‘I think . . .’ said Robert, touching the tip of his forefinger momentarily to his lips and frowning down at the floor. ‘I think I just reached a point where I was like, if it’s not now, then I’m not interested. You know?’
Jacques DeCoverley, to whom Robert was speaking, absorbed this statement like a particularly complex scent he had just detected on the air, angling his head and eyes slightly upwards and flaring his nostrils in appreciation. He had a way of manufacturing a reflective smile, as if he’d been ambushed by yet another sadness or paradox it remained his nobly silent burden to shoulder.
‘Who wants to write something that’s already yesterday?’ he said, arching a copious eyebrow and peeling away a lock of tightly curled hair that had adhered to the patina of sweat on his forehead.
Jess watched them – their little dance, their little chess match of self-consciousness – feeling screened-off, remote.
‘But then . . .’ said Robert. ‘What isn’t yesterday these days?’
The smile slithered back across DeCoverley’s lips as he took a moment to ponder just how much was yesterday right now.
‘Indeed,’ he said, taking a ruminative sip of his negroni and slicking a finger across his glossy brow. ‘These are post-present times.’
Jess, standing slightly behind DeCoverley’s elbow and out of his sightline, tried to catch Robert’s eye so she could make a face. It struck her that once, in a different time of their lives, he would already have been looking, attendant to her expression. Indeed, they had met at a function not dissimilar to this one. Then, as some man she could no longer name, inflated by the imagined importance of his own opinions, had not once but three times interrupted her, Robert had cut across him, angling his shoulder to communicate the man’s irrelevance, and said, with a conspiratorial glint in his eye, But what do you think . . . Jess, isn’t it? Now, his need to let her know he was listening had dwindled. When he did glance her way, it was fleeting, awkward, and seemed to suggest her mockery was misjudged.
She looked down at her drink. When she raised her gaze again, DeCoverley had slid an arm round Robert’s shoulders, and was leading him away.
‘You know,’ Jess heard DeCoverley say as they left, ‘we love what you’re doing at the moment, Robert. This stuff about the estate. So vital. So now.’
Abandoned, yet unwilling to appear so, Jess circled. The room, it seemed, was full of men triangulating. They used directions to establish a base of conversation, as if how they’d arrived communicated something about who they were. Somewhere off to her left, someone was saying, ‘We came the back way. B-Three-One-Four and get off at Cockwell. Saves you the argy-bargy at the double roundabout.’ To her right, someone was saying, ‘I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: until they make it dual carriageway I’d rather stick pins in my eyes.’
It was an atavistic conversation. Once, the sharing of routes had allowed a gently competitive comparison of cunning. Now, it masked a drabber reality. None of these men had made any decisions about their travel at all. Instead, they had simply punched a postcode into their satnav. Their active involvement was no longer needed, yet somehow the pride remained.
The work of locating themselves complete, the business of defining themselves could begin. Loaded with coders who’d flocked to staff the tech park and artsy North London refugees fleeing the cash-haemorrhage of the city, Edmundsbury increasingly existed in the collapsed distinction between creativity and commerce, and so was awash with people determinedly codifying their output.
‘Well obviously my work is very much about challenging dominant discourses of ability and success and what constitutes quote unquote good art, so I work almost exclusively in crayon.’
‘I just felt I wanted to comment overtly on the artistic scene and creative praxis in general via a medium that was both performative and organic, so I’ve been working with a variety of types of mud and various different walls and just seeing if I can, by literally throwing the mud at the wall . . .’
Across the room, Jacques DeCoverley had kettled a gaggle of single women into a corner and was holding forth on the radical opportunities for situationist protest afforded by sex in a lay-by. Beside him, Robert nodded and laughed on cue.
DeCoverley was a blow-in from the city, recently resettled and now flushed with the glow of post-London life. In terms of aspiration, leaving London was the new moving to London. You slogged it out, made a name for yourself, then decamped to the sticks and devoted yourself to trashing city life on Twitter while roaming the fields in pursuit of your tweedy ideals. For a long time, DeCoverley had described himself as a street philosopher. Unlike the usual use of the term, this had nothing to do with his non-academic outsider status. Instead, it referred to the fact that his work was literally about streets. He’d done a whole book on pavements (Under The Beach: The Pavement!): their cultural history, their, as he liked to put it, physically marginal yet psychogeographically central status. His follow-up, an oral history of pedestrianisation called No Cars Go, had proved rather less successful. Now that he was almost certainly no longer able to maintain the illusion of highly paid success in London, he was reinventing himself as a deep-thinking rural gentleman for the twenty-first century, wearing wellington boots indoors and waxing lyrical about a ‘lost’ England comprised entirely of hedgerows and loam.
