By Robert Webb
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She woke with her mouth forming a single word. ‘You.’
This was how they always ended, her dreams of Luke. The details varied but they would always be alone together in his room back in college. Two people still in their teens, asking their first questions, sharing their first jokes. Kate noticed the freckle on a knee showing through his ripped jeans; his ready smile; the way he tilted his head when he listened. The twenty-eight-year conversation was a few hours old–the first night of their first week. This was the beginning.
She sat in the little armchair in the corner of his student room, Kurt Cobain watching her with an intelligent smirk from the Nirvana poster on the wall opposite. Below Kurt, sitting on his bed and leaning against the wall, was Luke–similarly slim but darker, unbleached, and with a face that had seen less trouble. He was jiggling his foot off the edge of the bed. Kate had just given him something to jiggle about.
‘I mean, I wouldn’t have to take all my clothes off, right?’
Kate adjusted the A4 pad on her lap and carried on sharpening her pencil. ‘No, of course not. Just slip your shirt off if you like. The trouble is, I’m not good enough to draw clothes. That pyjama top would present quite a challenge.’ She looked up from the pencil and met his mock-insulted gaze.
‘It’s not a pyjama top,’ he said, slightly pouting, ‘it’s a grandad shirt.’
‘Ah yes, of course,’ Kate smiled, ‘the blue and grey stripey cotton thing with four open buttons at the top that definitely doesn’t look like you’re wearing pyjamas.’
Luke pinched the top of the shirt to one side and frowned at it. ‘Yes, it’s possible,’ he nodded like a barrister. ‘It’s possible that there’s a resemblance with—’ Abruptly, he glanced up at her. ‘Hang on, where did you get that pencil sharpener from? This is my room, isn’t it?’
Kate stopped turning the pencil and took a breath.
No, not yet. Let’s not wake up yet.
The intrusion of logic threatened to end the dream too soon–she felt the beginning of a rise towards consciousness but resisted it by talking. She wanted to stay right here, in this room, in this moment. She wanted to stay here forever.
‘Oh, it’s my pencil sharpener. I carry it around everywhere in case I run into a boy I want to seduce.’
Luke stopped jiggling his foot. ‘I’m being seduced, am I?’
‘Certainly. Why do you think I told you to strip? You don’t think I can actually draw, do you?’
Luke looked around his room with a mixture of surprise and excitement. ‘To be honest, yes I did think you would at least make a token effort.’
Kate put the drawing materials to one side and moved over to sit beside him on the bed. ‘And what was going to happen after I’d made a token effort?’ She ran a hand slowly over the shoulder of his shirt, her fingers tracing the v-shape of the top buttons down to where they met the sprinkling of chest hair. She knew this body like no other: nineteen-year-old Luke, Luke in his twenties, Luke in his thirties… and then, halfway through his forties…
He gave her the quizzical smile that always signalled the end of the dream. He said, ‘What’s the matter?’
She searched his face helplessly. ‘You died.’
He took her hand and gently said, ‘I know, my love. I know. But you have to wake up.’
‘Can’t. Don’t want to. Can’t.’
‘You can, sweetheart. Rise.’
‘Go to the doctor! You’re still young! The tumour’s tiny now, they can take it out, you can—’
‘Kate, my love,’ he said, ‘it’s too late.’
Luke looked down at their hands. She followed his gaze: down to their wedding rings and then back up into the eyes of her middle-aged husband. He said, ‘You’re going to be all right, Kate. Come on–you know things. You’re the Girl from the Future.’
She gently took her hand away and whispered, ‘I’m not going to be anything like all right.’
‘Get some help.’
‘No,’ she said with certainty. ‘No one can help me. And I’ve had enough of the future.’
His shirt was clutched in her fists.
‘You,’ she breathed.
Kate brought it up to her face but of course it had lost his smell long ago. Now it was tie-dyed with mascara and crinkled with dried snot.
Needs a wash. Can’t be bothered. Maybe tomorrow. No, not tomorrow. Today’s the day.
Memory stick. Where is it? Keys downstairs.
