Almost Never Disclaimers & Chapter Index
The buzzer on Stuart's speakerphone brought him out of a spreadsheet-induced coma just before total oblivion threatened to set in.
Sandra's voice came through tinnily: "Stuart, Vince is here. Shall I--"
He'd stabbed the button to respond as soon as she spoke. "Send him in!" he shouted, loud enough so she'd hear him at her desk outside his office, as well as through the speakerphone. "Jesus, Sandra. You always send Vince in. Do I have to tell you to breathe in and out as well? And do remember, when you go for a drink of water, the cup goes in your mouth, not your ear."
"As you hear, he's in a splendid mood," Sandra informed Vince. "Enter at your own risk."
"I'll step carefully," Vince promised as he opened the door. Rather than coming in straight away, he thrust his hand throught the doorway first, dangling a fragrant plastic bag in ahead of him. "I brought takeaway," he called in.
"Oh yeah? What is it?" Stuart asked.
"Curries," Vince answered, still outside the door. "Lamb for you, chicken for me. Or we can divide it up."
"Rice or nan?"
"Good enough," Stuart judged. "Come on in then."
Vince crept in, holding the takeaway bag up like a shield before him. He was still in his Harlo's clothes, an off the rack brown suit that nevertheless fit rather well. "Long night?" he asked cheerily.
"I hardly recognise you. When's the last time we were out together?" Stuart asked. "Sometime last year, wasn't it?"
"Four nights ago."
"Eons," Stuart said. "Don't put that on the desk-- over there, on the table. Just move the-- yeah, put those on the bookshelf. Scoot those chairs around."
Vince arranged things according to Stuart's instructions, putting the takeaway bag on the table and delving inside.
"I feel like I've been locked in this office for centuries. If I never see another luxury sedan in my life it'll be too fucking soon. And you should see the proofs they gave me for the print ads. The wrong copy and the wrong color car. Total cockup."
"Since when do you do ads?"
"We aren't doing them, but we're reviewing them. We've taken over supervising the overall strategic initiative--" Stuart shook his head. "Never mind, that's the last thing I want to talk about. Just look at this. It's rubbish. I should've been a designer. I took art. I can even draw a bit, cartoons and that. All you have to do is move things around on a page. I bet the designers aren't still stuck in the office at half seven, slaving away."
"You'll feel better if you eat something," Vince said, opening up the cartons of takeaway. "Or more to the point, your mouth will be full and you won't be able to carry on quite so much, so it'll be like you're feeling better."
"That does smell good," Stuart said, abandoning his computer. He plunked down at the table and picked at the contents of one carton. "Not bad," he said, then tried the other. "Mm, better. I'll have this one."
"Fine," Vince said, digging into the bag, "I got that one for you anyway. Here-- fork, napkin, diet Coke-- you're all set."
Stuart tucked into the curry zealously; he hadn't realized quite how hungry he'd got until he took the first bite. "You know what else," he said after a gulp of soda, "the copy on that ad? It's got a mistake in it. They used the wrong "their", the possessive instead of the contraction. Plus the copy's rubbish too. I could write better copy, I could design a better ad-- I could shit better material than those bastards are putting out. Is that the best they can do for a hundred quid an hour?"
Vince choked on a mouthful of curry. "A hundred an hour?"
"About that, yeah," Stuart nodded.
"Cor, I don't think I even make a hundred a day," Vince said.
"Mm. I bill at around a hundred fifty an hour," Stuart said. "But that's not what I get paid, that's just what the company gets. Bunch of it goes to overhead. And then there's taxes. I don't see three quarters of that money."
"That's still, what, forty quid an hour," Vince said. "Christ, that's mad. Forty an hour."
Stuart shrugged, rooted around in the carton to spear another chunk of lamb. "What's the weather like out there? Is it worth going out?"
"It's pissing down," Vince said.
"Shit. I don't feel like getting rained on, but I have got to get out there. I know I've been out of circulation too long when you start looking good." Stuart rubbed his eyes. "'S not half bad, though, that suit. You're almost carrying it off, even."