Of course, DeCoverley couldn’t just quit the city and be quiet. He had to dress up his departure as a statement. Having laboured in interviews to make the case that something ‘authentic’ was emerging from parts of England he genuinely seemed to think had not existed before he started wandering about in them, he was now under pressure to ensure reality aligned with his descriptions. Hence his parties, which he referred to as ‘salons’, and to which he invited everyone he could think of – local, Londoner, and other – in a bid to establish something of which he could reasonably describe himself as the centre.
Deeply cynical though Jess might have been about DeCoverley’s artful manipulation of his own surroundings and status, she had to admit these little soirées had grown in notability since the first one a few months ago. Tonight, DeCoverley had outdone himself on the buzz front by securing the attendance of several members of Rogue Statement, an anonymous collective of theorist poseurs who Jess and her friend Deepa referred to as the Theory Dudes. Their stated aim was, as they put it, to decode the encoded fascism of everyday life. Their first groundbreaking and extraordinarily well-received polemic had been a ferocious exposé of the fascism of iced buns. After that, it was egg-white omelettes. Soon they were finding fascism everywhere: in sofas, marathons, dog shows, vinyl flooring, socks.
‘Look,’ one of the Theory Dudes had told her earlier that evening, when she’d asked him why he seemingly felt more responsibility to decry the fascism of falafel wraps and justified margins than he did the street-level violence and creeping intimidation that was an increasingly common feature of what some were already calling the New England, ‘violence is upsetting. It’s emotive. But it’s just a symptom, yeah?’
Maybe it was, Jess thought, but so were so many other things, and yet still the question of what they were symptoms of remained unanswered.
‘But anyway,’ Jess heard Robert saying as she dallied at the bar, ‘enough about me. How goes it with you, DeCoverley?’
‘Oh, you know,’ said DeCoverley, ‘desperately trying to work but constantly torn away by other requests. I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that the best thing I could do for my career right now would be to write something wildly unsuccessful. I pine for obscurity. Don’t you?’
‘Constantly,’ said Robert.
‘The trouble is, I just can’t do it. It’s a curse, being this tapped in to the culture. I’m just out there all the time, like a dowsing rod. Quivering.’
He squinted, momentarily pained by his own significance.
‘I guess that’s what we sign up for,’ said Robert, using his slowest, most sincere nod, reserved exclusively, Jess knew, for his hastiest, least sincere statements.
‘That’s one way of looking at it,’ said DeCoverley, ‘but for me personally there was never any choice.’
‘You mean, because you’re not qualified for anything else?’ said Jess innocently, breezing by and unable to bite her tongue.
‘Ah,’ said DeCoverley to Robert, ‘here’s your lovely girlfriend. No, I meant because I have nothing but philosophy coursing through my veins. Because I cannot but be anything other than I am.’
‘Exactly,’ said Robert, narrowing his eyes at Jess before clumsily adjusting the subject. ‘Do we know if Byron is coming?’
‘Stroud?’ DeCoverley beamed at being asked, then savoured the fact that he was in the know enough to be able to answer. ‘Couldn’t make it, sadly.’
Byron Stroud was currently the man you needed to know if you wanted to give the impression of knowing the right people. His rise through the opinion-sphere, occasioned largely by the fact that he wrote almost exclusively about the opinion-sphere and so produced articles that were both fallen upon and fawned over by their subjects, had been rapid. This being the age of the over-exposed personality, reclusive tendencies were invariably interpreted as either artistic statements or shrewd attempts at personal branding, so the fact that Stroud had thus far declined all invitations only added to his aura. No one went quite so far as to claim to have met him, but they all, when talking about him, affected an air of first-name familiarity that suggested they might have met him. It was a social signifier to which Robert had become particularly sensitive, meaning he would now, Jess thought, be trying to work out exactly what DeCoverley meant by Stroud not being able to make it. Had DeCoverley heard from Stroud? Had he heard from someone else who had heard from Stroud? Or had everyone, like Robert, emailed Stroud and received nothing in response?
‘Couldn’t?’ said Robert. ‘Or didn’t want to?’
‘Oh,’ said DeCoverley vaguely, ‘I’m not sure Byron would even acknowledge that demarcation.’
Jess popped to the toilet to tweet. Back in the room, an assortment of indistinct men – bearded and earnest and flushed with credentials – talked at her or for her, but never quite to her.
‘Of course,’ she heard someone say, ‘it’s getting to the point where marriage is the last truly radical act.’
This was a recurrent theme. At every party a new last radical act. Faced with a future so rapid in its occurrence and uncertain in its shape, people clung to familiarity. Fearful of appearing retrograde, they refashioned their nostalgia as subversion. Home ownership was the last truly radical act. Monogamy was the last truly radical act. Parenting was the last truly radical act. Not wanting it all was the last truly radical act. Everything else, it seemed, was dead.
