REMAIN THE SAME
'Change my name, I remain the same. Try again, another new beginning...' - Moloko
The sound of the 8.15 train woke Liz. She sat up, disorientated, for a moment, groping for her alarm clock and wondering why it hadn't gone off. Then she remembered – she still hadn't got a new one since she'd swapped her last one with the batty old dear for the antique carriage clock which she'd had engraved 'To My Darling Edward, from your Wallis' and not got nearly enough for but had at least managed to pay the deposit on the flat. She had a funny feeling that had the American couple who'd bought it actually known what the reference was to, she could have afforded a bit of a holiday as well.
Still. One couldn't dwell on the past, and she got bored quickly without work, so it was probably a good thing that the money was starting to run out again. She got out of bed, quickly washed and dressed. The interview was going to be with a woman, so it was probably best to go for Frumpy But Adorable. Jumper, long skirt and flat shoes to emphasise the non-threatening stature. Pigtails. Minimal makeup. She considered spectacles for a moment, trying on the lens-less pair in the mirror, then took them off again. She didn't want to overdo it. Besides, all her attempts to invent an impairment had backfired on her in the past. She might have been an optimist, but she wasn't stupid.
She grabbed her portfolio, flicking through it quickly to ensure that all the stuff she'd included matched the style of the backdated copies of the old paper she'd managed to get. She had to get this one right. She just knew that she was destined to be a journalist – she had done since the first amateur article she'd written. And this paper was the only one likely to take her on with no professional experience or relevant qualifications. And the Dyslexia was a pretty major stumbling block. The one impairment she didn't have to invent, and certainly didn't want. She checked her bag for her purse, keys, fags and dictionary, stuffed her portfolio in with it, and ran out of the flat. She didn't have long 'til the interview, and she still needed to go to the baker's.
She wondered how many other people would be going for the job. She hoped that the myth that the paper was somehow horribly cursed would put other hopefuls off, and that there wouldn't be many people who, like her, were actually excited by the stories of sieges, suicides, electrical fires and a Death Cheating Editor. To your average twenty-two year old, it would sound like a terrible calamity waiting to happen. To Elizabeth Fish, it sounded like a laugh.
'I still can't believe we get Vending Machines these days.'
'Keeps you from leaving the office for lunch. Next fire we get, I'm buying an office with bunk beds, so nobody will ever have to go home.'
Frazz suppressed a smile. 'You're all heart, Boss.'
Lynda nodded in agreement. 'And the sofas. Do you like the sofas?'
'Very comfy, Boss.' The young man spread himself, the way that only young men can, out on the new settee. 'I feel thrilled and privileged to finally work at an office that boasts such a fine Staff Room. Or any kind of Staff Room, for that matter.'
Lynda took a sip of Vending Machine Fresh coffee, and surveyed her Shiny New Office.
'Fire's been getting a very bad press of late,' she said. 'If only people could learn to see its positive aspects. It's not a natural disaster. It clears the slate for a fresh start. It's an opportunity.'
'You're Doing It again, Lynda.'
Lynda raised her eyebrows. 'Was I? Fine. I'll stop.' She glanced at her watch. 'Where the Hell is he, anyway? I've got some good news for him.'
Familiar, male hands grabbed her hips from behind.
'Let me guess,' cooed an American voice in her ear, 'you've finally lost enough weight to fit into that dress I got you for Valentine's Day. Am I right?'
She rolled her eyes away from her boyfriend as he peeled himself off her and vaulted a coffee table to lean against the Vending Machine.
'Thompson, firstly, I do not need to lose weight; secondly, that so called "dress" was disgusting; thirdly, you should have known I'm not a size 10 in the first place; fourthly, I wasn't even talking about you; and fifthly, don't do that.'
He grinned. 'Do what?'
He thumped the machine, causing a chocolate bar to come loose and fall into the tray.
'That,' she replied. 'Those machines are new. You might not have grasped the rudimentary mechanics of technology yet, but the point is that you have to put some sort of currency in the little hole before you get your feed.'
Spike stood upright, waving the retrieved chocolate bar at her. 'I don't. You gotta think outside the box sometimes, Boss.'
'I don't even know where the box is, Spike. I am one box-free lady. No boxes for me.'
