Around the time of My Promotion
Someone has just asked me a question – they are politely waiting for my answer. There is a plant in a pot in the area behind them. There is a clean jug of water, and the smell of lemons. The whole situation reminds me of the time I was given a promotion. It was a long time ago, my promotion. This now is a different kind of question, but the room is the same. I am absorbed by the colour of the carpet. I’m worried about what might come out of me when I speak, but I am speaking, I think. I feel sure I am speaking but not yet answering the question.
I live by the sea, and I have this morning traced my favourite path along the shingle, pushing my heels between the stones, looking at the colour of the sea and the sky, their complimentary variations on the same voided grey. Like a municipal door in a municipal doorframe.
I have begun veering towards a subject area that might prepare me to begin answering the question, speaking in my usual tone, which does sound quite dry throated. It is living by the sea that does this. The salt air, the dirt on the stones, the fibred wind. The question is repeated with a smile, I must not have understood. I speak again.
Not long after you left, we started sending you postcards of the castle. I was the first to do it. I had found a postcard by accident, hidden in a paper bag that I think was from the first ever visit we had taken together, to the castle, when we had first moved to this town.
The castle was a ruin, of course. I remember having a sense of disappointment on that first visit, that there was no roof, and no real rooms to frolic around in, no hallways to charge along.
The gift shop had been the only comfort against the castle’s slighted form. A place that represented what a castle was supposed to be. A warm room filled with wooden swords, sweet-fragranced stationery, stuffed toy lions. I had wanted a suit of armour in plastic, complete with paladin’s cape and sword, but they cost way too much money. Instead, we always bought postcards and were dutifully made to sit down and write them to members of the family. To Grandma, to Gran and Grandad, to Uncle Martin. But this had never been sent – it had remained in its paper bag, with candy pink stripes.
I found it in the drawer of doom, in down under the crusted layers of bills and yearly reports. I slipped it out of its crunchy paper bag, and I thought of you.
As soon as the idea came to me, I wrote my message and copied out the address you had scrawled on the back of an envelope for us. My writing was very messy – very rushed. I did not manage to say everything I wanted to say.
The next morning, on the way to school I lagged behind the family shoal so I could slip it into the postbox without being seen. As I heard it hit the other letters inside, I felt a surge of quite painful happiness. I thought about its impact a lot that day. I wondered what you would do. I had literally no idea which way things would play out.
The next day, there was a trouble I had not accounted for. I was called downstairs by my mother. I was convinced I was about to get quizzed about my postcard, and its contents. I felt suddenly as though I had done something very wrong – there was no doubt that I had broken the unspoken rules of what was said and what was not said about your departure. I had been too direct. When I saw my mother’s face, I became overwhelmed with the thought that I had hurt her. I had gone behind her back, expressed my sadness to you and in so doing, weakened and insulted her as a parent. I felt like a traitor.
In fact, it was not that. But it was, in that particular moment, much more serious – much more tangibly bad. It turned out that I had used the last stamp. Mum was angry and desperate because she had needed the stamp to send a cheque to pay a bill that was weeks overdue. There was hell that morning. There was no time to buy another stamp, there was no money for another stamp. We were on pennies for beans already, but I didn’t answer her questions – where was the stamp? I did not explain what I had used the stamp for, I just apologised and said over and over again that it wasn’t my brother’s fault or my sister’s fault, but I didn’t know what I had done with it. I didn’t know where it was, I said, and we went on looking pointlessly around the house, wasting more and more time and generating more and more rage, late for the everything, with the toast burnt and so on. A classic hell morning.
In my postcard, of course, I wrote that you should come back. I knew it was a forbidden thing to say. I said that it would be better if we were all together – I tried to assemble an argument that made it clear. I said I could tell that you were not happy.
In sending this and subsequent postcards, I hoped you would see that the separation was tearing me apart actually. Even though I had said it was fine – and continued to say it was fine when we spoke on the phone, and when I was asked at school, and by uncles and by friends of the family, to all of them I said it was fine. I was happy. I nodded when I was asked if I understood that it had been the only way. I let them say how grown up I was for being fine.
In the postcard, I tried to point out what I hoped you knew: that it would be obvious to you, that it was in fact the very worst thing in the world.