Wonder who’ll find me? Maybe the mice I hear at night. Don’t go for the liver, guys. You’ll get smashed out of your tiny minds on the liver. I wouldn’t want you to start making bad choices.
Kate slowly bundled the shirt under her pillow and began to think about the effort it would take to get out of bed. Too numb for tears now and long past words–the only person she wanted to discuss Luke’s death with was Luke. She gazed at the window opposite, through the curtains she hadn’t drawn–a single cloud in the blue March sky. A puffy cumulus, like a freeze-framed explosion.
Sometimes, over these last nine months, she would manage to get back to sleep. She would sleep until she gave herself a headache. This morning, for better or worse, she already had a headache from last night’s Pinot binge. In these first few seconds of consciousness the fingertips of a monster hangover were beginning to find a grip around her brain. She would have to get up. A more organised widow bent on self-destruction would surely keep some ibuprofen nearby.
‘Rise’, he says. Easy for you to say, Lukey.
Kate sat up and stared at her battered and reddened hands against the white duvet as they closed into fists.
She dared herself not to look over to the empty side of the bed. Maybe if she just avoided the standing insult of his absence and just got on with her day then by the time she got back from the bathroom he would be there, sleeping safely. She looked over anyway. Just the normal tally of beer and wine bottles.
The bed clinked as her feet found the floor.
At least she’d taken her shoes off.
‘Best foot forward, Katie.’
It was something her dad used to say. Onwards then, downstairs in search of Nurofen. The headache was the one pain that she could do something about.
Memory stick. Must make sure the memory stick is safe. No, need a piss first. God, this day is relentless.
She grimaced at the bathroom mirror. At least she didn’t have to see herself undressed this morning because she was still wearing the clothes she had passed out in. Baggy jeans, black long-sleeved top covered by a black loose-knit jumper, faded with time. She entertained the vague memory of what this five-foot-three body used to be capable of–this winner of medals and trophies. She saw her dark eyebrows raised at the thought, neither proud nor bitter. Sport belonged to a different lifetime.
What they don’t tell you at Widow School, she had come to understand, was the way you age. You meet and fall in love with someone when you’re eighteen, and the two of you are still together when you’re one day older, and then another day older… until all the days of twenty-eight years have gone by. So there’s a part of you that sees yourself through their eyes–a part of you that is still eighteen. And when they die, when that connection is lost, you start to see what other people see instead. Kate gazed at this middle-aged woman, almost a stranger. A cruel sort of time-travel but in her mind it seemed just. Luke was gone and he had taken her innocence with him. Fair enough. What did Kate Marsden need of innocence?
She inspected the diaspora of the make-up that she applied five days ago. Why the hell was she wearing makeup, anyway? She remembered with a shudder. Her mother had made one of her regal visits and Kate thought she ought to make some kind of effort. The eyeliner had spread south, as if to find a new life away from the war zone. Her hair was a tangle of neglect. With attention, it could be coaxed into a wavy stream of dark brown, falling just short of her shoulders. Now it sat defiantly on the top of her head like a mad hat. She thought of looking for a hairbrush but the idea nearly sent her back to bed.
No, check the memory stick. In the kitchen. Oh yeah, that piss.
It was a three-bedroom terraced house in Clapham. Too big for a couple with no children but reasonable given Kate’s age and salary. Or her former salary. She had been fired yesterday afternoon.
‘Charles,’ she said as she sat on the loo. Tentatively she encouraged her colon.
Come on then, Charles.
She waited for the usual all-or-nothing verdict: the shitquake or the turdfast. Nothing, then. What was this–day four? It was hardly surprising. It wasn’t like she had eaten anything. She was about to haul up her knickers and jeans but decided they were such a disgrace that she just took them off and left them on the floor. There was no point putting them in a laundry basket since the distinction between ‘special places for dirty clothes’ and ‘the rest of the house’ had evaporated. The effort of reaching down to get the fabric past her heels almost made her throw up so she stood and leaned on the sink to get her breath back.