'Lynda.' Spike put the first square of his chocolate bar into Lynda's mouth. 'You're Doing It again.'
'Again?' Lynda looked from Spike to Frazz, and back again. 'Damn. I hope he's OK.'
'Because I only start Doing It when he isn't Doing It.'
'He was Doing It yesterday,' volunteered Frazz.
'Yes…' muttered Lynda, 'so I wonder what's changed…'
She stepped out of the Staff Room and into the Lobby. She had a Lobby! There was a Staff Room, a separate toilet for the men… she even had her own office for once, not that she was intending on using it. That old building had been a death trap anyway. A little creativity with the insurance and they'd turned her near demise into the best thing to ever happen to her paper. The two of them, pouring over contracts and documents and facts and figures for five days running, had managed to hatch a phoenix from the flames. That had been two months ago, and now - finally, finally they were almost ready to put the relaunch issue to bed. Their baby. The first rebirth of the paper with no Kenny, and no Sarah. Spike and Frazz were still there but, not that they weren't great at what they did, at the bare level that the team had found themselves at after the fire, stripped down to the wires, their initial input had largely been on an emotionally supportive level. Dammit, she was Doing It even when nobody else was around to hear. She'd been spending far too much time around him.
Two months. Two months the pair of them had spent almost solidly with their nose to the grindstone, hauling the paper back from the abyss. The insurance. The new office. The new budgets, new reports, new proposals, new structure, new business loans, new contracts… they could make one another coffee just the way they liked it in their sleep now, since they'd been forced to in order to make it through the late nights and early mornings several times. It was Their Baby. She had created it with the most unlikely person imaginable, and she loved it. This Baby was it. It was strong, and it would thrive. Only… only she'd been getting a terrible, nagging feeling that Colin didn't really want to play Happy Families any more.
She leaned against the Receptionist's counter. She had a Receptionist, for God's sake!
'Colin here yet?'
The older woman looked up. '"Colin"?'
'Oh. Not yet, Miss Day.'
She folded her arms. 'Bugger. Well at least he doesn't have a back door any more. Let me know when he's here, would you? And tell him it's good news, so he doesn't run away again.'
'I think your Nine-thirty Interview might be running late, too,' added the Receptionist.
Lynda just shrugged, and stepped through into the newsroom.
Julie met her as she was walking in.
'What's this about the centre spread?'
'I mean, were you intending on telling me? Ever?'
'Of course I was. We're having a meeting about it at eleven.'
'At the meeting?' Lynda recoiled a little from Julie's snarl. Too many teeth! 'In front of everyone else?'
Lynda turned from her. 'What's the matter with that?'
'The matter, Lynda, is that I've been dead set against that idea ever since it was thought up, so you could at least have the decency to let me get used to the fact that I've lost the fight before I have to put up with him knowing that he's won.'
'Well,' threw Lynda over her shoulder, 'he's not in yet, so I guess you got your wish.'
'It has been three long months, Lynda Day!' Julie cried after her. 'Would you please stop punishing me for not giving that little worm the date of a lifetime? I can't just make myself attracted to anybody that you want to push at me, you know. Why do you seem to think that I'm your personal escort agency?'
Lynda turned her head, looking Julie up and down, briefly. 'There's a full length mirror in the Ladies, Julie. Take a good look at yourself and then make a rough guess why.'
Her phone was ringing, giving her the perfect opportunity to make a cool exit from the conversation, leaving her Assistant Editor agog with impotent fury in her wake. Yes, this was going to be a good morning. She picked up the ringing telephone.
'UpStart, Lynda Day speaking.'
Liz should really have been looking where she was going, and not distracted by the large, red sign on the building she was running towards, although she really couldn't have foreseen running straight into a crouching man, toppling over him headfirst and landing gracelessly on the pavement, scattering her papers as well as his as they both fell.
'Shit.' She checked her carrier bags. Only a couple of the cakes had been crushed. That was something, she supposed.
'My shoelace,' muttered the young man, gathering his papers, hastily.
'It was untied, that's what I was…' he trailed off, gazing at the folder on the top of his pile. 'Is your name Elizabeth Fish? Because mine isn't.'