I missed you. I missed hearing you and smelling the tobacco on your breath when you kissed me goodnight. Come back, it said, just come back. The question I have been asked is still in the air. The plant is still there somewhere. I have not answered it. I have not engaged with the subject at all, and while they wait, someone is pouring water, so slowly, it feels like a test. The sound of pouring water is a test – the test is, can I resist becoming also a liquid? I should be clear that I am speaking, but not managing to answer the question. My voice is very crunchy. They are looking at me, they are peering at me, I do not seem to realise how momentous this is. The carpet beneath all our feet is the colour they tell me that dominates the colour of space. A kind of peach beige brown sick colour, but of course with infinite depth, with a darkness that really draws all of this in – that inevitably will dominate all colour and all of time. I go again.
Later that day, when I was alone with my brother and sister, I confessed that I had been the one who had taken the stamp. I told them why and what I had done with it. I felt that they deserved an explanation about it. They were hugely embarrassed at having our common sadness suddenly out in the open, as we sat at the table, without any warning, and us still in our school uniforms eating chips and with the evening TV ahead of us, but they grudgingly approved of what I had done. David, my brother, asked if we could get some more stamps. Susan, my sister agreed. We want to write to him too, she said.
Careful not to make too much of a dent in the precious money bowl that was hidden in our mother’s bedroom, we took enough coppers to pay for a book of 2nd class stamps. The postcards themselves I shoplifted from stands outside the various gift shops in town as I walked home from school. I took only the cheapest, most faded pictures of the castle. I tried to get ones nobody was ever likely to buy now anyway, and yet also ones that the others would like and be happy with.
I never told the others that the postcards were stolen, and they didn’t ask.
So we sent you only the castle, different aspects of its ruined shape. It became our thing. We sent you pictures framed by an archer’s slit, through which you could see broken stones of the old keep walls. We sent you the Elizabethan residences and the meadow on the other side. In an etching of the waters that once surrounded the outer wall, the artist had imagined a boat with two people on the lake, dwarfed by the scale and the romance of the portcullis. They have no oars or fishing lines. They are sitting in the boat, looking directly at one another.
We went on for a few weeks, during which time our expectation swelled to engulf every ritual of our days. Over our dinners, we askedand answered questions about how many days it had been. We huddled in the bedroom I shared with David. Susan would come in and tell us what she wanted to write to you. I want to tell him, she said, that we are all sick without him.
She said she would describe symptoms of a terrible illness, which made your skin turn grey and spongy, and if you got it snagged on anything, your skin could come off in chunks.
David said that he just wanted to say that he really liked you. And he wanted to tell you that you are cool.
I went on with my reserved sentences, stating simply how much better it would be if we were together, and still hoping that the subtext would clearly be of jumpers, tobacco on your breath, and being held in the air like I weighed nothing at all.
It came to feel impossible that they would not work. We discussed the postcards and their persuasiveness as a single irresistible application of pressure. Each card was a small breath of air, breathed with our sighs into the postbox in the wall at the corner of School Lane. The bubble membrane holding back our promises and our broken hearts would soon give way, and would explode and shock you, bursting this bad dream you were in, so you could come home.
When we saw you at weekends, or spoke on the phone on Thursday evenings, we did not mention the postcards. You did not acknowledge that we had sent them to you.
One Thursday, your voice was especially weak, and sounded thin. You were pitifully sad. When I asked why, you told me it was because you had been forced to give up smoking. You could no longer afford tobacco, you said.
I advocated vehemently that if you wanted to smoke, then you should smoke. What was the point in being healthy if you were so sad? I said I would speak to Mum and say we didn’t need the money that you would normally send us – at least to the value of the tobacco. Which of course I never actually did. We desperately needed every single penny, and, as you knew, a lot more besides.
We kept sending the postcards. The more you didn’t acknowledge it was happening, the more we sent.
Eventually, it was Mum who had to take us to one side and explain things. She said that sometimes we had to accept that things were over, and we had to let things go. She told us that even though we might think we are doing something very kind, it can in fact be quite painful for the other person.
I remember the specific rage I felt that she would not say what she was talking about. That she would not say it was the postcards – that they were embarrassing you. They were like poison to you.
