Maybe it’s because I’ve never really known any different and have always simply accepted it as the human condition, but it amazes me how oblivious people can be.
For a long time, Constance was a queen in everything but name. Employees bowed before her. Patrons stood in reverence of her. Even those who’d put her in charge held – or had held – her in awe. She deserved it, too. They had identified the greatness in her long before she had seen it in herself, and, for a long time, she exceeded their expectations.
Now, though, as Constance leads Boyd and Ox from the South Bar, the crowd mill and threaten to crush them. Constance might as well be invisible. Ox presses ahead and flings one man from her path. His friend takes offense and swings at Ox. Ox sways from the blow, then delivers an old-fashioned roundhouse that sends the man onto his butt.
They continue this way, pushing, shoving, and when that fails, simply hurling people aside. Many recognise the threat they pose, and give them a wide berth. But others showcase a foolhardy bravado, and scuffles break out, which systematically draw the attention of security.
They filter in, at first in ones and twos, but as a group they adopt a formation that Teo has taught them to suppress multiple threats. The only problem is that Teo has trained them to deal with everyday people, rather than Boyd and Ox. Constance knows security will struggle, and the potential exists that any altercation could hurt them seriously, and might unwittingly hurt others.
She had made a point of getting to know each member of security, of learning about them and their families and their dreams, so that they never grew to feel like simple pawns who were there to be thrust into a fray, or sacrificed if needed. But now when she appeals to them they either ignore her or aren’t cognizant of her.
Boyd and Ox engage them. The initial fights are quick and decisive as Boyd and Ox put them down, but each fracas grows progressively nastier. Boyd and Ox could kill them, if needed, but that is not what Constance wants. The crowd ring them, as if this is entertainment for their consumption.
I wish I could help them. There are times I believe in serendipity, but other times there’s something else at work, some confluence of greater desire, perhaps the whim of the collective unconscious which abounds here every night until it schisms into its own consciousness, petty and nasty. Now I feel it directed against Constance.
Ox surveys the distance to the juncture. They’ve only made it about halfway. He is hot and exhausted already. They will make it all the way, but he is unsure how much collateral damage that will incur – and how it will tax him, and Boyd. Ox unfurls his overcoat. The handles of a sawn-off shotgun pokes from under his armpit. He reaches for it. Constance grabs his wrist.
‘No!’ she says. ‘Not yet!’
‘This is taking too long,’ Ox says. His grip closes on the handle of the shotgun.
‘You could start a panic,’ Constance says. ‘People will get hurt. We have to do it this way – for now, at least!’
‘This is seriously unrelenting,’ Boyd says, as he spots another three members of security heading towards them.
Boyd and Ox no sooner dispatch of them than the juncture spews forth a new torrent of security. They spread to flank them, the crowd drawing back.
Another figure emerges from the juncture.
‘How the mighty have fallen,’ he says.
* * *
Rupe is about to surrender his vigil and take it as a sign of what’s not meant to be when security protecting the stairwell leave their position and bolt past him. He doesn’t turn to see where they go, fearing if he knows – if he sees they’ve remained anywhere within proximity – it’ll deter him from the course he must take.
He springs up the stairs, taking them two at a time, and reaches the door to Constance’s office. For a moment he pauses, knowing he is committing himself to an action from which he can’t turn back. But perhaps that’s the way it should be. Perhaps there should be no turning back.
He tries the doorknob, but the door is locked. Of course it would be. There is a security keypad, but it does him no good. He lifts his hand to knock, but the door swings open to reveal Joy.
‘I wondered if you would come,’ she says.
‘Has it surprised you that I did?’
‘Nothing surprises me about your efforts anymore.’
‘Can I talk to you?’
Joy is unmoving.
‘Please. Just for a moment.’
Joy steps aside, allows him in, and closes the door behind him. Rupe’s eyes never leave her. He had been enamoured with her from the first moment he saw her, but she is flawless now, glowing with a sublime beauty that makes him think that perhaps he has passed, had a heart attack or aneurysm on the stairs, and she now stands here to guide him to what comes next.
That silly fantasy shatters when he sees what she’s wearing: a black latex catsuit cut low at the back. Elaborate strapping runs from the ankles all the way up to her armpits, exposing a considerable amount of skin, and across the bodice. He almost laughs. Perhaps he’ll be going elsewhere.
Joy guides Rupe to her desk. ‘Take a seat,’ she says. ‘Please.’
Rupe sinks into the recliner. It’s soft and moulds to his buttocks and back. Joy leans against the desk but bends towards him, so that they are at eye-level, the fingers of her right hand caressing his cheek.
‘Rupe,’ Joy says. ‘Rupert, what have you expected?’
‘What could I expect?’ Rupe says. ‘You’re beautiful. Mesmerizing. From the first moment I saw you, you overwhelmed me. But I knew …’
‘Why would you look at me? There are more handsome men here, more capable men, more successful men, men who belong in your strata – or are at least much nearer to it than me. I guess, for an instant, I wanted to touch the dream.’
‘That’s all I am, Rupe. You don’t know anything about me. About who I am. I might be the most horrible person.’
Joy places one finger to his lips to silence him. ‘I might be cruel and barbaric. I may be pure evil. I may be everything contrary to what you imagine. You cannot hold a dream – at least not for very long.’
