Slump

Slump

Slump 

Mister Bayliss, of Bristol, businessman, makes his way steadily down O’Connell Street, squinting into the low sun, eager for breakfast, the essential ingredient of any successful day. The portly gentleman could have taken a taxi to his destination, the Metro Café on South William Street, but the day looked promising from his hotel room, and his wife has been badgering him about getting more exercise. Hah! She could talk, could Mrs. Bayliss, being rather large herself. They make a formidable pair, he’d be the first to admit, and cheers at the very thought of her. There’s a crunching snap to his steps, as a heavy frost has turned sections of pavements into ice-rinks. One or two have already succumbed, and are struggling to hide their embarrassment as they are helped to their feet. Bayliss reckons his weight carries an advantage in these conditions, anchoring him to the ground, preventing such accidents. He keeps a firm grip on his briefcase, containing as it does the tools of his trade. He is well prepared for his nine o’clock meeting, confident he can persuade them to decide in his company’s favour. Bayliss knows he may not present the most dynamic image, but there’s no more reliable man. He makes no false promises, sticks rigidly to deadlines, and provides an after-sales service second to none. Ah yes, the rest of the world may thunder on past Mister Bayliss, in its reckless desire to get to the finish as quickly as possible, but he won’t be distracted, or stray from his steady course. 

The Metro Café plays music too loudly for his taste, but the seats are comfortable, and the food to die for. Here it comes – sausage, mushrooms, bacon, with toast on the side, all washed down with piping-hot black coffee – heaven! He gets more good news in the form of his meeting being delayed, put back an hour. Normally, he hates when his schedule is interrupted, but when there’s a plateful of greasy food in front of him, and the hunger is upon him, reason goes out the window. He likes Ireland, and the Irish, but he doesn’t know how they ever get things done. It’s not that they’re lazy, as such, but other things have a habit of getting in the way. Never mind, he’ll still make his flight, still be home for dinner, and still get to spend the night with Brenda. And speak of the devil! There she is now, calling him. 

‘Hi, love!’ he says cheerfully. She babbles on, as she does, for the next ten minutes, updating him on everything that has happened in his brief absence. Mostly, she talks of their four boys, who range from seven to fourteen, spirited lads every one of them, although they have inherited their parents’ genes, in the sense that he doubts there’ll be any Olympic athletes among them. Still, nothing wrong with a healthy appetite, and their old dad hasn’t done too badly for himself, has he? He tells Brenda he loves her, and that he’ll be home for dinner. As if he needed any encouragement, he devours his breakfast, and is tempted to ask for seconds. He settles on a pastry, and more coffee, which he enjoys as he goes over his presentation once more. He knows it by heart. Nobody knows more about the company’s products that he does. He was in at the start, working from a draughty office on the outskirts of Bristol, over twenty years ago now. Progress was slow, and there were times when the business was staring into the abyss, but Bayliss and his partners soldiered on, stubborn and determined, 

until they finally started turning a healthy profit. And look at them now – look at him now. Yes, life is good, it has to be said. The secret, he thinks, is to enjoy the hard times as well as the easy, and never start believing that you, or your business, has ‘made it.’ 

He leaves a generous tip, and goes downstairs to the basement toilets. The mirror is unflattering to Bayliss, but he can’t help staring. He looks paler than usual, though it’s probably the light, and there’s a redness in his eyes. He strokes his moustache with a degree of pride, knowing they’re somewhat out of fashion, but it’s an integral part of his identity, and could never be removed. Also, Brenda is extremely fond of it. She says it gives him an air of authority, and class, so sadly lacking in many others. She has nothing good to say about beards of any kind, strangely, and would prefer her man clean-shaven. So, the moustache it is, then. If he ever doubts, and who doesn’t, that dark line above his lip invariably reassures. 

The steps back up are hard work, and he’s out of breath when he reaches the top. That mountain of food hasn’t helped. He’ll walk it off before the meeting, if there is a meeting. Are the clients having second-thoughts? It would be a shame to have come all this way, and put in all that work, and not get a chance to plead his case. He loves presenting. His company’s products are like his children, and he loves nothing more than showing them off. He meets so many businessmen and women whom seem to dislike their work that he often feels like having a word with them, to remind them of what they’re missing. You can’t sell successfully if you appear to be desperate to get the product off your hands. His fervour, he’s aware, borders on the religious at times, and he has to temper it. 

It’s cold outside, he can tell from the solidity of his breath, and the brisk pace of warmly-dressed passers-by, yet he has to wipe sweat from his brow, and pause every ten yards or so. The indigestion strikes as usual, but with unusual intensity. He swallows a handful of Rennies, though they rarely provide quick, or adequate, relief. There’s a burning sensation in his chest that resembles a fist closing around the veins. He puts his briefcase down on the ground for a moment, waiting for the worst of it to pass. He’s unaccountably afraid for a moment, yearning to call Brenda, wishing she was here beside him, just in case. Nine o’clock, the meeting should have been underway, normality would reign, and he’d have help at hand. He knows his weight makes him an easy target for a heart attack, and sundry other illnesses, as his doctor regularly tells him, and maybe he has beaten the odds once too often. He feels the passage in his throat clearing, as if the lights have finally turned green, and the food can go down as it’s meant to. He almost cries with relief, and decides he needs a sit-down. He can’t go into a meeting flustered and flushed, that would be unprofessional. Stephens Green park is in front of him, and he walks under the arch at the entrance, aiming 

for the nearest bench. The seat is wet from the thawing frost, but that’s the least of his worries. Big baby, he scolds himself, taking out a handkerchief to blow his nose, and wipe his eyes. 