‘I mean, time was when people actually had conversations. Remember that?’ someone brayed at Jess through a mouthful of bar snacks.
‘Exactly right,’ said his wingman. ‘Conversation’s dead.’
She found Deepa in her habitual darkened corner, idly stirring a drink with her straw and wearing an expression that suggested she was amusing herself in ways that couldn’t safely be shared.
‘Oh thank God,’ said Deepa. ‘I was starting to think I might have to mingle.’
‘I’ve mingled,’ said Jess. ‘Upshot is: don’t mingle.’
They leaned side by side against the wall, Jess enjoying the brief coolness of the faux wood panelling before the heat of her back rendered it as sweaty as everything else.
‘Saw you dallying with the Theory Dudes,’ said Deepa, tilting her chin towards the huddle of serious young men in the middle of the room. ‘Still working on a cure for fascism?’
‘I literally overheard one of them talking about fascist molecules,’ said Jess.
‘Robert seems to be enjoying himself.’
‘Nice that you no longer even pretend to like my partner.’
‘He’s got enough people pretending to like him,’ said Deepa. ‘Why get in the way?’
Jess laughed. They swapped drinks without saying anything. It was something they did. In restaurants they ate each other’s food.
‘I feel like we haven’t run people down enough,’ said Jess, taking out her phone. ‘We’re shirking our responsibilities.’
Deepa eyed Jess’s phone. ‘Someone’s breaking their own rules,’ she said.
‘I have location disabled.’
Deepa sipped Jess’s drink and looked out across the party.
‘Riddle me this,’ she said as Jess hit send, then locked and pocketed her phone. ‘If you start enjoying something you used to only find interesting, is it still interesting?’
‘You’re saying enjoyment erases interest?’
‘I’m saying that saying you’re interested in something can be a pretty good way of masking the fact that you’re enjoying it, and that enjoying it too much calls into question the extent to which you’re merely interested in it.’
‘Oh come on. You don’t enjoy your work?’
‘Not so much that it stops being work.’
‘Is that what’s bothering you? You think my work’s too enjoyable?’
‘I think your work might no longer be work.’
They watched as, across the room, Jacques DeCoverley checked his phone, swore under his breath, then pasted his smile back on for a passing twenty-something.
‘OK,’ said Deepa. ‘I can see how that might be kind of satisfying.’
By midnight, the evening was losing pace. The energy of these things was always front-ended. People arrived with opinions they wanted to disgorge. Once they’d done so, they succumbed to a collective petite mort. Jess prided herself on never going over to Robert and letting it be known she was ready to leave. The dependency of such moments unsettled her.
He joined her just as she was about to hold forth to Lionel Groves, a tall, greying man with jaw-length hair and a rough beard about whom everyone seemed determined to use the word rugged. After a progressively unsuccessful intellectual career based entirely on scathingly dismantling the work of his peers, Groves had reinvented himself as an international man of feeling. His most recent book was an alphabetically arranged series of micro-essays on things that made him cry. Having ‘done’ tears he was now ‘doing’ laughter, and had published a series of ‘provocations’ about the importance of humour in the face of oppression and good grace in the face of injustice. His Twitter feed was a carefully curated gallery of nauseating bromides like, It’s not always what we feel that’s important; it’s the very fact that we feel at all. Dumbstruck by his own capacity for emotion, he spoke at all times as if he were the first man on earth to experience a feeling. Apparently affirming this delusion, people huddled round him at parties and used him as a litmus test for what they should be feeling themselves. It was, Jess thought, the age of beatified masculine emotion. Everywhere you looked, men were sweeping up awards for feeling things.
‘Of course, Palestine is such a sad situation,’ he was saying. ‘Don’t you think? I find it hard even to watch on television now because it just makes me so sad.’
‘What about the environment?’ someone said. ‘Does that make you angry?’
‘Fearful,’ said Groves. ‘And sad, of course. But laughter does give one such hope, I find.’
‘How do you feel about how you feel?’ said Jess. ‘When you feel sad, do you also feel a little bit proud?’
He turned to her slowly. He had a way of smiling in the face of hostility that Jess found enraging.
‘Well hello,’ he said. ‘You’re Robert Townsend’s girlfriend, aren’t you?’
She looked at Groves – his practised sadness, his calibrated roughness – and felt only a familiar, disenchanted rage of the sort that Groves would almost certainly have advised her to laugh off.
She sucked in air, primed for a withering response, only to be interrupted.
‘I’m Robert,’ said Robert, leaning across Jess and shaking Groves’s hand. ‘I see you’ve met my girlfriend.’
‘Adorable,’ said Groves. ‘Such energy.’
