Joe Kaminski likes to go with the flow, a good trait to have as a young artist living in London. His laidback approach to life makes him a fish out of water when he’s hired at P&B Designs, a high-powered PR agency. The money’s good, but with his poor planning skills, he doesn’t see it lasting.
Harry Byrne likes his life the same way he likes his PowerPoint presentations: structured. Known for his dynamic personality, Harry suffered a blow when his seven-year relationship fell apart, souring his mood. The last thing on his mind is getting into another relationship, especially with a man who can barely make it to the office on time.
They’re not even supposed to like each other. But five years later, Joe and Harry are getting ready to tie the knot. They should’ve known it was only a matter of time before everything starts to fall apart: obstructive friends, well-meaning but meddlesome family, a hovering ex, international incidents, fires, pregnancies, and an airport chase. It seems their “I do”s were doomed from the start.
The Big Day
Things to avoid on your wedding day:
- Don’t even think about stealing your best man’s leg. Seriously. Don’t be that arsehole no matter how much he provokes you.
- Don’t set fire to anything. Should be a no-brainer.
- Don’t pour your future sister-in-law’s urine all over yourself.
- Don’t lose your groom.
For a moment, I stand there, trying to take it all in. The vision of carnage before me is so remarkable that time slows down for me:
Frank is shaking his prosthetic leg at me to emphasise the point he’s making. “Marriage is murder!” he yells. Though, in his thick Scottish accent, it sounds more like “Marriage es merder!” He’s desperate to get his point across. “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into! It’s absolute fuckin’ wank, is what it is! Do ye hear me, pal? These are all signs that it’s the biggest mistake of your life!”
Chloe is dancing on the hotel room curtain, which she’s torn off the window, trampling down whatever the fire extinguisher missed, spraying white foam all over the carpet.
“It’s all right now,” she announces, her breathing strained. “Not to worry! I’ll just open the window and it’ll be like nothing’s happened!”
Siobhan is sitting in the armchair by the wall, weeping.
My mother’s poodles are making a cacophony in the bathroom.
The hotel staff is banging on the door, demanding to be let in.
And here I am standing with my shirt covered in a yellow splash of Siobhan’s urine, in my boxer shorts and socks, with my wedding suit trousers singed to the ironing board. My mobile is in my hand, the message, I messed up, Joe. I’m sorry, on the display.
All I can think, as rage and fear boil up inside of me, is how I want to grab that bloody prosthetic leg of Frank’s and chase them all out of my room with it.
How We Met
Five Years Before the Big Day
In my dreams I meet the perfect guy by looking across a crowded room. Our eyes lock, there are sparks, we smile, moments later we find each other by pretend-accident at the buffet or champagne table. We talk, there are more sparks, and then one thing leads to . . . well, shagging. And the rest becomes history.
This is not that story.
Frank had just met the “most amazeng gerl” of his life. His words, not mine.
“She’s a bloody marvel!” he told me, while I tried to locate, in the mess that was Chloe’s and my flat, the prints I made for a new job I’d been hired to do. It was a commercial thing—not my finest hour, I will readily admit—but it would pay the rent (something our landlord kept reminding us was the appropriate reaction to having housing offered to one by a kind stranger with a lawyer and little patience).
“She sings, she dances, she dresses like an angel . . .” Frank went on.
“What’s her name?” I asked, out of politeness.
“Gabriella,” he declared, much like another man might say Excalibur.
“Oh, it’s beautiful!” he said. “And the way she pronounces it. Gabriella. Gabriella . . .” he went on. If she pronounced it anything like him, she sounded like David Tennant on mushrooms, but I didn’t say that.
“Have you seen my portfolio?” I asked. “It’s black and large and it’s overdue on the other side of the river five minutes ago.”
“Normally dating sites are shite.” Frank continued to ignore me. “The girls on there are never what they say they are. You think you’re going to meet an Audrey Hepburn lookalike who reads Tolstoy in the original Russian, and then you’re presented to someone who works in the local chippy, misses her front teeth, and thinks Britney Spears is a valid form of music.”
I rolled my eyes. “You worked in a chippy, and her teeth were fine and as to Britney . . .”
I saw the laugh in his eyes—he was teasing me—and so returned to searching my flat.
“I’d given up hope! And then . . . Gabriella! Just like that!”
“Yes, it’s marvellous,” I said, without conviction. “You’re sitting on my portfolio. Please get up.”
I dragged the thing out from underneath his barely lifted arse, and then pulled on the first T-shirt I could get my hands on.
“We talked for hours,” Frank went on. “And then later she rang me to say good night, and we talked for hours more! I never had this much to say to a lass in my life!”