"You're about the only one desperate enough to even look," Vince replied. "I haven't gotten so much as a phone number in weeks."
"You want to try Cruz?"
"Nah," he said. "Miserable night, cold, wet. Never much going on, Wednesdays. Might as well pack it in."
"What're you doing, then?"
"Thought I'd just go home. Throw on Doctor Who, sack out on the couch, put down roots."
Stuart grimaced mildly. "Which show?"
"I've been wanting to see 'Keeper of Traken', I might do that one," Vince said.
"You've seen that one a million times. That's the one where the Master comes back, right? The actor changes."
"I like him," Stuart admitted. "Be honest, I think the show oughta be about the Master. Far as I'm concerned the Doctor's just some prat who keeps blundering around, getting in the Master's way."
"You just like the idea of shrinking people that annoy you down into dolls."
"Yeah, well, if I was the Master, you and me, we'd be living in a world full of Barbies and Action Men." Stuart shook his head. "Right. You inviting me over or what?"
"Sure, if you want."
"Just said, didn't I? You don't mind waiting another half-hour."
"No, 's alright. Brought a book."
Stuart shoved his empty takeaway carton back into the sack and went back to his desk. He dove back into the spreadsheet, but he'd hardly had time to get through two more entries before Sandra opened the door.
"What?" he growled at her impatiently. "I'm busy!"
"It's getting late, I want to get home," she said. "I'm just booking you for New York--"
"Oh, right, right. Vince, listen to this. They're sending me to New York."
"Really?" Vince asked, chuffed. "That's fantastic, Stuart. When? How long're you going for?"
"Week and a half, end of next month. What do you think?"
"That's really amazing," Vince said. "Send me a postcard."
"No chance. Come with me."
"Sandra, go ahead and book the tickets," Stuart ordered. "Let me know when you need my credit card."
"Fine," she said, going back to her desk, "but then I'm going home. I should have done ages ago."
"Stuart, I can't go to New York," Vince said. "I've got work. I don't have enough holiday time left."
"Bin it, then."
"Your job. Bin it. Quit," Stuart said. "It's not as though you like it anyway. You could easily find something better. New York, Vince. America. It's a whole other world, isn't it? Come on, you have to come. What am I going to do in some huge new city on my own? How'm I gonna get back to the hotel? Who'll be around to talk to?"
"Right, I'll just leave everything behind and swan off to New York with you on a whim, shall I? And what am I supposed to live on once I've quit my job, air and sunshine?" Vince inquired.
"Who cares? I make enough now I could probably pay your full salary."
"Same stuff you already do. Chauffering duties. Look after the flat. You could be my houseboy," Stuart invited.
"God, the thought of it," Vince laughed.
"I'm sure I could think of a few more things you could do," Stuart flirted.
"No doubt," Vince answered drily. "Like rousting your shags out in the mornings..."
"That'd be brilliant," Stuart chortled. "C'mon, you know you'd love that. Give 'em a good kick in the arse as you boot 'em down the steps."
"Not a bit of it. You clean up your own messes," said Vince.
Stuart smiled at him sweetly. "Why start now?"
Vince made a face at him and shook his head. "That's flash, New York. I mean, it was exciting when they sent you to Denmark, but this is something else, yeah? It's like, the big time."
"It's not that big a deal," Stuart dismissed. "It's just some meetings. That's why you have to come. Week and a half I'm going to be there, and I only have meetings four days of it. That means I've got six days totally free to hit every single fucking club in the city, which I fully intend to do--" he caught himself and turned to scowl at the open door. "Sandra, you're not hearing any of this!"
"Course not, Stuart," Sandra called back from her desk. "You know I never listen to a word you say."
"Too right you don't," Stuart muttered.
She appeared in the doorway again. "I'm having a hard time with the airline's voicemail thing, it keeps hanging up on me. I'm just going to do this in the morning, all right? And that way you'll know for sure if Vince is going too."
"I'm not," Vince said. "I probably couldn't even afford the ticket--"
"Are you not listening to me either?" Stuart demanded. "I'll cover it. Thrive's paying for me, it's not costing me anything, so I might as well. And I can write most of it off as a business expense."