And then, as if it was not connected to what she had just been saying, Mum told us that you were not feeling well and wouldn’t be able to see us, or talk on the phone, for at least a couple of months, maybe more. She told us not to worry. And then she told us that she had found a ten pound note buried in her purse. Magic money! That was its name when this happened, and she would take us for a nice lunch out somewhere. This conversation with Mum came back to me years later when I was in a meeting with my line manager and the head of HR. They had asked me a question.
This was when I worked as an administrator for the marketing ‘team’– a team which consisted of my line manager and me. The head of HR was telling me that although we were a small company, it was possible to see a way forward if you have the right attitude, to progress to where you want to be. They were telling me that I was to receive a modest pay increase, and they wanted me to stay on at the company after the end of my temporary contract.
‘We have loved working with you, so much,’ my manager told me. ‘We do have to really knuckle down and bring in some money, but it would be wonderful to have you here. I think you can really help us do it!’
The way she looked at me, with big smiling eyes, giving me this news that I had been hoping for for weeks, I suddenly wanted to get out of that office as fast as I could. I wanted to run away and never talk to them again. There was a very long pause in the room, before the HR Manager (who was also the Chief Financial Officer and Office Manager) said, ‘Are you able to make a decision fairly quickly? Because we would like to have a little celebration later!’
I sat there, in the office, the easiest job I had ever had. I looked at the plant in the corner of the room. I looked at the sad little kettle on the work surface. I looked at the jar of biscuits that was smeared with crumbs and fat on the inside. I could not speak. My mouth was filled, at that moment, with the flavour of the ink on the postcards that I sent you. And then there was an actual postcard in my mouth, it had somehow been lodged in my stomach somewhere.
Both my line manager and the head of HR looked appalled as I tried to speak, but instead of words, I gagged and my first postcard to you fell out, creased and badly balled up, covered in cords of clear spit. It landed on the coffee table. We all stared down at the postcard. The head of HR made a noise in her throat, like a little donkey.
Eventually you moved into a new place. I felt a lurch of humiliation and hope when I saw my postcard there in your cold kitchen, shoved in with a load of other letters in a big Real McCoys box in the corner. Salt and Vinegar flavour McCoys. That’s what they had once been – the crisps in the box. Now all the crisps were gone, and one of my postcards was in there with confidential papers from your work and a dusty wooden statue of a heron. Just one, I saw, but it had the weight of all of them, of all the stones of a castle. It was the first one I ever sent you. It featured several red, white and gold flags flying from different towers in the castle ruin. Even covered in my spit, unfurling on the smoked glass table in the office in my promotion meeting, those blazing flags managed to fill me with a shitty old hope.
I picked up the postcard and held it in my hands while the head of HR and my line manager asked me if I was alright, and fetched me some water, and opened a window and asked, again and again if I was alright, and why had I eaten a postcard?
I couldn’t answer, I barely managed to explain to them that I had lacerations, or what felt like lacerations, inside my throat from ejecting the postcard. The writing on the postcard, though streaked and smudged, was still clear. It had been written in fountain pen and had streaked where my clumsy left hand had brushed over the wet ink.
The postcard told you a story that David had thrown himself down an iced slope on the way home from school. He said he wanted to try to skid down the hill on the ice, but I told you, I think he was just incredibly sad. We think he is doing things to get attention, the postcard said.
Maybe when you see us at the weekend, you could give him a little bit of confidence. Or maybe we could spend longer with you on your own, without anyone else there. I’m worried about Susan too, but I think that might be trickier to solve.
I explained my motivation for writing the postcard to my line manager and the head of HR. My line manager gave me some lemon tea with honey in.
For your throat, she said. She had creased, sad eyes.
We laughed about how it could be possible that I had eaten a postcard. I let them go on thinking that it had been a crazy sleepwalking type event. I must have risen up in the night and swallowed it whole, I said.
If you’re having these painful memories about your father, my line manager said, it’s possible you are somnambulating, which does mean sleep walking, but it can include things like this I think. Eating and so on. I’m sure, I’m sure it happens, she said.