‘Misplaced at times but never anything other than well meant,’ said Robert, placing a hand on Jess’s back and shooting her a quick sideways glance. She thought again of that moment they’d met, the tingling thrill of his canny, collaborative attention. Now she was the one being managed, the speaker to whom he pointedly turned his shoulder.
She toyed, briefly, with the idea of some kind of retort. She was not averse to public conflict. Indeed, there were times when she wondered if, as their ability to constructively argue in private declined, public friction might be one of their last shared sources of heat. But her energy, like that of the room, had evaporated.
‘Pity not to see Byron here,’ said Groves.
‘Ah yes,’ said Robert. ‘He couldn’t make it, unfortunately.’
‘Couldn’t?’ said Groves. ‘Or wouldn’t?’
‘Well,’ said Robert, ‘is that a demarcation Byron would even recognise?’
‘Quite so,’ said Groves, slightly icily.
Robert turned to Jess, rubbed her shoulder awkwardly. ‘How are you bearing up, hon?’ he said. ‘Can you stand another half an hour or are you itching to get away?’
His attentiveness, she felt, was bait for the attention of others. She was about to say she wasn’t in a rush, despite being desperate to go, so that he’d have to make more of a show of wanting to leave, despite wanting to stay, when somewhere behind her, on the other side of the room, she became aware of movement. She saw Robert’s eyes slide sideways from hers, his gaze move over her shoulder to whatever it was that was happening. She heard someone say, ‘Thank you, thank you, great to see so many of you here,’ and turned to see a small, pale man making his way to the front of the room clutching a sheaf of papers.
It wasn’t an entirely unusual occurrence. The relentless social and professional injunction to self-publicise meant the general public had to be perpetually alert to the possibility of what had come to be called guerrilla readings. Once, well-meaning literary evenings had offered a safe and trusting environment in which writers could indulge their oratorical urges, but public charity had proved finite. Now, traumatically released back into the care of the community, a generation of authors hooked on the salon’s spotlight were forced to forage for attention where they could.
People began to boo.
‘Oh for fuck’s sake,’ said Robert. ‘Seriously. Enough of this shit now.’
‘Get off,’ someone called.
The man found a patch of space towards the front of the room. There was, Jess thought, something amiss with his face. The more she looked, the less certain she became that it even was a him. The clothes read male, as did the hair and the voice, but the features were decidedly androgynous.
‘May third,’ said the man. ‘Twelve seventeen a.m. WWW dot teen sluts dot com. Who am I?’
He was wearing a white shirt, cream chinos, and a loosely knotted paisley tie. As Jess watched him speak, the issues with his face became more apparent. His cheeks and lips moved in a manner at odds with the words he was making. His forehead remained motionless, as did the skin around his eyes.
‘May seventh,’ he went on. ‘Eleven thirty-six p.m. WWW dot balls deep in burkha dot com. Who am I?’
Tolerance for these unsolicited readings had reached rock bottom. People turned hostile quickly, shouting for the man to leave. Someone asked him who he was, as if his ultimate crime was to be unknown.
‘May thirteenth,’ he shouted. ‘Nine oh seven a.m. Email. Dearest. I have to be quick. She’ll be home soon . . . Who am I?’
Jess felt men to her left and right moving towards the reader, flanking him. Others followed. Someone said, ‘That’s enough,’ and someone else said, ‘Not here and not tonight.’ The would-be reader tried to raise his voice, stepped back to avoid those who were now reaching out towards him. Someone had a hold of his shirt. He shouted, ‘Let go of me,’ several times, and lashed out slightly hopelessly at his nearest attacker before being knocked to the floor. Then he was up off the floor, transported doorwards by his legs and arms. In his fist was a sheaf of flyers: A5, sparsely printed, black and white. Writhing in the grip of his restrainers, he tossed the flyers upwards in a fluttering cloud. As they landed, Jess could read what was printed in the centre of the otherwise blank page.
What Don’t You Want To Share?
First Disruption. The Square. Friday. 8pm.
As he passed, Jess was able to see his face, and what was wrong with it became clear. When he blinked, his eyelids were set back, recessed. He seemed to have two sets of lips, one behind the other. His face wasn’t his face at all, she realised, but an eerily life-like rubber mask covering the whole of his head. Even his hair was synthetic.
‘What don’t you want to share?’ he called. As he was carried round the corner, out of sight, he said it again, louder. ‘What don’t you want to share?’
An awkward silence followed: the sound of mass drink-sipping and throat-clearing, a moment of collective and individual readjustment.
‘What was that?’ someone said.
There were shrugs.
‘Welcome,’ someone else said, ‘to the post-meaning world.’
The man beside him nodded sagely.
‘Meaning’s dead,’ he said.
The above is an excerpt from Sam Byers’ novel Perfidious Albion, which will be published by Faber & Faber in August.
Image © Molly Potkin