Liam’s heart raced as the lift rocketed up to the top floor of Phase Industries Ltd.
As opposed to the other fifty-nine floors of Phase Tower, which were chopped up into smaller and smaller offices the further down in floors (and ranks) you went, the sixtieth floor was one gigantic room. Boasting a spectacular, panoramic view of London from its enviable location upon Canary Wharf.
Liam was not early, having spent a prolonged moment in the gent’s toilet on Twenty-third agonising over whether or not to come at all. The ‘get-together’ was organised every financial quarter. All the Tower's "Employee of the Quarter" winners were invited. The opportunity to mingle with those who decided who got moved up and who stayed firmly where they were was terrifying.
Risk meeting the partners only to find they didn’t like the look of him? There was so much that could go wrong!
The centre of the room – already teeming with quarterly winners - was dominated by the bar. A twinkling island of mirrors and glassware, touched here and there with rich mahogany. Modernist stools, all done out in chrome piping, encircled the bar and at the epicentre of this display stood the barman, buffing a crystal champagne flute as Liam approached.
“Welcome, Sir. What would you like?”
“Uh,” Liam pulled at the hem of his suit-jacket, wondering whether sitting on the bar stool would send the right message. He leaned forwards, “What are the, uh, partners drinking?”
The barman smiled, far too aware of what that question implied about Liam’s position within the company. He was probably guessing what floor he worked on as he held the flute aloft for inspection.
“An old-fashioned is always popular choice, Sir.”
Liam nodded, unwilling to admit he didn’t know what that was, “An old-fashioned then please. Thank you.”
While he waited for the bartender to make his drink (which he hoped didn’t involve whisky), Liam surveyed the rest of the room. Long-leafed ferns were dotted around chic chairs, sofas and those low coffee tables which Liam found ridiculously impractical.
The upper echelons of Phase Industries were circulating like sharks around a shoal of fish, homing in on the weak, picking out those who did not belong.
Liam would belong. Sure, he was on Twenty-third now, but next year? The year after that? He sipped his drink and fought the urge to scrunch his face up as the whisky burnt his oesophagus. He’d grow to like this drink. One day, he would be the one gliding round the room, instilling fear in those he passed by, deliberately hesitating near nervous employees just to make them sweat. To feel his power. The power he would have earnt. Would deserve.
A short, balding man of about sixty stood before him. His moon face broken up by a disproportionately large nose and sharp, oblong glasses. It was one of the partners: Edgar Stone. Liam placed the tumbler on the bar and shook Mr. Stone’s hand, taking care to match the intensity of the other man’s grip.
Liam thought furiously of what he should say to this man. What would impress him? What would repulse him? He must say something memorable but memorable in a good way.
He wished Alette was here, his wife was so much better at this sort of thing. He suspected his last promotion had been largely attributed to her presence at the Christmas party, where she had talked (with maddening ease and charm) to some of the major shareholders and committee members about everything from their children to the latest political scandal.
“First time up here?” Mr. Stone asked, peering at Liam over his glasses.
“Uh, yes,” Liam said. He resisted the urge to tug at his tie and nodded towards the skyline, “Fantastic view.”
“Oh yes, marvellous city. I just wanted to say, Mr. Carp, great job on the Sanderson affair. That client was a tough one to crack but you did it!” Mr. Stone said, lifting his glass up in mock cheers. Then, he asked, “What floor is it that you’re on?”
Steve Brannen, the quarterly winner from Seventeen was approaching. Seventeen! No one below Twenty dared to actually come to these gatherings. It just wasn’t done, but Liam should have known that wouldn’t stop Steve. He had worked with the man on a few projects five years ago when he too was on Seventeen and remembered him well. His name also came up often in office speculation about promotions and gossip about inter-floor romance. He was like a blind spot that never quite went away.
“How’s Twenty-third treatin’ ya?” he said, turning to Mr. Stone who looked bemused (but not horrified as Liam had hoped), “Stoney! How’s the wife?”
Stoney? So, they knew each other. Fantastic. Liam sipped his disgusting drink and nodded along as they exchanged family news. Steve recounted anecdote after anecdote. Liam smiled in the right places and nodded when they nodded.
After a while, he moved away, finding other Quarterlies to talk to. The rest of the evening passed in a haze of mundane conversations whilst the partners dipped in and out, sometimes leaving little comments which could have been interpreted in a number of ways.
Liam smiled and wondered when the promotions would be announced. It was usually common knowledge by Monday morning who was moving up in the Tower but when did the winners find out? Sunday? Tomorrow? Tonight?
If he found out tonight, he would book a fabulous holiday. Alette always talked about the south of France and little Charlie and Julia would be happy anywhere with sea and sand.
Yes. That’s what he would do.
Liam checked his phone again and groaned. Saturday had come and gone without any news. His probing via innocuous messages had revealed no titbits of gossip, not even unrelated gossip which made him highly suspicious.
The film flashed with action, gunfire and screeching car tyres. Their ten year-old Charlie was loving it, sitting cross-legged on the floor, his mouth full of popcorn. Julia had been with them for Sunday dinner but she wasn’t there now. She must have gone upstairs. Teenagers.
Alette, managing to look demure in grey jogging bottoms and a matching jumper, lounged on the opposite end of the sofa to Liam, wiggling her toes under his leg.
“If I get this promotion, I’m buying a bigger sofa so your feet can’t get me.”
“But you love my feet,” she said, lifting one foot to crawl up his side like a furry caterpillar.
“This is important,” he said, tapping his phone, “This could be IT.”
