It was a slow morning at the hospital canteen and Noah and I had disappeared into the office for a while to help our manager Ken with the cashing up. We were soon all lying back in the great office chairs, with coins spread everywhere, in messy puddles strung across the floor and over the desks, like the ruins of a slaughtered animal. Noah and I were stacking pennies into little skyscrapers, and Ken would occasionally scoop up the skyscrapers and button them up inside condom-like wallets.
This morning the agency had sent a very beautiful Brazilian girl to the canteen and although she could scarcely speak a word of English, we just had to put her on the tills. She was to be the face of the canteen, the shining star of our movie. Despite her superior mastery of the English language, the less lovely Renata was sent scowling to wash dishes, an extra without a speaking part.
“Her name is Yaritza,” Noah laughed.
“I think that “Yaritza” means “fuck off asshole” in Brazilian,” I suggested.
Ken beamed merrily at us, a twinkle in his eye. “She has huge tits!”
“I admire her personality,” I said humourlessly.
“All the other workers are complaining about her,” Ken confided with glee. “She can’t speak English, she’s broken about forty teacups, she is very slow at cleaning… But I can understand totally. I mean, she has huge tits.”
Ken and Noah were soon jabbering away about all the girls at the canteen. I tried to keep up and occasionally join in, but this sort of noisy enthusiasm – as if we were squires talking excitedly about the latest horses on the market – makes me feel nervous and faintly excluded. This talking always has an alien, apocalyptic quality, and there is something unholy about it which, to my mind, does not recognisably belong in a civilised setting. It was as if dusty old bottles had fallen over and my friends’ masculinity was gurgling out freely, whilst my own masculinity remained bottled up and all of my talk sounded fake and watery.
I suspect that their enthusiasm was at heart merely a sort of act. I was once drinking in the Standing Order with Pablo, and he was boasting about all the girls whom he had fucked, and when his wife and her friends started to protest, he just laughed:
“I’m sorry my dear but when I’m with the boys I have to act the alpha male, you know. When we’re back in the bedroom, I’ll be…” and he cut an impression of a humble little man bobbing away at his prayers.
After raving about Yaritza, Ken and Noah found themselves in loud agreement over an agency worker named Ewa. “She actually has a beautiful body. Gorgeous! But the face!”
“Oh the face is a disaster!”
“But sometimes – especially when you see her from behind – she’s really hot and you’re surprised.”
I tried to get a foothold. “What about Blanca?”
Ken shook his head as if in warning. “No…”
Noah nodded. “She’s like a sister. She’s a lot of fun, but… honestly, no.”
“I think that she’s really dirty. She’s really open about her sex life.”
Ken reflected. “She’s definitely very funny, but it’s like with Alexa – she has a great face, and beautiful tits, but somehow the personality just seems to poison everything. But Renata…?”
Noah looked at him quickly. “Hey, let’s not talk about the girls we’re…”
Ken yelped. “Oh sorry Biggy.”
“No it’s okay, I’m not fucking her.”
“No, she’s really cold and when I try to fuck her…” I wrung my hands. “It’s just horrible.”
“I’m sorry pal.”
The conversation was losing some of its exhilarating momentum and for a moment, we were struggling to keep it on its feet. “But what about Maria?” Noah then remembered happily.
“Oh Maria!” Ken groaned.
“She is so hot and so amazing.”
I frowned. “I’m sorry but I just don’t see it.”
They stared at me in astonishment and I shrugged helplessly in response. “She’s like a child. She’s very funny and charming, but… I mean, is she even over sixteen?”
“Biggy, she’s twenty-seven.”
I roared with laughter. “No way! That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Man, she’s graduated from university.”
“She’s like a child!” I insisted over the clamour.
“Do you think that she’s a virgin?” Noah asked tentatively.
“No,” Ken shook his head. “She has a boyfriend… I think that she lives with him. ”
“She told me that they sleep in separate beds.”
“But she’s a Catholic and their men always have to wait… but what’s wrong?”
“What is it Ken?”
Ken was gazing at us with an expression of stark, stunned amazement, as if somebody had crept up behind him and buried an axe in his head. In an instant, all of the colour had drained out of his face and he looked suddenly like an old man.
And then we saw what he had done. He had been leaning with his elbow on the desk, and the elbow had knocked back the little switch that turned on the Tannoy system…
Our conversation had been broadcast to the entire workforce.
For a moment, we could only look at each other. I watched Noah trying to speak for a bit until I myself could finally manage to choke up a little whisper.
“Ken, turn off the Tannoy…”
The office was already under siege – somebody was beating furiously on the door. Peeping out of the window, I saw people traipsing about in a daze, as if in the aftermath of a bomb attack. I saw a girl in tears and two other workers trying to comfort her.
We were now faced with responsible-Ken rather than silly-Ken. “We’ll have to apologise. It was an accident – they’ll understand,” he said briskly.
“What did we say? I can‘t remember what we said…” Noah was gibbering in panic.
It was suddenly as if I had walked off the edge of a cliff and I was looking down at the doom which was about to swallow me up. “Oh my God, I think I said that making love to Renata was horrible.”
It was over three months before we could, as an organisation, finally joke about the Tannoy incident. Ken was heckled repeatedly when he tried to apologise at a staff meeting, and most of the girls looked seriously unamused. The three of us had been put on trial by the hospital’s Human Resources department and, duly found guilty, we were sent on over a dozen courses about showing respect for women. I had to spend an entire weekend on a farm outside Edinburgh with a group of therapists, where we had a conference about my mother and how she used to hit me, whilst we rode about on ponies.
Upon hearing my broadcast remarks, Renata’s whole personality had spoiled like milk, and for weeks she was sour and spiteful. Yet one evening I was drunk and I went to her flat, and we were hugging, and she started to cry, and it was then that I realised that my honesty over the airwaves had probably put our relationship forward by several years. Oddly enough, I had the most trouble with Maria. She had taken note of my comments about her apparent immaturity and she wished to challenge this view.
So we went out for a drink together and she told me about how her father had died when she was eight, and how she had to leave school to help her mother on the farm. She told me about how she worked from six in the morning to ten in the evening on the farm and how she studied English through the night, sleeping for less than three hours a day. She told me that when she first came to Edinburgh she had worked for thirteen hours a day, for seven days a week, for less than four pounds an hour, but, as she was elaborating upon this very point, the barman walked over and he asked me if my friend had any I.D.
“I’m twenty-seven!” Maria squeaked in outrage.
“I’m sorry but you’ll have to leave. Immediately.” The barman pointed to the door.