She washed her hands with what was left of the coal-tar soap she had found in the bathroom cabinet a few days after the funeral. Not a favourite of hers but Luke had used it occasionally when the nights drew in and he got a flare-up of eczema. The thin bar reluctantly foamed. She spent a long time rinsing under the cold tap, mesmerised by the splashing water. ‘Who asked you to dance, then?’ she asked with a tenderness that surprised her. She looked up to find the scary-looking woman again. Her cobalt eyes still flickered with life, having somehow missed the memo that everything else was closing down. She kept her own eye-contact as she found the tap and strangled the flow. From this angle she looked fully dressed but she didn’t care anyway: she snorted a mirthless laugh at the idea that personal modesty could ever be an issue in a house as implacably empty as this. The jumper came down past her hips and she expected no company.
Kate took back Luke’s soap gently in one hand and gripped the edge of the sink with the other. She closed her eyes and recalled yesterday’s confrontation with Charles. Well, what had she expected? The guy was a criminal. In his office, she had managed to conjure a version of her old self: the bold and self-possessed person she was before the sky fell in. A tribute act which had taken a heavy toll on what was left of her energy. Today she felt like Yoda, agedly picking up his walking stick after ten minutes of leaping around and twizzling his lightsaber like a demented frog.
She had expected a fight. She hadn’t expected threats of terrible vengeance.
Kate met her own eyes again, refusing to blink.
Charles–the attendant lord to the Russian gangster. And how did he begin?
‘Thanks for coming to see me, Kate, and may I say for the record that I’m sorry about Luke et cetera.’
Kate pushed her hands into the pockets of her baggy jeans. Her eyes flicked to the window behind Charles and focused on the rooftops of West London. She said, ‘That’s very good of you, Charles et cetera.’
Her job was to rewrite history. That’s not how she described it to Luke when she first took the job and it wasn’t how Charles Hunt described it now as he swivelled in his chair and considered exactly how to fire her.
He nodded gravely for slightly too long. It was as if Charles had studied doctors in TV medical dramas and had decided this is the thing you do with your head when you want to signal compassion. He had an angular, pale face with permanently flushed cheeks and a side-parting of thinning blond hair which needed no maintenance, although he swept a hand across it frequently. His private office was a large room with homely touches–an antique sofa his mother had given him, a toast rack he affected to use for incoming mail. He liked to give his clients the impression that his work was a hobby. Kate faced him across an impressive mahogany desk, the one he used to say was a gift from Harvey Weinstein but which he now claimed he had personally whittled from the bark of the Mary Rose.
She watched him working out what to say next. Was it her imagination or was her chair two inches lower than usual? Or was his higher? She’d never noticed before. Nine months ago, Charles had given her a fortnight off and then had called to say… what had he said? She had been drowsy with lack of sleep and a permanent hangover.
A voicemail: ‘Kate, I’m really sorry as usual about Luke et cetera, but we could really do with you back here ASAP. Obviously you’re a woman and therefore natch need a bit longer than normal. I get that. Take as long as you need… I mean, the sooner the better if you ask me because with my mother–I mean, Christ, widows just collapse, don’t they? Like windows. Click on the top-left cross of an Excel sheet and the whole thing goes [croaking sound]. No offence. Anyway, take as long as you need. You’re a woman. I get that.’
In the office Kate smiled pleasantly and waited. She knew what was coming: the idiot had put ‘Sack Kate’ in the e-calendar he thought she couldn’t access. It was a pity she hadn’t got in there first and resigned. Where was her moment with her co-workers gazing on as she strode out of the office with an Aretha Franklin soundtrack and a big smirk on her face?
She wasn’t going to get that and she had reason to believe that she didn’t deserve it. But at least she had something else to take away with her. She crossed her legs and her right hand fingered the memory stick attached to her bunch of keys.
Charles had founded Belgravia Technologia with nothing more than his own merit, flair, hard work and £394,000 from his father, a former defence minister in a Conservative cabinet. Kate had met Charles in the same first term she had met Luke–as students at the University of York. But over the years she had heard him start to describe that place to clients as ‘New York’. In his mind, the simple addition of ‘New’ was a harmless embellishment and Kate was sure that the man himself had come to believe it. His company was an early and leading exponent of ORM–Online Reputation Management. Kate was the IT manager but Charles owed her work much more than the title suggested and considerably more than the salary he paid her. She designed and edited the website; she had built and optimised the impregnable firewall; she created and continually upgraded the software architecture that kept the whole thing running smoothly. And, of course, she told the rest of the staff how to turn their computers off and on again.