"Stuart, you can't just give me a trip to New York."
"Watch me," Stuart said. "Sandra, run off home. Just do the reservations first thing tomorrow. No, wait! Here's the proof for that ad. Send it back to them and tell them to stuff it, it's complete shite."
His assistant accepted the proof and looked over his scrawled comments. "Typing this up is going to be a joy," she noted. "What is this? Why're you editing the copy? This is just the comp, Stuart, none of these elements are finalised. This isn't the picture they'll use for the car, this isn't the final copy--"
"If none of that stuff is actually the way it's gonna be, what are they showing it to me for?" Stuart asked.
"You're just supposed to approve the layout. The treatment and the typography, that stuff."
"Useless," Stuart declared. "I can't judge those things if the rest is wrong. You can tone down my notes if you want, but tell 'em I only want to see comps with the approved elements in the future. I don't want it dummied up with the wrong stuff. If they're gonna do that, I'd rather see sketches. And have them Greek the text. Less distracting."
"All right. Have you finished that spreadsheet?"
"I'm working on it," he gestured widely at the computer, "Jesus, what do you think I'm still here for? What do you care anyway? Who works for who around here?"
She put her hand on her hip, looking put upon. "I'm the one's going to have to make excuses to McNeece if you don't have that ready for him first thing. I just want to know if I need to wear an asbestos suit tomorrow."
"I'd think you would as a matter of course," Vince commented, gesturing at Stuart. "Protect you from the flames."
Stuart narrowed his eyes at him. "Fuck you!"
What made it worse, Sandra was chuckling. "No doubt," she said. "Look, Stuart, don't get hung up on that thing, it really just needs you to look it over and make suggestions. Put a few check marks on it and hand it back."
"I leave it to McNeece, he'll bung it up," Stuart said. "Then I'll have to fix it. I may as well do it now."
"It'll be fine," she said. "God, it's all or nothing with you. You either have an iron grip, or you can't be bothered. Make corrections, pass it back. See you tomorrow."
Vince looked after Sandra curiously as she left, then mixed some rice into the last of his curry with a thoughtful look on his face. "Your job is really..."
"The people part is good," Stuart said. "Meetings. Phone calls. The rest, though-- it's completely stupid. Reports that no one ever reads, but you still have to write them. Presentations no one listens to. It's worse than being in school. School ends."
"Nobody ever gave you forty quid an hour to go to school, though," Vince pointed out.
"They should have." Stuart went back to the spreadsheet. "Right, then, fuck this. Sandra says let it go, I'm letting it go." He opened up an email, jotted a few notes and recommendations, and sent the file off. "There. Let's get out of here."
"Right," Vince smiled, gathering up the last of the takeaway garbage and throwing it into the rubbish bin.
They traversed the long hallway past the other offices. In the quiet of the abandoned building, their steps seemed very loud, even buffered as they were by the thick new carpeting.
As they approached the exit, Stuart pretended to fumble with his briefcase. "Shit. Get the door..?"
Vince grasped the handle and instantly jumped back, shouting, "Ow! Fuck!"
Stuart began cackling deviously. Vince turned on him with a scowl, shaking his hand. "What the fuck was that?"
"The door handle's metal, the new carpets are wool," Stuart said. "Everyone's been getting static electricity shocks since they put it in. They're replacing the doorknobs this weekend." He started laughing again. "That was brilliant, though. The best zap I've seen yet. I actually saw a blue spark."
"You're so fucking evil," Vince complained.
"Oh, and you love it," Stuart taunted, "or else you wouldn't let me get away with it."
"Who said I was?" Vince grinned at him, then stopped and looked around. "Oi, where's the loo in this maze, anyway?"
Stuart pointed. "End of this hall, last door on the left."
"Fab," Vince said, and suddenly grabbed Stuart's arm, twisted it behind him and began marching him down the hall.
"What the fuck are you doing?" Stuart asked, trying to wrestle his way out of the hold and finding Vince's grip all too secure.
"I'm gonna flush your head down the urinal," Vince said sternly. "You're taking the piss, well then, you can take the pisser."
