native population – and bring the company higher profits, he adds with a twisted smile. Others say the money goes straight into dictators’ pockets, to pay for finer, more secure palaces, bullet-proof limos and larger armies. Amnesty International talks of Corporate Responsibility and the immorality of investment in repressive regimes.
There is a different atmosphere in the bar tonight. Less back-slapping and laughter and more intense conversations in closed-off groups. More heads turning to glance nervously over shoulders. More mutterings into phones. David, who dispensed his charm so effortlessly last night, is not to be seen. It is rumoured that an emergency board meeting has been called.
The sky, as I drive home, is very black. Wisps of cloud tear urgently across it, the moon is a narrow crescent holding within it the glow of its full self and a trillion stars glimmer around it.
In a field beyond the hotel grounds people appear to be camping. Below the pine trees four or five dark humps show pale glows of light from torches or lanterns and I think what an odd site this is to choose and how cold they must be after all that rain.
As I drive in next morning I see at least a dozen tents in the soggy field and a ragged cluster of men and women gathered on the gravel below the hotel entrance. A bright-painted banner announces ‘PEOPLE BEFORE PROFIT’ on a background of red and green and there are placards – DON’T INVEST IN DICTATORS and S-W – SELLING OUT TO THE WORLD.
Mark stands anxiously at the top of the steps, two porters behind him, looking like men who are not about to take action. The conference room curtains are tightly closed.
In the kitchen there is great excitement – the demonstrators appeared, apparently, first thing and although they’ve done no more than chant slogans Mark has called the police.
They might, after all, start breaking windows. They might storm the building. They may have guns… Grenades… Bombs…
The housekeeper, who has seen it all before, tells them to pack it in. They’re not mercenaries, she says. Just a bunch of harmless hippies.
Chef says he’ll sort them with his knives if they disrupt his lunchtime buffet. The police will deal with it, one of the waiters tells him. Tasers, he says, menacingly. Long batons. Stun guns…
A chambermaid bursts into tears. The housekeeper raises her eyes to heaven.
Outside the conference room David stands within a huddle of smart suits. They should carry on regardless, I hear him say. Keep it low key. No need to lose their cool.
‘Not that I expected this,’ he adds, turning away. ‘Thought there might be trouble from the GM mob. Not this.’
He goes into the conference room to a spattering of applause.
The murmur of distant sirens comes closer.
And not just the police.
Excluded from the conference room, which has been locked, I watch from the lobby as the press arrive, journalists in Saab 900s and battered Golfs, photographers on motorbikes, who try to push their way in through the staff entrance but set up camp eventually in front of the broken dahlias on the sodden lawn, where they take endless photographs and interview every protester they can find.
A television van arrives, topped with dramatic aerials, and a tanned, familiar-looking man, as smartly-suited as the conference delegates, followed by another in shirt sleeves with a camera on his shoulder, talks to his microphone and interviews a tall young man with dreadlocks and a grey-haired woman in boots and a long, brown skirt.
He needs, he tells Mark, bounding up the steps unimpeded by police, smile on full beam, to speak to David Taylor. Get his side of the story. For the lunch time bulletin. Ross Westbrook materialises from the coffee room, greets him as an old friend, says he’s sorry.
‘No can do, old man. Press statement at five. Nothing before that, I‘m afraid.’
Which is no good at all, his old friend tells him. The ‘other lot’ will be onto it by then.
Westbrook smiles, shrugs, holds out his upturned palms…
There is to be an emergency board meeting this afternoon, Mark hisses across Reception as if it might be bugged. David Taylor, word is, is fighting for his life. Or at least his career. There’s a lot of unrest in there – he jerks his head towards the conference room. People are out to get him. If he can’t win them over he’s history.
He walks off across the lobby, brisk and managerial in case the cameras catch him.
Beyond the glass doors police, protestors and media wait. Beyond them the sun shines from a clear sky, foliage glints from the devastated gardens, bright green and newly washed, and I feel sorry for the delegates, hot and argumentative behind closed curtains and locked doors.
In the bar, the television shows the outside of the hotel with our familiar journalist standing on the steps. It is make or break time, he is saying as I turn up the sound, for David Taylor, charismatic boss of agrichemical giants Symons-Wymondley. A hitherto hush-hush meeting has been disrupted by attacks on their record on human rights.
‘Yesterday afternoon,’ his voice lowers dramatically, ‘an unknown source within the organisation tipped off protestors who gathered overnight to picket this exclusive hotel in the remote area of Cambridgeshire where Symons-Wymondley managers from across the globe are holding a strategic planning meeting. They are now holed up,’ the camera swerves to show our curtained windows, ‘inside the conference hall where, this afternoon, the fate of David Taylor may well be decided.’
With which he returns us to the studio.
And you have the look, I have to say, of a man whose fate is about to be decided. At lunch time you look exhausted. Your skin not so much tanned as sallow. Your hand presses through your thick hair and the crest stands up more angrily than ever. Ross Westbrook fusses, offers to select your lunch but you refuse, glancing across to where I’m pouring apple juice, a faint half smile on your lips.
Stirrings of memory, I wonder but see you turn to more important people, more important things.