'Oh.' She took the extended folder from him. 'Yes. That's my portfolio. Thanks.'
She took a better look at the man. He looked distracted, worried and very, very young. Competition. Damn.
'You here for an interview too?'
The youth looked at her and laughed, grimly at first, then louder, shaking his head in disbelief.
'Good joke, kid. Like it. Love it.'
Liz picked herself up onto her feet. 'Well… I'm late, anyway.'
'Sure'. The man was in no hurry to follow her. 'Good luck, I suppose. You optimistic?'
She grinned as she broke into a run again. 'I hope so!'
'UpStart, Lynda Day speaking.'
'It's me, Miss Day.'
'No. That's no good.'
Carol Jenkins' sigh was audible on the other end of the line. 'Reception.'
'Oh! The Receptionist! Right.'
'Your Nine Thirty is here.'
'So is Mr Mathews.'
Lynda slammed the phone down without any further acknowledgement to her new Receptionist and stood up to fold her arms at her Financial Director's tardy arrival.
'Do I have to start making you dock your own wages?'
Colin didn't even look up as he made a beeline for his office. 'Wrong kind of leaves on the line.'
He paused to think. 'Wrong kind of women on the pavement.'
Lynda noted the contemptuous snort from Julie's direction, but pretended to ignore it.
'I want you at the 11 o'clock meeting today.'
'That's an Editorial meeting, Lynda. We've been through this. I'm not Editorial. I'm stacked enough as it is.'
'I've got good news about the centre spread…'
It didn't even slow Colin down. 'You're going with my idea. You'd be an idiot not to.'
Julie got to her feet, irritably. 'Not necessarily!'
Colin paused at the door to his office, turning to the women.
'You wanted UpStart to have more lifestyle features. It's still a local publication. It makes sense that our readers will want features on shops and bars and restaurants that they can actually visit, and when those businesses are willing to pay us extra to write about them, we'd be idiots to turn them down. Advertorials work because people enjoy reading them, and a centre spread ad feature will bring in an extra grand a week at least. Everyone's a winner.'
'Everyone except Features,' retorted Julie. 'If they wanted to write Ad Copy, they'd join your team.'
'They're going to,' snapped Lynda.
'What?' The incredulous reply came at Lynda in synchrony from Julie, Colin and most of the Features team.
'I was going to bring this up at the 11 o'clock,' sighed Lynda, 'but since we seem to be having that meeting now, I may as well tell you all. Colin's going to take over Features for a month or so. Just until they've got the hang of writing Ad Copy.'
'I never agreed to that!' yelled both Julie and Colin over the general cacophony of malcontent.
'You just did,' smiled the Editor, sweetly. She waved over the American lounging in the doorway, a sign that the conversation regarding Features was over.
Spike, still munching, perched himself on his girlfriend's desk.
'It's not even quarter to ten and you've got a riot on your hands already.'
Lynda leaned back in her chair. 'Just another Monday morning.'
'He's not Editorial!'
'I'm not Editorial, Lynda! I haven't got the right brain for it.'
Lynda sighed, and turned back to her furious colleagues.
'Of course you do. You've got a great eye for Editorial. Do I have to remind you that two of the best issues of the Junior Gazette were overseen by you?
Not to mention, one of the worst.' She grinned at Colin. 'Congratulations. You're Editorial.'
Julie screwed her fists into her hair. 'Brilliant, Lynda. Why not just give him my chair while you're at it?'
'Lynda, I'm not…'
'Shut up, Kenny.'
'Lynda. I'm not Kenny.'
'I said, shut your face, Ke… oh…'
He had disappeared into his office and slammed the door behind himself before she had chance to stand.
Spike slid himself into Lynda's chair. 'Did you know that there's a matching brassiere that goes with that Slip, Mr Freud?'
'That wasn't just a Freudian Slip.' Lynda bit her lip. 'That was a Freudian pratfall into a large vat of custard.'
Frazz settled himself down at his desk. 'Who's Freudian? What did I miss?'
Lynda let herself into Colin's office, glad that she hadn't let him get padlocks for this one. Although he'd normally have got padlocks whether he was allowed to or not. He just hadn't bothered to this time. It worried her. He didn't even attempt to make himself look busy when she came in, but sat staring past her into the middle distance, the way he had been doing increasingly over recent months.