"Like hell you are!" Stuart struggled, but he couldn't break the hold until they were halfway through the door to the loo. He seized the doorway with his free hand and used the leverage to propel Vince toward the wall, forcing him to dig in his heels; then Stuart yanked his arm free and took off running full speed out of the building.
By the time he threw the doors open Vince was hard on his heels again, fingertips brushing his collar. Giggling madly, Stuart ducked and evaded his friend, weaving through the few remaining vehicles in the car park, trying to keep at least one between himself and Vince at all times until he finally got a chance to leg it straight for the car, jumping in and locking himself inside, breath coming in gasps from exertion and laughter.
Vince walked over, smiling broadly and holding his side, and tapped on the window. Stuart shook his head, started the car, and gunned the engine. Vince held his fingers up in the peace sign. Stuart flipped him off, threw the car into gear, and drove away.
Vince ran after the car until it actually left the car park, then stopped, shaking his fist and no doubt cursing Stuart's parentage at the top of his lungs. Stuart made a U-turn at the end of the street, still laughing almost too hard to breathe, circled round and pulled back in next to Vince, who was standing with his arms crossed, trying to look stern, though he was obviously still grinning.
Stuart stopped the car and unlocked the doors, summoning Vince in.
"I would've just left you, but then I remembered we were going to your flat," Stuart said.
"Bastard," Vince said, buckling in. His half of the car was illuminated by the streetlamp's yellow glow; Stuart's was dark. They were both still a bit winded. "Now I owe you for the shock, and the chase, and for driving off without me."
Leaning over into the light, Stuart gave his friend his most ingratiating smile. "You wouldn't have really flushed my head, would you?"
Vince smiled at him. "In a heartbeat," he said warmly.
Stuart laughed and let his head rest against Vince's shoulder. After a minute, Vince shifted and looped his arm around him. Stuart smiled against the fabric of Vince's suit jacket.
"I could fall asleep right here," he murmured.
"In that case you better let me drive," Vince said, reaching for the keys.
Stuart tightened his hold on them and captured Vince's hand as well. "Come with me to New York," he said.
Vince sighed and untangled his hand from Stuart's, withdrew his arm, retreated to his side of the car. "I can't. I can't just pick up and--"
"Do you want to?"
"I can't, Stuart. I can't take the time off and I can't afford to lose my job. Besides, there's inventory on all our machines and storage gear next month. I've got to keep a close eye on that, if the count goes off, the entire next year is going to be buggered--"
"It's just a supermarket. It's nothing. You could get a different job."
"I don't mind Harlo's."
"You don't like it, though. You could find something better. If you wanted. Don't you?" Stuart turned the keys over in his hand. "You could have anything you wanted, Vince, if you'd just quit pissing and moaning and try for it."
But he could see the look on Vince's face now, a strained cross between a weak smile and a sneer. He could see a trace of contempt in the tight downward curve of Vince's mouth, his downcast eyes and drawn brows.
Stuart sighed, shoved the key back in the ignition and started the car. "Fine. Fuck off, then. Have fun counting freezers. I'll send you a postcard."
"You could get me one of those shirts they sell tourists," said Vince. "'My best mate shagged half New York and all I got was this lousy t-shirt'."
"Only half New York?"
"Half of them are women," Vince reminded him.
"Right, right," Stuart said. "Even I have to draw the line somewhere."
"Look out for yourself, yeah?" Vince said. "I mean, it's a big city. New York. Anything could happen. Don't do anything stupid."
Stuart said, "Nope. You won't be there to look after me, so I'm gonna run completely wild. I'm gonna take drugs I never even knew existed, fuck every man I meet without condoms. Or lube. I'm gonna stand out on the street and dare people to rob me, bet my watch on three card monte, take candy from strangers..."
Vince shook his head. "Nice try. I'm not coming."
"Worth a shot," Stuart laughed. "Don't worry. I'll call and tell you what a fabulous time you're missing out on."
"See? It'll be just like I'm there."
"No, it won't," Stuart said. "But I'll take what I can get."
Almost Never Chapter Index