Security march Constance, Boyd, and Ox from the Gallery. The space that Boyd and Ox’s fighting occupied has already filled, erasing all trace of what happened. It will become a novelty to most – a story to recount with friends. This is people: they adapt so quickly and unthinkingly as a reflex. It’s only when they’re tested that they so commonly find an impasse.
Constance races through ideas about how to reach Teo. He is so close she can feel the warmth of his body, yet he has never been so cold. Perhaps she is unable to find a recourse because it’s been so long since she’s had to struggle to reach anybody. For the last twenty-five years, the moment’s she’s spoken, everybody’s listened – at least here. This is a preview of life when she is a nobody, and she hates it.
Security guide them into the juncture. Constance glances at Boyd and Ox, her contingency, although she never counted on being unable to get out of the Gallery itself. Of course, it’s something she should’ve considered, but she had become accustomed to having her run of the place.
Cold air hits Constance in the face. She shivers. The curtains that frame the entry from the lobby flutter. Constance can see out through the doors, like a portal into the night. Traffic bustles – cars driving, some honking. Constance doesn’t know how she’ll get home. She has no money for a taxi and it is too far to walk. Perhaps Boyd or Ox.
‘Wait,’ Teo says.
Security stops. Constance turns to face Teo. The archway into the Blue Lounge silhouettes him. He is a giant among men – not just in stature, but how he has supported her professionally and personally. She has always valued him, but in this moment she thinks she has never valued him enough.
‘Thank you,’ she says.
‘I probably have never said it enough to you.’
‘There never has been a need.’
‘It’s my need to say it: thank you.’
Teo inclines his head. ‘Tell me what you would do.’
‘I’m sorry …?’
‘If you could change what’s happened tonight, what would you do? This isn’t just about the old man. It isn’t just about Prudence, or Prudence’s needs, or the old man’s needs. It’s just the way of things here, the way of things with the old man. You don’t throw a slab of meat into shark-infested waters and expect them not to eat.’
‘No.’ The word barely leaves Constance’s mouth. ‘No. They’ll realise this is something greater now. This is us. Me.’ She thumps herself in the chest. ‘You.’ She thrusts her finger at Teo. ‘Boyd. Ox. Prince at the bar. Every one of us. It used to be just about him. His whims. His … capriciousness. And how they fed into everybody, and how everybody fed him. He’s a novelty now. That’s why this has happened – his attempt to rejuvenate his own sense of purpose.’
‘If you fail?’ Teo says. ‘You know what’ll happen. To all of us.’
‘I can’t speak to that,’ Constance says. ‘It’s true.’
Uncertainty takes residence in Teo’s face – he is usually so good at hiding what he’s thinking, but now the conflict tears at him. Constance knows what she’s asking goes above and beyond. If she were to succeed, as remote as that possibility is, there’s no guarantee it’d be permanent. If she failed, it would cost not only her, but Boyd, Ox, and any accomplices.
She reaches out, and runs her hand down Teo’s cheek. He tilts his head into her caress.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says.
Teo leans forward, his mouth closing on hers. Constance closes her eyes and remembers every day which has unfolded in the twenty-four years that have passed since they last kissed – Teo’s loyalty, his unquestioning devotion, his enduring support.
This could’ve been something. She’d never considered it, instead focused on her duties, but now she sees those duties have cost her something real, if not special, and she berates herself, because it’s not the first time it’s happened.
The first time should’ve taught her. It didn’t. She made that mistake and bandaged over it in power and opulence and, worst of all, whimsy. Now she is trying to hold onto that, but why? She tells herself because it’s the only way to make things right. Nothing else will do.
Teo pulls back. ‘I’m sorry, too,’ he says, his voice a whisper. ‘Let’s get moving.’ Then he steps from the archway, and wrenches aside the other security members who are in the way. ‘Go!’
Boyd and Ox are not only moving, but shotguns are coming out from their overcoats as they head through the archway. A member of security grabs for Constance. His hand snares on the collar of her t-shirt. The back of it rips but she slips from his grasp, and bumps into Teo.
Constance rises on her toes, embraces Teo, and kisses him again, closing her eyes once more. He is shield, a protector, a guardian, as he takes her in his arms and spins. Constance opens her eyes to find Teo has deposited her in the archway, then filled the breach with his massive girth. Security come at him, but in the archway, they can only come at him one at a time. Constance doesn’t know how long he’ll last, though.
She steps into the Blue Lounge.
* * *
Some people don’t belong in this world. Or perhaps that’s not quite right. Some people don’t belong in this time.
I don’t know how these people come about. It’s not just upbringing. Perhaps it’s something spiritual, something imbued in them at birth from a life long gone. Or maybe it’s as simple as some psychological disorder – basic human decency. It could be life’s cruellest irony in a world that becomes progressively expeditious. Or maybe it just does happen.
When Rupe kisses Joy, he does so as a man might’ve kissed a woman in the 1930s; his right hand slides to the small of her back, the top of his fingertips sitting just above the swell of her buttock; his left hand cradles her from her right shoulder blade, supporting her as he leans towards her; his kiss is gentle, his eyes are closed.
He withdraws, easing Joy up. For a moment, she wavers, and his hands hover about her, ready to steady her if need be.