'Heard of knocking?'
'I thought you said the Ladies didn't need to knock.'
Lynda flicked the lights on. He hadn't even bothered to do that. 'Sorry about the "Kenny" thing. I've just… I've always had a Kenny. I think I'm just the kind of girl who needs a man in her life that she's never going to sleep with, and since you can bet your life that you and me are never, ever going to have sex with each other, I think I must have…'
'I don't like it here any more, Lynda.'
Her heart sank. This was what she'd been dreading. Another one bites the dust…
'You've only been here a couple of weeks…'
'Not here.' He ran his hands over his desk. 'It's not the office. It's not even the paper. Not really. It's bigger than that. And it's smaller than that.' He propped himself on his elbows, sinking his forehead into his fingertips. 'I don't like it in here any more. I'm sick of it. I just… I want to take my brain out and shake it, make all the loose bits fall into place.'
She took a step backwards towards the door, concerned at the shallowness of his breath. She was well acquainted enough with Panic Attacks to recognise one coming on. 'Colin. The loose bits are what make you You.'
'It's bollocks. It's bullshit.' He sank further into his hands. 'It's pointless.'
'Oh God. Wait there.' She turned and stepped back into the newsroom, one hand still resting on the closed door handle. 'I need somebody kind, calm and understanding who isn't in Australia or University,' she announced. 'It's that Breakdown I've been waiting for.'
Frazz got to his feet. 'Don't leave him alone in there if he's losing it.'
'What's he going to do? Give himself a fatal papercut?'
'Frazz, do you really think that after all the trouble we had with him sneaking out of the old office I'd give him another secret door?'
'No.' Spike removed his sunglasses. 'But this time he's got a window.'
Lynda blinked, then span around and opened the door to an empty office with an open window.
She ran to the open window, leaning out of it. He was already halfway down the road, sprinting away.
'Julie?' She held out her hand. 'Handbag.'
She caught the tossed bag and began to clamber out of the window herself.
'You're not going after him!' Exclaimed the Assistant Editor.
Lynda dropped to the pavement and turned briefly back to the window before setting off on his trail.
'Julie, I've been patiently watching him get closer and closer to snapping for months now. I don't want to miss it when it happens.'
She let him run until he was well out of range of the office, hoping he would tire before she did. When it became clear that wasn't about to happen, she hitched up her bag, pulled out her portable phone and speed dialled 3. There was a distant ringing, and she watched with amusement as he, still sprinting, pulled a phone from his coat pocket and answered it.
'Can't talk. Busy.'
'Couple of questions. Firstly, you're heading away from your house, your Mum's, and most of your haunts that I know about. Where is it we're actually going?'
There was only harsh breathing on the other end of the phone. The young man ahead of her came to a clumsy halt, genuinely bemused.
'I don't know.'
Lynda slowed to a jog as she approached him.
'And second, how can you run so fast with such short little legs?'
Colin, bent double to catch his breath, glanced up at her, grimly.
'A lifetime's worth of practice.'
There was a pause as they both sucked in air, putting away their phones.
'Care to tell me what all that was about?'
'I'm not Kenny,' Colin re-iterated. 'I'm not clear headed and I'm not organised and I'm not reliable. You've got to stop relying on me. It'll only end in tears…' He trailed off, sinking to his knees. 'Excuse me, Lynda. I think I need to be foetal for a while.'
True to his word for once, he curled up on himself, grinding his forehead against the pavement.
She was answered with a low, wordless moan as he wrapped his arms around his head. She tried nudging him a little with his toe.
'Colin, get up.'
A passing pair of old ladies stared at them, bewildered. Lynda met them with a polite smile, still nudging the foetally curled youth, gingerly.
'Colin,' she hissed, 'you are a grown man, not to mention Financial Director, Sales and Marketing Manager and now Features Editor of a major Young Adults' Publication. Would you kindly act like it, instead of a tantruming six year old.' She emphasised the end of her order with a harder kick.
Colin sat up with a sigh. She grabbed the crook of his elbow, hauling him up onto his feet and brushed the mud off his trousers, tutting.
'Isn't that better?' She spat on her thumb and wiped a patch of dirt from his forehead.