She had seen a documentary about this sort of thing. She wanted to know if I had seen a witch at the end of my bed. An old crone? she said. A hag?
No, I didn’t see anything like that. And also, I wouldn’t use that term, I told her. Hag, or whatever. My grandmother had a stoop. Terrible pain, I told them. She was always in terrible pain, and whenever it was Halloween she used to hate that image. That’s a woman with a bad back, she would say. What harm can she do to you?
We sat for a while and looked at the postcard on the table. I did not try to explain that of course, when I was a boy, and I noticed this exact postcard in the McCoy’s box in the corner of your new kitchen, I had secretly climbed down from my seat at your oversized pine table, crossed the room, and snatched it up.
With my brother and sister watching me, I took the postcard, tore it into tiny pieces, and then dumped it in the bin. Later that night, I had to stand in the living room and tell you that I had no idea why David and Susan were crying, why they were inconsolable. Everything was cold and smelt wrong in that house. There was a lot of batik hanging on the walls, and there were wooden sculptures which were huge and we weren’t allowed to touch.
Why are they crying, you wanted to know. But you also had no idea how to force the issue. How could you be so cruel to your brother and sister, you wanted to know, but I just stood there saying I don’t know. I have no idea. And you threatened to not let me see Grandma and I told you that I didn’t care about seeing her any way. I said Fuck Grandma and I was sent to bed, and did not eat dinner.
When the head of HR moved round the table to sit closer to me in my promotion meeting, I thought she was going to hug me, but she only offered a tissue. She gave me a few more minutes to dry my eyes, which I told her were stinging from drinking too much honey and lemon at once with my lacerated throat.
I understand, she said. But actually, you know, you haven’t said yes yet.
She placed a hand on my back and I felt a strong wave of nausea and a desperate need to run away. My line manager made a small, desperate noise that told me she really expected an answer right then, in that very second. Do you accept the promotion? She asked me.
Yes, I croaked. Yes please. Another tightly balled postcard emerged from my mouth and we cleaned it up, used to it now, without speaking. Then Tony, the CEO came down with bottles of champagne, and later we had a steak dinner at Browns.
My partner was glad I finally had a permanent job, but a month or so later the good feeling of my promotion had faded. The flat we shared started to feel cold. Both she and I had taken up smoking again, something we had both stopped a year before.
She was unhappy, she told me. She sat me down and she said – we have reached the end of this.
I think you might be right, I said.
I’m unhappy, she told me. And then I realised that quite a lot of her belongings were no longer in the flat.
I’ll stop sending them, I said. I’ll stop sending you postcards.
Don’t start talking about postcards, she said. She sounded very sad. It’s not like I didn’t understand. Things had been stale for a long time. We were smoking so much. We were eating the most awful food, and we were drinking.
Everyday, you lie in bed while I get up, she said.
Well, I start later than you.
You lie in bed. You hear me telling you how sick of everything I am.
And you lie there.
I really do, I said. I’m sorry. I just lie there, I said. Is it because you don’t like the pictures of the castle?
I don’t like it when you talk about the castle, she said.
Her voice changed.
I actually asked about a time you feel you exceeded expectations.
I have been asked a question again, it’s the same question. A voice reminds me, this is a job interview. Would you like a glass of water?
I was lying there in our messy bed, and I was trying to figure out a way of asking my partner if she loved me still, but without actually asking that because I had promised several times to stop asking that question.
Is it over, then?
I’m so sorry, she said.
Do we still have to go to the party? I asked her. We were meant to be going to a friend’s birthday party.
I think you should go on your own.
I am trying to remember an example in my previous role where I exceeded expectations.
I do not believe I have ever exceeded expectations, but I am preparing to say that I have. I am preparing to say, something devastatingly impressive. You met her once, I don’t know if you remember, but I took her to your house. A different house, not the one you moved into with the box of McCoys in the corner of the kitchen. A house in a different part of the country. I showed her your photograph albums – pictures of me in shorts, covered in freckles, looking out for wasps. David and Susan too. We looked at pictures of my Grandma.
She was in pain a lot of the time, I told my partner while we looked at pictures. My Grandma was there in the picture holding a CV, standing in the garden.