Board members arrive, some, impressively, by helicopter on the back lawn, running as people do in newsreels, bent forward, hands held to heads. Others, flanked by police cars, run the gamut of the protestors in Jaguars and BMWs.
‘Ethics before profits!’ the protestors chant as they hurry up the steps. ‘Ethics before profits. Don’t support dictators!’
On the television screen a neat-suited woman from Amnesty International speaks in front of a glass-fronted building but I am too far away to read her words.
A room is made available for the emergency meeting and the delegates mill about leaderless, their programme suspended. Some hiss into their phones, hands pressed, as if they have earache, against their other ears. Others cluster in groups. Some drift into the bar.
You are a strong leader, I hear them say. Dynamic. Ruthless. Decisive. They admire that in you. Most of them. One woman – blonde hair scraped back so tightly that her hairline is receding – is less certain. The protesters, she says, have a point. Powerful multi-nationals like S.W. have a responsibility…
‘D.T.’s a tough leader.’ She obviously enjoys initials. ‘But he lacks sensitivity.’
There have been rumblings, she adds, in the German office.
There are always rumblings, someone says, in the German office and no-one gets to be C.E.O by being sensitive.
‘All the same…’ A younger man. Ernest with rimless specs. ‘Public opinion’s a volatile beast. We can’t afford bad press.’
Outside, protestors, media and changing shifts of police officers prowl about the gravel, spilling onto the grass. A Buddhist monk in saffron robes bangs on a tiny drum in counterpoint to the chanting. Journalists and photographers smoke, chat and eat crisps.
Just after three the board meeting ends. Ross Westbrook announces that the conference will re-convene in half an hour and delegates hurry to the hall. Photographers rush the steps to press their cameras against the glass and are hauled back by the police.
‘Ethics before profits!’ the protestors chant.
The board members have left their meeting room, phones clamped to their ears and you sit alone at the table, surrounded by papers. Scribbling, bizarrely, in pencil. As I clear cups you stop writing, flick back a page, make alterations, gather up the sheets, tap them against the table to neaten the pile…
Then you look across at me and smile.
Not the intimate smile of thirty years ago; the lover’s smile of the man who sauntered off to get ice creams and never brought them back. This is the executive smile. The smile of the important, busy man who can still, nevertheless, take trouble to charm the less important people. The smile of the important, busy man about to delegate…
‘If you wouldn’t mind…’ You hold out the pencil-scribbled sheets. ‘Could you get these typed up and put in order? Pronto.’ You smile again. ‘Get them to me in the conference room.’
I take them and smile back. Not the intimate lover’s smile. The smile of the efficient, trustworthy employee.
I’m quick on the keyboard and it takes less than ten minutes. Checking takes a little longer. This is obviously the address with which you originally intended to end the conference, re-written with additions and, although I know little enough about agrichemicals, I can see that what you have added is a statement of commitment not to change direction. The company has, you say, embarked on a course, planned and agreed after months of consultation. Showing weakness now can only lead to disaster. It is vital that they maintain their trust.
I print out the document and replace it in the folder. Then I take it downstairs and hand it to the security guard on duty outside the conference room. The view from the front lobby is blocked by a line of police but I catch glimpses of waving placards and a photographer perched precariously astride a step ladder. The chanting and drumming goes relentlessly on…
Conference sessions are usually filmed. As a record and for possible use in promotional materials. Not, however, today. Symons-Wymondley won’t be using these proceedings in any promotional materials and the large cupboard Mark likes to call the ’media suite’ is empty.
I switch on the camera and watch the screen.
Things are not going well. Someone – the camera shows only the top table – says you have ‘compromised the integrity’ of the company. Someone else – a woman, perhaps the thin-haired blonde – accuses you, to muffled boos, of arrogance and complacency. Shareholders, a man insists, will not be happy with adverse publicity…
At last there is a pause. You stand up, look round the room, ask if everyone has had their say. You glance down at the table, finger lightly the glossy folder containing your fresh-minted address, look up again, smiling slightly.
It is time for you to fight for your career, the silence in the room is thick with tension and I feel the twang of fear inside my empty stomach as we wait.
‘I want to share with you,’ you start, ‘my vision for the company I am proud to lead…’
Your voice is calm, assured; you speak fluently, standing tall and confident, no longer tired, and I recognise the words I typed less than an hour ago – and watch as you glance down once more, flip open the folder on the table in front of you…
And stop speaking.
For how long? A minute? Thirty seconds? Perhaps only ten but how those seconds matter.
Even on my small screen I can tell that. The attentive, expectant silence takes on a new character. Becomes puzzled, uncertain and then embarrassed as you stare, lips parted, one hand raised, automatically, to your hair, then look up, blank and then, remembering at last, let out a long-caught breath before you clear your throat and carry on.
You have lost your confidence, your audience and your flow. You harangue rather than inspire, repeat yourself, lose threads… Board members beside you at the table shift in their seats. One reaches for the paper you thrust so angrily from your folder and sits back, looking startled.
As well he might.
For what could there possibly be, to throw a man like you so disastrously off your stride, in a simple, not-too-well executed drawing of an ice cream cornet, with a stick of flaky chocolate protruding, like the muzzle of a cannon, from the top?