'Want to sit on the swings with me?'
He nodded again.
Liz was distracted again. Her interviewer was going through her papers, getting ready to ask her what may turn out to be some life changing questions, and she couldn't take her eyes off the dribbley red blob mounted on the wall.
'The Editor sends her apologies,' said the Blonde woman with a false brightness, 'but there was an unforeseen emergency she had to handle.'
'That's OK…' muttered Liz.
The Blonde woman leaned in to her, conspiratorially. 'Ask me, if she insists on working with Bloody Men, she's just asking for that kind of trouble.'
'Is that art?' blurted Liz, despite herself.
The woman followed her eyeline to the blob on the wall. 'No. That's the phone.'
'Really? A working telephone?'
'Hasn't worked for years. Officially, it never did. And then it burnt to a crisp in the fire, but she insisted on keeping it. She get sentimental over the weirdest things.' The woman shrugged herself out of it, and extended a businesslike hand. 'Julie Craig. Assistant Editor. And you are…' Julie checked her notes. 'Elizabeth Fish.'
Liz shook the hand. 'Not a great surname, I know. And call me Liz. Or Lizzie.'
Julie's face fell. 'Oh.'
'She tends not to like working with other women with 'L' names. She says it confuses her.'
'Wish I was. So far she's got through two Lynns, a Libby and a Lindsey.'
Liz chewed her lip, and rummaged in her bag.
'Take a look at this,' she said, sliding her portfolio across the table. 'And, er…' she pushed a small cake across with it. 'You might like a Fairy Cake while you're reading.'
Julie picked up both folder and confectionary with a small frown in Liz's direction.
'What is this?'
'Just a cake.'
'It's not a bribe at all, is it?'
'What makes you think that?'
Julie gave the diminutive interviewee a cynical once-over. 'Did you know your jumper's on inside-out?'
Liz looked down at her jumper for the briefest moment, then unflinchingly gazed the other woman in the eye again.
'Yes. It's how they're all doing it nowadays.'
'How who are doing it?'
'Them. In London, you know? And Paris.' She put another bun on the desk. 'Chocolate Éclair?'
Two people, a man and a woman, both in their very early twenties, were sitting in a playground, in the drizzle, on a pair of swings. They didn't speak for a long time, but used their heels to listlessly push themselves backwards and forwards a few inches each way, like a couple of bored miscreant youths. It wouldn't have looked so odd had they not both made misguided attempts to Power Dress. They had both made the mistake of buying jackets that were slightly too big for them, and neither had bothered to iron. They didn't look up, didn't notice anybody else, just watched their feet and gently, sadly swung together.
'Perception's a funny thing,' said Lynda at last, 'journalistically speaking. Just one event can have hundreds of different stories in it. Thousands. It all depends on who you interview, what their angle is, how much they know. And, the funny thing is, no matter how deep you dig, you know that, at the end of the day, your story isn't the real truth. Not the whole truth. Because I'm not sure that The Whole Truth is something that you can ever really know. You just know bits. Some people simply know more bits than others.'
There was no reply. She hadn't been expecting one.
'I'll give you an example,' she continued. 'There's a story at our office, generally accepted as Fact, that we nearly lost Colin Mathews a couple of months ago. The paper was in trouble, he was headhunted and he walked, until clever, gorgeous, wonderful Lynda Day used her usual womanly wiles to persuade him into coming back.'
She paused, and looked at him. He still wasn't ready to talk. He wasn't even smiling.
'But I know a different story. My story goes that we've been losing Colin Mathews for a long time. But he's not walking. He's unravelling. He's eroding away. Piece by piece, a shallow creation that we called Colin Mathews is crumbling into oblivion. Only there's something behind it - a strange, sad young man. You keep clutching at the mask, but it keeps slipping, more and more.'
'Except you're the only one that can tell, I suppose?' His voice was uncharacteristically quiet and cynical.
'Maybe I'm the only one who can be bothered to look,' she replied. 'Maybe I met that person behind the wall some time ago, and liked him. Maybe there's a girl behind a different wall somewhere who wanted to know him better. Maybe that's why I felt compelled to hug him once. Who knows? Who knows the Whole Truth?'