She was very beautiful, my partner said, holding the photograph of my grandmother, who was holding you as a baby in her arms. And you were holding your CV.
She was a real bright spark, you said. When she was younger.
We sat in a row, you, me and my partner on your sofa, and looked at all the different pictures in your photo albums. Photos of things I never saw in real time. Like your wedding to your new partner.
I told you then, on the sofa, in a moment of strange generosity, how sorry I was that I had missed your wedding.
You sent a card, you said.
I did, I said.
Of course, in fact I had done no such thing. I didn’t bother to correct the lie in front of my partner, who was by this stage very tired from the travelling, and the obvious tension between you and I.
In my promotion meeting, I picked up the damp postcard and put it away in my pocket. That seemed to be a kind of end to it.
Everyone said they were very glad that I had accepted the promotion, but we did not go out to celebrate. Instead we carried on working for the usual hours, and then said goodbye and went home. I did not do many of my actual duties that day – instead I read through my new contract, and I read the terms of my new employment, and I wondered if I should have tried to get a more significant pay rise, or extra holiday or something.
My line manager seemed less sure about their decision to promote me since I had sicked out a postcard. At around 4pm, she approached me at my desk, quite tentatively, she said, you know I hate that phrase old crone too. Old hag, she said. It’s a horrible way to talk about someone. My mother has terrible arthritis, and she won’t listen to us. She goes out in the cold. I worry about her.
I’m sorry, I said. I meant I was sorry for what happened, but I made sure I could also have been sorry to hear that my manager’s mother had arthritis.
I worry about her especially in the winter months, she told me.
As my partner and I continued the strange ritual of our breakup conversation, I kept having the urge to throw myself on the floor at her feet, to clutch her and beg her not to leave me. I had the urge to scream for her to stop it. To come back to me, but I didn’t. It was actually going to be fine, is what I said. You and I both deserve happiness. We are young, I said. This is absolutely fine. And I will always love you a bit.
Yes, just a small amount, she concurred. Like a residue of it.
Like harmless nuclear waste after it has finished being toxic.
Like just carbon, she said. Dead lifeless carbon that will float in space even when all the light in the universe has been spent, and time winds away in the dark.
We were laughing together by the time I had to leave for the party, but everything was incredibly cold. And I knew that when I came back, I would have to sleep in a different room, and soon she would be gone.
As I stepped out, alone as we had agreed, and shaking with adrenaline from the fact that I was breaking up with my partner who I did love in a very real way, albeit now with a dead kind of love, I saw something.
What’s that? I shouted to my partner. Come and look!
As I emerged out onto the road, I saw a shape in the distance, someone hunched up so that they were very small. They were dressed entirely in black, and walking in a painful, lateral kind of way.
Hello, I called out to the shape. Are you alright?
The shape did not answer, but the movement was so skittish, I became worried that whoever it was would slip. Our flat was at the top of one of the steepest hills in town. It was quite hazardous to go walking around there on a cold night, even for people who are quite sure-footed.
Hello! I called again, quite loudly. I wanted the person to hear me. Can I help you?
All at once, the person seemed to reach out to me, and then let out a sharp cry as she slipped back. It was such a brittle action, I felt sure I had seen something break. I rushed up the hill, calling to my partner loudly, come and help! Come and help!
It was a woman who had fallen. She was old – maybe even in her nineties, her skin was dark and her mouth delirious, her eyes kept rolling back in her head. The pit of her mouth was a colourless space under the streetlights and the moon.
My partner brought out a pillow for under the woman’s head and we put blankets over her.
Did you bring your phone out? I asked, but my partner had not.
I’ll stay with her, she said.
Yes, good idea, I said. Don’t let her go to sleep.
I rushed back to the house while my former partner remained up the hill, holding the head of the woman. Though she spoke softly, her words carried across the sharp night air, I could hear her saying, don’t worry. Don’t worry, but it sounded exactly like she was saying, don’t go. I don’t want you to go.
It’s too late. I am saying thank you. I am saying goodbye. I have not answered the question, of course.
Ben Pester lives in North London. His work has appeared in Granta, Hotel, Five Dials and other places. Am I in the Right Place? was published by Boiler House Press in 2021. When not writing fiction, he is a technical writer.
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