I’d already gone for the door, but he suddenly snapped out of this Gabriella-induced trance, and cried, “Oi! Hang on! Come back!”
I turned around.
“What? I’m late!”
“Take that off, ye tit,” he said with a laugh. “Ye can’t go like that!”
I glanced down at my chest and then burst into a chuckle. It was my I pooped today T-shirt, which I was meant to bin ages ago. I took it off and grabbed another.
“Better?” I asked.
Frank shook his head at me. “Marginally. Good luck.”
I nodded, waved, and headed out. It wasn’t my usual sort of gig. Normally, I worked for galleries, for independent shops and fairs. Once in a while, however, it became necessary to make some actual money, and that was when I looked for commercial jobs. Usually this was also small scale—an indie rock concert wanting leaflets, posters, and flyers designed, or small businesses wanting their interiors decorated with flair. This time was different, though. This time a chain of restaurants needed a marketing campaign, and the marketing firm they hired wanted local artists in each region to come up with local-flavoured imagery to advertise it.
I lived in Harlesden, which had a shitty connection to the city. You either took the always-delayed (and if not delayed, then always painfully slow) Bakerloo line, or you took the number 18 bus, which meant the exercise in patience that was the driver change around Willesden Junction—it was like those people had a special Japanese tea ceremony to conduct before they could get us places.
So I was late when I ran into the lobby of the high-rise in which P&B Design Agency had their offices. Panting from all the running, I threw myself into the sofa, waiting for someone to come and fetch me or to be told to piss off, expecting the latter more than the former.
“Mr. Byrne isn’t in at the moment,” the receptionist said, putting the phone down. “You might have to wait a little.”
I expected that as soon as this Byrne chap showed up I’d be told to go home again, but until that happened, I could cool off in the air-conditioned foyer. As I sat there, it was also beginning to dawn on me, watching the people coming in and going out of the building, that even in my non-poo-themed T-shirt, I wasn’t appropriately dressed. Everyone wore suits—insanity in this weather, I thought—and many of them stared at me like I’d got lost or was perhaps about to stretch my hand out and ask for spare change.
Then, a man, followed by a young woman, burst into the building, exchanging sharp words with someone on the mobile phone pressed to his ear.
“Do you know what?” he asked the unfortunate person on the other side in a sharp, cultured voice. “How about you fuck yourself? I have no intention— No! I’m going into the lift now . . . No. Absolutely not. Goodbye.”
The woman following him was tall and willowy, with a cream-coloured hijab around her head, and enormous purple-rimmed glasses, which made her face look tiny. She saw me, and while the man had entered the lift, she stopped in front of me and said, “Mr. Kaminski?”
“Yes?” I rose to my feet.
“You’re late,” she said, blinking up at me and then at one of the two watches on her wrist. “He’s not in a good mood today. I’ll have to make up an excuse for you, and you’ll just have to play along, all right?”
“Sure,” I said, shrugging. If she meant the bloke who’d just left in the lift, then the chances I’d still have the job by the end of the day were close to nil. She could do her worst, I thought. We waited for the lift to come down again.
“Something of a character, your boss, eh?” I asked.
She smiled. “He’s all right, really. Going through a bit of a rough patch.”
“Don’t worry, Harry’s very professional.”
Upstairs, she led me down a corridor and into her office, where she poured me cold water in a plastic cup from one of those enormous water dispensers, and then set off to inform her boss of my arrival. She came back moments later, and said, “They’ll be in the conference room with you in about half an hour.”
I wasn’t sure who they were or why we needed a whole conference room for this. But whatever floated their collective boats was fine with me.
“And if anyone asks,” she continued, “you were at the A&E helping your grandmother after she fell in her bathtub.”
“Oh,” I said, full of admiration at this lie. “I haven’t got a grandmother, but sure, I’ll stick to that. And thanks.”
“No worries.” She pushed her glasses up her nose. Then she leaned forward and admitted, “The other guy they wanted kept suggesting I wear fewer clothes.”
I startled, dismayed. “Well, that . . . You don’t have to worry about that with me.”
She smiled in a knowing way, as though my preferences had been obvious from the start. I never knew what it was that tipped people off, because I don’t think I’m exactly camp, but yet the only surprised reactions I got when coming out to people were sarcastic.
“I’m Maya, by the way,” she said.
“Joe Kaminski.” I stretched out my hand. She took it, examining me with renewed curiosity.
“I know,” I said. “I don’t look much like a Pole, do I?”
She tipped her head sideways, taking me in from my hair, down to my tawny, beige arms, and shook her head. “Maybe Poland via the Pirates of the Caribbean?”
This made me laugh. “My birth parents were Jamaican, actually.”
“W-well, it’s a nice name, anyway.”