In 1992, Kate had laced her boots and set out to arrive early for her first Computer Science lecture. If someone had told her she was about to devote most of her working life to revising the online histories of powerful men, she would have laughed. Well, life is long and full of surprises. And what is this ‘internet’ anyway? But if you’d told her she’d be doing it in the employ of Charles Hunt, the amusement would have turned to incredulity.
Charles was a walking punchline. Bart Simpson had a Charles Hunt duvet. Charles DeMontford Alphonso Hunt, the remarkably wealthy, fully oblivious, invincibly complacent prat. Charles who had attended Matthew Chatsworth College, a boarding school devoted to the advancement of the less gifted boys of the English upper-middle class. Kate could almost feel sorry for Charles if he were not such a committed and promiscuous liar. He could scarcely part his lips without spilling forth an unstoppable stream of instantly disprovable bullshit. His Jaguar was a Bentley. His surname meant ‘royal’ in Latin. In the Cadet Corps at school he had driven a tank. In fact, he had done so with such proficiency that he had been ‘seconded by the Territorial Army to Northern Ireland’ (where he had killed a man). He had an IQ of 176. The Richard Attenborough character in The Great Escape was based on his great-uncle. His father was a Tory cabinet minister (that was actually true) but had previously been, at various times, a renowned fencing instructor, Martin Luther King’s speechwriter and the Ambassador from the Court of St James to North Korea. His mother, by contrast, had merely invented the card-game bridge. Hers was an achievement affectionately admitted by Charles to be ‘actually pretty impressive when you think about it’.
BelTech had all started innocently enough. Because Everyone Deserves a Second Chance was a principle Kate could sign up to, despite the wanky italics above the reception desk. A nurse unfairly accused of negligence here; a Rotarian who lost his head and punched a traffic warden there–imperfect humans who needed the historical mud to stop sticking to their search results. Unfairly accused or guilty as charged, they needed to move on. In either case, Kate had managed to convince herself that she was just a techie who went around fixing photocopiers. But in her more honest moments she knew that her entanglement was far knottier than that. As the digital security expert and key-holder of every password in the building, Kate had access to any file received by Charles. She had, from time to time, taken an unsanctioned peek at what the company was up to. Restless and greedy, Charles had recently begun to exploit his father’s contacts in the delightful world of arms procurement. Kate told herself that she was there to keep him honest. The fact that she knew perfectly well that Charles was the least honest person she’d ever met was a nuance to be set against the other thing she knew about Charles: he was a chump and a nitwit. Guys like Charles, she thought, were never the problem.
‘Kate, as you know, I didn’t always see eye to eye with Luke and his amusing ideals or whatnot. But you liked him, which must count for something, and he was obviously a perfectly all right guy.’
Kate nodded sympathetically. ‘Wow, Charles. If I’d thought you felt that strongly about him, I’d have asked you to deliver the eulogy.’
‘Well, as you know I missed the funeral because I was advising Prince Andrew on a certain matter. You wrote a card to say that you understood.’
‘I certainly understood.’
‘In fact I scanned it and I have the copy right here…’ Charles opened a drawer and started to look for the piece of paper Kate knew he had just invented.
‘Charles, don’t worry. I remember the card.’
Charles slammed the drawer shut. ‘Good.’
She watched as he tried to remember the speech that he’d rehearsed. There had been times, in the early years, when she could walk into his office without knocking and interrupt Charles Hunt in his only creative moment: acting out his part of the telephone call he was about to make. The unnaturally deep voice for clients, the cajoling bonhomie, the CBeebies-level empathy, the name-drops audible from orbit.
She picked casually at an imaginary piece of spinach between her lower teeth. He was going to have to be nice. Very nice. He needed her to find the Nestor Petrov file but still hadn’t worked out how to ask for it.