‘Of course …’ Rupe says. ‘Since …’ My wife passed. Again, the words choke in his throat. ‘I have searched … I don’t know what for. Meaning. Somebody to fill the loss. I’m not sure.’
‘There is no meaning. None. And loss is not something you can fill. It is only something you can leave behind, a little way at least, although you always carry it behind you. But Prudence is not the place to fill loss, but to exploit it Prudence is grand and terrible and illusory and it has a black, black soul, the sum of every decadent impulse and misbegotten desire that’s ever occurred here.’
I should take offense at that, because that soul is something else, something that has manifested beyond my control, and pulses here, seeking to grow and infect, and strengthening with every person it touches. But I understand this only on an esoteric level.
Rupe must deal with those words as he sees the world – through mortal limitations and understanding. He can only make sense of them at the most superficial level. But that is near enough and her warning overwhelms him, that she would take this opportunity to address him as an equal. He knows that’s not the case. It never was. But now the field is entirely parallel.
‘Why’re you telling me?’
Joy tilts her head. ‘Because you’re—’
Rupe leaps to his feet. Joy recoils. He takes her in his arms and draws close.
His intent is obvious, but he will not do so without her permission.
She has a moment of uncertainty.
Rupe is charming and humble and warm and compassionate and so many kind things she has never encountered in any of the relationships she has had throughout her life.
She closes her eyes and leans in to him.
He kisses her.
* * *
Teo approaches, each step increasingly more difficult than the last. It’s like elastic pulling him back, restraining him from getting to Constance. She remains unmoved, Boyd and Ox flanking her. Teo stops. He – literally – can’t go any further. It’s too difficult.
The crowd watch curiously. Others peer over the balustrade from the second floor. Their faces are listless, the same dull gleam in each of their eyes. If there is one thing that can unify groups into a single, mob mind, it is a spectacle – and this very much has become a spectacle.
‘Well?’ Constance says.
‘You know I can’t let you undertake the option you’re pursuing.’
Security ring around the exchange, those whom Boyd and Ox had dispatched earlier groggily pulling themselves to their feet and to join the formation. They tighten their perimeter. There must be at least forty of them, although Teo knows that can’t be right: he knows every member of security’s schedule, and there is never more than twenty-five on duty at any time. Of course, their increased number might be due to a crossover of shifts. In any case, Teo is thankful. He needs every one of them.
His eyes flit from Boyd to Ox. They exhibit none of their regular foolishness. The effects of whatever they’ve drank tonight have evaporated. Ox’s hand remains just inside his coat. Boyd’s drawn himself up, poised, ready to strike. Teo knows what they’re capable of. He helped Constance choose them, although he never thought he would be on the end of a confrontation. This could get ugly – well, uglier – quick.
‘You knew this day would come,’ Teo says. ‘I knew it would come.
‘Yet you helped me plan for it.’
Teo lowers his head.
‘And now you ask me to accept it,’ Constance says. ‘That we should accept it.’
‘I have no choice.’
‘No.’ Constance shakes her head.
‘These aren’t our decisions to make.’
Constance takes a step forward. She is no longer as glorious as she was before; no bouffant blonde hair, blinding cleavage, or provocative latex outfit. She looks like she just stepped out of the shower, and had no time for make-up or to do her hair. In a way, she is as naked as she has been in twenty-five years. The torn jeans that are now too tight and the filmy t-shirt should be an embarrassment, a denunciation of an older woman trying to recapture the material sexuality of her youth. But to Teo, right now it is why she is gorgeous. She beams with a vulnerability that makes her more flawed and human, and in that imperfection she is transcendent.
‘Before you, there was Sarah,’ Teo says. ‘And before her, whoever. I don’t know how long the line runs back – maybe not here, but somewhere. Who knows? Change is inevitable. We have to accept it.’
Constance reaches him. Her eyes remain unblinking. ‘Why?’
‘It’s like Mr Hermes always says.’
One corner of Constance’s mouth lifts into a smile, or perhaps it’s a sneer. Teo doesn’t know, and that surprises him. They have always enjoyed a synergy. That is why they worked so well together. But he guesses that’s just something else that has ended, and he laments it.
‘What’s that?’ Constance says.
‘Flesh is weak. Temporary.’ Teo seizes her by the arm. His grip tightens. She flinches. ‘And I guess not one of us are forever, are we?’
‘Regardless of how hard we try to hold on,’ Constance says.
Teo nods. ‘I think it’s time we showed you the door and let everybody else get on with their night.’
Again, he scans the crowd. This is just an oddity to them, just another patron evicted – it happens dozens of times a night, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes disruptively, and sometimes (as is the case now) theatrically. But within minutes, everybody’s back to normal, as if nothing had ever occurred. They do not understand, appreciate, or even care about how monumentuous this actually is.
He gestures to security. They begin to close. Ox’s hand sinks further under his overcoat. Constance shakes her head at him. Ox looks unconvinced. Boyd grabs his arm, stopping him from any further action. Security now are tightly ringed around them.
‘Nothing stupid, okay?’ Teo says. ‘This isn’t just about us.’
‘No,’ Constance says.
Teo gestures, and security usher them towards the juncture.