When the time came, Maya walked me through to the conference room, and asked if I needed her to set up PowerPoint for me. I didn’t. I hadn’t prepared anything beyond the prints in my portfolio, and I didn’t expect that I was going to have to present anything besides handing the contents of my bag over to whoever made decisions around there. I made no opposition to sitting down and seeing how this was going to unfold. At worst, this would be something to laugh about later with my friends, who already found the idea of me in an office environment amusing.
They would have been in stitches if they could have been flies on the wall that day when all the suits poured in. There they were: middle-aged men, red-faced from all the heat, their ties looking as though they were choking them, and women with professional bob haircuts, thin lips lined with fading red lipstick, and mascara that clumped on their lashes from tiredness, stress, and heat.
Positioning himself at the head of the table was their boss, the one whose name made up the B in P&B Design Agency; the one who told someone to fuck themselves earlier when I saw him go into the lift. Presently he stood, with his hands on his hips, his sleeves rolled up, his steely eyes scanning me, waiting for his employees to take seats around the table. He was young for a guy with a letter in a company name. Grey-eyed, brown-haired, he looked like the coldest motherfucker in town.
And there I was in my khaki shorts, my slightly too tight T-shirt, leather bracelets around my wrists, my ears pierced in several places, unshaven, with my hair tied back in a ponytail. I wasn’t nervous, but the whole thing was unsettling and unfamiliar enough that when Harry Byrne said, “Mr. Kaminski?” I responded without thinking, “Yo.”
This made some of the people around the table smirk. Not Harry though.
“All right,” he said. “We’re going to have to keep this short since I’m on a call in about half an hour. Mr. Kaminski, the floor’s yours.”
He sat down, and all eyes turned to me. My immediate reaction was to gape, because I really had nothing to say, and the conference room, with its ash-coloured walls and a horrible wall clock ticking away time between now and death was depressing to my spirit and creativity. I didn’t feel like Harry would tolerate any prevarication, so I stood, opened my portfolio, and said, “Er, well, I prepared some designs.”
I handed the prints over to the person on my right to pass on to the others. I explained, briefly, that the colours were vibrant and attention-grabbing; that since the location of the restaurant was between Belgravia, Pimlico, and Westminster, it played on themes of the history of the region. I told them how the font hinted at it being a sort of upscale place to dine, but the plants and the use of wood would indicate that it had warmth and was welcoming. To be perfectly honest, half of it I pulled out of my arse right then and there, but I thought it sounded good and the people around the table nodded, made notes, and examined each picture in turn very carefully.
Harry looked at them too, expressionlessly, and then passed them on. I had the feeling he wasn’t really listening to me. When I’d finished, he let his people give feedback or, as I like to call it, tear my work to shreds.
They decided that it was too “plant-y”, too green and yet not “green” enough; too London specific (“What about tourists?” someone asked). They didn’t like the orange tones, but they liked the blue, though they worried the blues might be too cold, and someone had to google how cold blue was.
Most of the things they said were contradictory, and Harry (whose opinion I thought would settle which way we would proceed) seemed to not be listening to them at all, and instead only snapped back to attention when one of the women asked him, “What do you think?”
He then shifted in his chair, turned to me, and said, “I’ve got a call to get to. Mr. Kaminski?”
I followed him to the door, half-expecting to be told never to come back. He was texting as we walked down the corridor together, and didn’t say anything.
“So,” I said, feeling a little awkward following him around like that, “do you want me to make any changes?”
“Yes,” he said, impatiently. I’d never seen anybody text so quickly and so angrily.
“Which of the comments—” I began, and his head snapped up, suddenly, as if remembering I was there.
“I’ve got a meeting,” he said. “My colleagues have explained to you what we want, I expect you’ll know what to do.”
This last he said like an accusation. As though, if I couldn’t make out the contradictory mess of non-instructions his colleagues discussed in the conference room, it would mark me as a poor artist.
“I’m not clairvoyant,” I said, a little defensively.
“Clearly,” he muttered. His phone buzzed in his hand and he frowned down at it. Without lifting his head, he said, “Maya will help you set up another meeting. Next week, no later.”
He was texting again, frown lines deepening with every thumb tap. Then he hit Send, finally looked up, and dryly added, “I hope your grandmother recovers well.”
Maya was not a convincing liar, apparently. He turned into his office without shaking my hand or even saying goodbye.
I hated, hated, hated the guy.
She lives in England, loves rain (gives one an excuse to stay at home and read books, right?), long walks (when it doesn’t rain), history, Jane Austen, the theatre, languages, and dogs. It is her dream to one day possess an enormous country house in which each room is a library (okay, maybe except for the kitchen), and in which there are more dogs than people. A smaller and perhaps more realistic dream is to make people smile with the things she writes.