Charles said, ‘Your colleagues insist that the quality of your work has remained unaffected by the Luke situation, so I’ve tried to turn a blind eye to your timekeeping. Sometimes you don’t come in till after four o’clock.’
Kate said, ‘Right, yes. Just to check–the “Luke situation” being that my partner of twenty-eight years recently dropped dead while unloading the dishwasher? That situation?’
‘Bingo. And then obviously there’s the matter of your dishevelled appearance.’
For the first time in nine months, Kate nearly laughed. She’d caught a glimpse of herself in the bathroom mirror that lunchtime. She looked like Suzi Quatro after two months on a desert island being chased by dogs. She said neutrally, ‘I really don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘But that’s not the issue.’ Charles produced a plain Manila folder from his drawer and left it on the desk, significantly unopened. He looked at her as if he had just landed a royal flush.
Christ, he’s going to do this like he’s in a Bond movie. Not yet. Keep it together.
Kate took her nail out of her teeth and peered at the folder. ‘What have you got there, Charles? Not your latest rejection letter from the MCC, I hope.’ Charles didn’t even like cricket but she knew it bugged him that there was at least one club in England that considered him beyond the pale.
‘A-ha, no, something even more depressing, I’m afraid. It’s the message you sent to Mr Petrov.’
She kept her voice steady. ‘So many Petrovs. The tax evader?’
‘You know which one.’
‘Oh! The paedophile. I thought I did quite a good job there.’
‘You’re a techie. It’s not your job to talk to clients. And where did you get his contact details?’
‘Hmm. Lucky guess?’
Charles kept a lid on his rising temper. Kate could see that he’d worked out that she’d been spying on him for years but could scarcely admit it to himself, never mind say it out loud. He opened the folder and took out a single page of A4, handling it as if wearing surgical gloves, then placed it before him and launched into his speech.
‘As you know, the allegations have been made by women interested only in money and publicity. Mr Petrov came to us in good faith and, as always, I set out a comprehensive ORM strategy. His charitable works would be emphasised. Personal testimonies of his good character would become prominent through all platforms. His website would be remodelled and links to it would increase by five hundred per cent via the usual methods. Original copy would be produced in both Russian and English, focusing on Mr Petrov’s impeccable business record and exemplary family life. All allegations of sexual conduct with minors would be cleared from at least the first three pages of any search engine enquiry, except where the integrity of his accusers was called into question. The moral character of these women would be brought into legitimate disrepute. Unfortunate information about the personal lives and questionable mental health of those journalists pursuing the story would be disseminated through the usual channels. Mr Petrov would be given a clean sheet, or as close as is possible. That’s what he paid us to do.’
Kate re-crossed her legs and cocked her head to one side. ‘Did we not do that, then?’
Charles picked up the sheet of paper and read. ‘“Dear Mr Petrov, I only work here but I’ve had a few thoughts. You clearly belong in prison. I can’t guarantee that’s where you’ll end up but if you do, I hope you get bum-fucked by burly Cossacks on a daily basis. My considered reputational advice is as follows: try not to be such an appalling shit in future. Love, Kate. Kiss. Kiss. Kiss.”’
Kate looked out of the window and frowned. ‘I agree it lacks a certain lightness of touch.’
‘Mr Petrov is extremely unhappy.’
‘Not enough kisses?’
‘Kate, don’t be so—’
‘I know the bum-fucking thing is a bit homophobic but I thought he wouldn’t mind, what with his thrillingly right-wing views on the subject. If you like, I could—’
‘Kate!’ Charles slammed his hand down on the desk. She waited for him to regain his composure, which wouldn’t take long because he was already rubbing his reddening palm on his trousers. In a second flurry of violence he tried to toss the page at her but it flapped across his sleeve and landed in front of him again, face down. He looked beyond her, calming down and visibly recalling a line that he had practised. ‘You know, it surprises me that a woman of your intelligence would do something so very stupid.’
Kate nodded. ‘That’s funny, because it surprises me that a man of your intelligence doesn’t live in a skip.’