Feeling better, he walks over to the edge of the pond, calmed by the serene progress of the regal swans. Showing no fear, the birds float up to the tips of his shoes, obviously hoping for food from the large figure on the bank. Mister Bayliss reflects on the fact that he never learned to swim, nor ever felt comfortable near water. Now, looking out across the pristine surface, where the swans perform their ballet, he regrets not appreciating its qualities earlier. He and Brenda went on a cruise years before, where he spent most of the time hovering close to the lifeboats, and familiarising himself with the safety procedures in case of emergency. A man of his size, he determined, would sink to the bottom of the ocean like a stone. 

Bayliss moves away, feeling lightheaded, deciding that he needs is to focus on the task at hand, which is the client, and the potential revenue that could accrue from a successful negotiation. 

Another call, a further delay, and the day is getting away from him. The sun has gone into hiding, perhaps permanently, and there’s now the possibility that he will miss his flight, and his home-cooked dinner. He wonders if he’s the cause of all this distemper, if there was something he did, or didn’t do, which resulted in the world slipping, momentarily, out of kilter. He’ll have to shorten his presentation, increasing the risk of mistakes being made, of crucial points not being emphasised. He’s tempted to cancel, in order to regain control of the situation, even if it means he’ll return home empty-handed. There’s a sale conference in Plymouth the day after tomorrow, and he was hoping to have tied up this deal before then. Targets will be missed, his and the company’s, to everyone’s dismay. 

Bayliss is out of sorts, walking aimlessly in a drizzle that’s turning into sleet. That’s all he needs, catching a cold on top of everything else. Dawson Street is a mess of barriers and cones, as the surgeons in hard hats cut into the concrete skin. Dublin, it occurs to him, is always being repaired without ever being fixed. He navigates his way through the minefield until he reaches the address. 

He enters the meeting-room in the midst of a joke that isn’t shared. Ironically, he’s the last to arrive, and he hears himself apologising. He sets up his presentation to a wall of silence, and thereafter never quite finds his usual rhythm. He stutters, tripping over his words, before hastening to the finish line having omitted several key points. He sits down fuming, shaking his head, sure it’s lost. There follows another hour of dry discussion as each part of his proposal is pored over in forensic detail. He starts dreaming of Brenda’s steak & kidney pie, with custard to follow. Then an early night, perhaps, though he’s likely to be too tired. Still, Brenda’s bountiful body is a sea worth drowning in. 

‘What?’ he says, asking them to repeat the question. Not like him to lose concentration like that. However, they seem keen, and maybe they’re willing to overlook his less-than-stellar pitch. His reputation, after all, precedes him, which must allow for the odd mistake now and then. They break for coffee, and normally he’d dive right in, but he’s anxious about his flight, (…and his steak & kidney pie). 

The clients are being unduly diligent, wanting clarification on several points. Bayliss is happy to oblige, back in his element. Can he possibly snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? Yes, he can, and yes, he does. Handshakes all round, even a slap on the back, and, more 

importantly, signatures on the bottom line. Another target reached – now, if only he can reach that flight, this will be a trip worth celebrating. He looks ahead to the conference in Plymouth with a fair degree of optimism. He isn’t one to blow his own trumpet, too often, but the Sales Director will have to say a few kind words about him: Bayliss has done it again, gentleman! How does he do it? 

He snaps up the last of the croissants on offer before he leaves. He hates to see food go to waste. He sends a message back to the office: mission accomplished, Dublin. He can relax now. The indigestion has left him, mercifully, for the moment at least. He’ll be able to attack dinner with hearty confidence. 

Mister Bayliss steps out of the building, and into a hole. Pipes are being laid, but the men are on a break – and the proper safety measures have been temporarily neglected. He’s looking beyond where his feet are landing, and down he goes, hearing one bone snap, and then another, but where he can’t be sure. He lies still in breathless silence, waiting for information, for someone to tell him what’s happening. He hopes it won’t take long, he has a plane to catch. A dinner to eat. A wife to sleep with. Out of the corner of his eye, spectators, at the edge of the hole. Why are they looking, and not doing? Will the sale still go through, even if he’s not there? But where else would he be? Company man, through and through, is Bayliss. There are voices in his ear, and in his head. There are sirens. His chest is tightening rapidly, closing in…shutting down. A man beside him removes his yellow helmet. That’s not a good sign. And there was he, and everyone else, thinking that his weight would get him in the end…when it’s hole in the ground that proves his downfall….a hole. Dublin….always being repaired…never fixed……. 

Mister Bayliss, of Bristol, businessman, gentleman, makes his way steadily down a corridor of infinite brightness, floating, soaring. He can’t remember eating, but he feels full. He doesn’t think he could eat another thing, ever again. And he closed the deal, didn’t he? Well, that’s all anyone could ask of him. 

Time, perhaps, to put his feet up, take the weight off them, and rest. 

 

Philip’s latest work ‘The Town without Cheer and other Stories’ is out now.

 

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