There is silence between the two as they look at one another, Rupe hopefully, expectantly, eyes almost brimming, Joy dubiously, the smallest wry smile playing on her lips. Rupe reaches out with one hand, and holds it palm-up for her to take.
‘I’m—’ Joy begins, perhaps about to explain, perhaps about to apologise, but she doesn’t get any further. There’s an explosion. The floor shakes. Then another. And another and another and another. If I could, I would grimace. The blows are like punches to the stomach.
Joy scowls. ‘No!’ she says, already starting off. ‘This won’t do at all!’
Rupe grabs her wrist and jerks her back. She spins to face him.
‘This is no time for games,’ she says.
‘Don’t go,’ Rupe says.
Joy stares at him, unbelieving.
‘Let’s just leave,’ Rupe says. ‘Come with me. I don’t know where. Anywhere.’
In that instant, and just that instant, Joy opens to me: images flash through her mind – her with Rupe at dinner at a nice restaurant, her and Rupe strolling through the park, her and Rupe as a couple in any number of situations, her and Rupe marrying, her and Rupe shopping for a house, Joy pregnant, Rupe holding her in his arms as she cradles a newborn baby.
She has projected an entire future in the time it takes to blink, a future that was previously closed to her – one that doesn’t necessarily have to occur with Rupe, but which he now represents for her. There is a whole life for her out there if she just decides to explore it. She does not know that Constance also had this insight so many years ago when management offered her the job.
For Rupe, it’s something similar: it’s not just that he desires her, that she has charmed him, or that he finds she’s attractive, but that she represents the possibility that he might love again, that there might be life after his wife with another – a possibility that once did not exist at all.
Then Joy’s mind closes. I want to urge her to reconsider; I want to will her to change her mind; but, just as Constance was, Joy is determined. Her head bows. The smile disappears from her lips and her jaw sets. Rupe doesn’t need to hear the words to know what’s coming. He drops his hand.
‘I’m sorry,’ Joy says.
She turns and heads for the door.
Rupe hurries after her.
* * *
Boyd and Ox tornado through the Blue Lounge.
In their right hands, they brandish automatics – a Heckler & Koch for Boyd, a Sig Sauer for Ox – which they use to threaten anybody tempted to play the hero. In their left hands, they carry shotguns, which they fire into the ceiling again and again and again.
The chandeliers are obliterated. One collapses onto a table in a conflagration of sparks, igniting the tablecloth. Another explodes and ignites the curtains. It’s amazing – if not unnatural – how easily the fire races through the Blue Lounge. The fire sprinklers whiz and splutter but shoot little water. Patrons scream, instinctively flinging themselves to the floor to shield themselves from the gunmen. Among them are Noah and Holly.
But Constance is unafraid as she carefully picks her way through the cowering patrons. Mr Hermes is indifferent. He is the one person in the Blue Lounge who has remained unmoved. He has seen revolts such as this and holds them in low regard.
That’s how simply he sums it up. People are predictable and petty and amusing, but every now and again they aspire for something greater – children wanting the box of matches they have been told are not a toy. He understands they need the grit to transform. Nothing grows in a static environment. But he has settled into the belief that evolution will never come – at least not in the time he has allotted himself to witness it.
Constance arrives at his booth, Boyd and Ox flanking her, smoke pluming from the barrels of their shotguns.
‘I take it,’ Mr Hermes says, ‘you’re upset with your replacement.’
‘Not with her,’ Constance says. ‘But with the decision.’
‘And you think this,’ Mr Hermes picks up his glass of iced water, and gestures at Boyd and Ox in turn, ‘will change anything?’ He takes a drink, sets his glass down, and cups his hands around it. ‘A fine contingency, Constance. But one without due. Do you think murdering me will really change anything?’
‘Prudence is mine. Listen to me. It’s not too late.’
‘Not too late? For what?’
‘Yes, listen to me!’
Mr Hermes throws his head back and laughs. ‘To negotiate, you must have something to offer. You, Constance, have nothing. You are past your time – a woman desperate to hold onto lustre she no longer warrants.’
‘How dare you!’
‘I dare, Constance. And more.’
The heat becomes stifling. I feel it everywhere. The walls have disappeared in flames. Smoke creeps across the pockmarked ceiling. Unnoticed at the archway, a bloodied Teo darts in, grabs a woman lying on the floor by the collar and escorts her to the archway. Security charges in. Teo orders their assistance. Some help him, falling under his command unthinkingly. Noah and Holly haul themselves to their knees. Security try to usher them out. Noah waves them away. Other members of security – perhaps reward for initiative playing on their minds – charge for Constance. Boyd and Ox aim their shotguns at them. They stop, hold their hands up to show they mean no harm, and back away.
‘Prudence belongs to nobody,’ Mr Hermes says. ‘Not least of all some petty, failed, opportunistic model. We belong to Prudence. We make her what she is. And the reality is that she no longer needs you, Constance.’
‘Constance, it seems you didn’t get the point with Joy. You’re dismissed.’
‘No …’ But now, the strength and conviction is leaving Constance’s voice.
‘Nothing can change that. Not you. Not your henchmen. Nothing.’
Ox levels his shotgun at Mr Hermes. ‘We’ll see about that.’