‘Uh-huh,’ said Charles, smiling thinly and swivelling his chair again. Somehow he regarded Kate as his intellectual equal and put this kind of thing down to ‘banter’. She could say literally anything to him and he would contrive to take it as a compliment. For years, this had suited them both very well.
Kate took a breath and waited for his next move. At the same time, she remembered how her hand had trembled as she stole the Petrov file.
Last week, as was her habit, Kate had idly hacked Charles’s inbox and scrolled through his correspondence. But then something in her attitude had changed. She’d felt a numb, out-of-body understanding that her life was about to end. What was she doing here? What had she ever been doing here?
There was something new. There was one particular man in the emails–a London-based billionaire. She recognised his celebrity: Nestor Petrov was a Premier League football club owner and a regular fixture on comedy panel shows where his fiftysomething good looks and hokey eccentricities had endeared him to millions. Or at least to a couple of TV producers and the board of a struggling football club.
The more she read, the more curious she became. By its nature, BelTech relied on discretion but the two men were having a veritable secrecy jizz-off.
Petrov: ‘the deeply sensitive matter we discussed in person’, ‘the heinously missing file’, ‘the urgent need to rectify this delicate aberration’.
As for Charles, Kate had to concentrate to get past his usual feat of making his own English sound like it had gone through Google Translate: ‘our deepest regret vis-à-vis that the matter remains hitherto unresolved’, ‘our most talented people operating 24/7 to alleviate the discomfiture’, ‘the file will be located with premium haste’.
Kate opened Petrov’s first contact–his original submission to BelTech.
His lawyers complained that he had been recently accused of historical sexual harassment and assault in the early 1990s when he first moved to London. He wanted a skin-job and a make-over. He wanted to be on the right side of fake news by employing Charles to create it.
There wasn’t much in her stomach but Kate very nearly threw up. Hiding in the dungeon of her grief, she hadn’t turned on the news for months. But now she read the reports and testimonies of the women accusing Petrov. She believed them. She was no judge or jury but she was entitled to a private opinion: this man was a menace. He needed to be arrested, not protected. That Charles could countenance working for such a person was a new low. But there was more.
- "It's well paced, nicely written and highly entertaining. It's also a very rum concoction indeed -- as if someone had sandwiched a David Nicholls novel in the middle of a comedy thriller, using a Tardis."—The Guardian
- "A genre-defying time-travel tale -- part adventure, part love story, part comedy, part dissertation on bereavement ... a breathtakingly insightful evocation of grief."—Sunday Times (UK)
- "Robert Webb's effortlessly enjoyable debut novel is soaked in and a wry comment on nostalgia ... his execution is smart, unexpected and full of pop cultural nous. It's also a ripping adventure yarn ... Tender, thoughtful and terrific fun."—Metro (UK)
"Splendidly bleak, fabulously Nineties, and enjoyable."
—Daily Mail (UK)
- "Come Again is excellent: moving, funny, and packed with great characters. It also has a slam-bang action ending."—Ian Rankin, author of the Inspector Rebus series
- "Funny, brilliant, clever and unpredictable; I gobbled it up."—Jenny Colgan, USA Today bestselling author of The Bookshop on the Corner
Praise for HOW NOT TO BE A BOY
"Quite simply brilliant. I (genuinely) cried. I (genuinely) laughed out loud. It's profound, touching, personal yet universal . . . I loved it"
"With enormous poignancy and insight . . . Webb's early portrait of himself as a hapless underdog navigating the boulder-strewn path of masculinity is vividly drawn and very funny . . . Echoes of Adrian Mole"
"Takes us deftly from hilarity to heart-stopping hurt . . . A truly great read, full of heart"
"Frank and compelling ... Laugh-out-loud funny ... also, in parts, blink-back-tears sad. Why would I blink back tears rather than give full rein to the emotion? Well, Webb can explain"
Mail On Sunday
"Written with wit and clarity, How Not To Be a Boy is a funny, rueful, truthful book. I enjoyed every page"
- On Sale
- Jul 14, 2020
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Back Bay Books