'You don't,' he said. 'You don't know me. No one does. What makes you think I put up barriers? What makes you so sure of what's genuine and what's fake?'
'You're right,' she replied, 'I don't know for sure that I've ever met the real you. But there's one thing I know from past experience. What you're doing now – the withdrawal, the sadness, the sudden ability to talk sensibly and honestly – it means that something's seriously wrong. It means you're not a very happy pink bunny.'
That, at least, made him smile a little.
'How did this happen?' She coaxed.
He sighed, and stopped his swing. 'I haven't been sleeping well recently.'
'Since I was shot.'
She stared at him. He met her gaze with a blank expression that she'd come to learn meant he was being genuine.
'Colin, that was over a year and a half ago…'
'Don't you get nightmares over it, too?'
Lynda raised her eyebrows, looking off into the grey sky. 'And the rest.'
'I get dreams. Sometimes while I'm still half awake. It's the funeral, and they all start screaming… his family… they're so angry. They're so angry that I lived, when he didn't.'
Lynda tried to meet his eyes again, but he refused.
'You've surprised me, Colin,' she said. 'I didn't think it went back that far. I thought it was all down to… you know… your problem.'
Colin frowned. 'Problem?'
'Oh. Yes.' Colin scuffed at the ground. 'The "J" Words. I can't pretend they've helped.'
'I'm right, aren't I? That's been getting to you, too.'
'Of course it has. I'm almost 21 years old, for God's sake. I should be out having fun, meeting girls. I shouldn't be spending my life hiding in wardrobes, locking myself in offices, and jumping out of windows. Not on my own, anyway.' He shook his head. 'I mean, how did you do it, Lynda? How did you manage to find somebody, just like that, who sees who you are and loves you for it? Because I've been trying and trying, and I think it has to be impossible.'
'Colin, me and Spike hardly happened "Just Like That". There was a lot of screaming, crying and throwing things. You know that. You were there for most of it.'
Colin finally looked at her again, the ghost of a genuine smile on his mouth. 'It was worth it though, wasn't it? I bet you wouldn't have missed a second of it for the world.'
Lynda smiled back. 'I'm a lucky cow, aren't I? But I'll tell you something, Mister. If I deserve a Spike, you deserve one as well. There's a Spike out there for you, too. There has to be.'
'I don't want to out with Spike.'
Lynda tutted. 'There's gratitude.'
Julie frowned a little as she passed yet another girl with her jumper on inside out. That made three so far that day. She was starting to wonder whether Liz might have been onto something. She entered the office, clearing her throat, politely. Liz looked up, troubled. She was still working on her written test.
'I'm going to have to hurry you, I'm afraid,' said Julie. 'You're only supposed to take 10 minutes, and you've had nearly twice that.'
Liz bit her lip. 'Nearly done. I can talk and write at the same time, you know.'
'All right, then.' Julie sat down opposite Liz. 'Let's see if you've done your homework. Tell me about UpStart.'
'What's to tell?' Liz grinned. 'It hasn't had its first issue yet. I know that it's not to be confused with the Junior Gazette, if that's where you were expecting to trip me up.'
'Typical Journalist,' laughed Julie, 'always looking for the trick question.'
'The team at UpStart used to work on the Junior Gazette,' continued Liz, 'but after the old office was destroyed in a fire, you all knew you'd have to start again from scratch so you decided to re-brand yourselves. You were getting too old to work on a children's paper anyway, so the business was completely changed to become a quality local weekly for young adults, freeing the owners of the Junior Gazette title to turn it into a project for schoolchildren again. How's that?'
Julie nodded. 'Well researched.'
'It's a good idea, by the way,' added Liz, 'it's filling a big gap in the market, and your target readers grew up with the old Junior Gazette, so even though it's new, it's still from a trusted source. It's still risky, but I reckon it'll do well.'
Liz handed her test paper over to Julie, brightly.
'That's what we're all hoping,' replied Julie. 'I'll be back to see you once I've gone through your test.'
Liz beamed cheerily at her until she'd left the office and closed the door behind her.
'Sweet girl,' muttered Julie to herself.
Then she looked down at the test paper in her hands. She sighed, disappointedly. 'Oh dear.'