She slunk her feet away and sighed, “There’s always another promotion... There’s only one us.” She said it quietly, but not that quiet. Liam shuffled round to face her.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She flapped her hand, making eyes to be calm in front of Charlie.
“You can’t say something like that and expect me not to react,” he said, keeping his voice low but a sharpness pervaded, making Alette flinch, “What did you mean? Don’t you want me to get promoted? Don’t you understand what that could mean for us?”
As Liam's voice got louder, Alette switched off the television and scooped up the protesting Charlie. At the bottom of the stairs, she ruffled his hair and whispered something about ‘mummy and daddy time’ before sending him up to his room.
Liam moved into the kitchen, which was their habitual ‘rowing room’ since it was the least audible from upstairs. Alette came in and pushed the door to, the lines on her face taught like tripwires.
“I said,” she began, breathing deeply, “That there’s always another promotion. If you get this one, things won’t change, they won’t be better, you’ll be stressed within weeks about the next one. It’s never-ending.”
“And ‘us’. You said there’s only one ‘us’. What did that mean?”
She stepped up to the kitchen island and placed her hands on the edge, her fingertips turned white, “I think I want a divorce.”
“You don’t mean it.”
Her face told him she did.
The entire room tipped to one side. Slanting to a dangerous angle before pinging back, launching one way and then the other like a tripped out see-saw with Liam and Alette unmoving in the centre; the axis upon which the room shook.
“You don’t mean it,” he repeated stupidly.
“You’re never here. You spend all your time at work and when you’re not at work, you’re thinking about work, texting, calling, day-dreaming… you’re never here with us.”
“I’ve been here all weekend!”
She gripped the island tighter and shook her head, her brown hair flicking with the movement over sad, earnest eyes, “You’re not listening,” she said.
Liam pushed his lips together and waited. If she needed him to listen, he would listen.
“Julia has had her heart broken for the first time… did you know that?”
"No, but she’s hardly going to tell me about that, is she? What teenage girl talks to her dad about her boyfriends?”
Alette looked up at the ceiling, blinking back tears, “And Charlie?” she asked, “Charlie plays the piano now… did you know that?”
Liam flung his arms in the air, “Oh, for Christ’s sake! This isn’t fair! How am I supposed to know all these things? I’m not the only parent in the world who works long hours!” he said, slamming his palm down on his side of the island, “Well? Am I?”
Alette held her gaze steady.
“They told you over dinner,” she said.
Liam stared, “They told me over dinner.”
“Yes,” Alette said, wiping nascent tears from her eyes, “Julia said that Sarah and her had broken up. You asked if she was alright and she said yeah.”
If the room had been vacillating before, it was now too still. Thunderously still. Liam was sure he could hear spiders scuttling above the kitchen units, spinning cobwebs and luring flies, that he could hear time stretching the way it does around such moments.
“Charlie told you he plays the piano now, that he loves it and you told him that was brilliant.”
Liam had said that. He remembered saying brilliant. Dear God, why didn’t he remember any of this? What had he been doing at dinner? Imagining the holidays that they could have with his new salary, the new car he could buy, the bigger mortgage… wait… did she say Sarah?
“Julia has a girlfriend?”
“Had, Liam. Had a girlfriend and yes.”
He wanted to leave those words hanging in the ether where they couldn't reach him. Floating above the kitchen island like jellyfish whose tentacles were barbed with vicious stings of truth. He knew it was true. His kids had said those things and he had answered.
The jellyfish crept closer.
“And I,” she began but stopped herself.
“What did I say? Over dinner? Do you remember?”
Liam wet his lips. He had the overwhelming feeling that this question was the most important. What had she said? He couldn’t remember anything specific about the conversation at dinner. What was wrong with him? What did she say? Think!
“I don’t want a divorce,” he said, “I can change.”
He winced, he hated it when people said that. No one ever changes. But their marriage can’t be over, not like this. Can it? Tears dripped onto his trembling jaw, “I don’t want a divorce. I love you so much… I’m sorry… I didn’t realise… I-.”
“Oh, Liam,” Alette breached the kitchen island, skirting the edges to reach him, her eyes intent, “What’s happened to us?”
She spoke to the air, Liam thought to the looming jellyfish who bobbed away beneath her gaze.
“I don’t want to lose you,” Liam said, taking her hands in his, “Nothing else is more important to me.”
Julia and Charlie were standing at the foot of the stairs, holding hands, worried expressions on their achingly young faces.
“Everything is alright,” Alette said, “Don’t worry. We were just being silly.”
She ushered them back upstairs, leaving Liam treading-water in the emotional wreckage, clinging to the kitchen island like a life raft.
When Alette returned, he asked, “Did you mean it? Is everything alright now?”
“No, of course not,” she said, her fingertips lightly brushing his wet cheek, “But it’s a start.”
Upstairs, Alette checked on the kids whilst Liam composed himself in their bedroom. Suddenly, all three of them looked round the doorframe, forming a comical tower of floating heads.
“We’re going to watch the rest of the film,” Charlie said from the bottom.
“You comin’?” Floating head number two, Julia, asked.
As he pushed himself up off the bed, his phone beeped.
The message read, “Steve Brannen promoted to Thirty! Can you believe it?! The jammy f***er!”
Liam read the message again and frowned. Why wasn’t he angry? He should be. He should be livid but all he felt was a hollow nothingness.
“What is it?” Alette asked.
“Eh, nothing important.”
He snapped his phone shut, tossed it on the bed and followed his family downstairs.