Lester was alone tonight, so he had a few more freedoms than he would in company. He cooked a simple meal, a childhood pleasure — scrambled eggs with cheese on toasted bagels. He let the vinyl version of the Stone’s Let It Bleed reverberate loud around his apartment. He was going about in sweats and a frayed t shirt.
He hadn’t drunk anything for 3 months; he’d felt the need to….shall we say, get a grip of himself. Now he allowed himself a bottle of smooth red.
He wandered around the space, padding across the carpet in bare feet. Paintings by friends were straightened at last, newspapers put into the recycling.
Last, he did something he would never let anyone else see. He went up to the mantelpiece, and picked up an award trophy. Holding it with both hands, he stared into it. Then he dusted it clean on his sleeve. He repeated this exercise with the other 2 statuettes, and placed them back in position.
His phone pinged with a text alert. He ignored it, and went to his wine glass. He took it to the kitchen and poured in the last of the bottle. After a while he walked to the phone, and flicked to Messages. ‘Lawyer’ was the last entry. Lester’s thumb jabbed the screen, and up came ‘Your divorce is legally final at 10 am tomorrow. You’re free bud.’
He went up to the windows overlooking the river, and stood watching out for a long time. Lights, and life, slowly flowed in front of him. He finished the wine, and sighed. He murmured to the waterfront below, ‘Well world, that’s the last time I’m gonna get fucked over.’ He took himself up to bed — he had a big job in the city tomorrow morning.
He walked up from the station into the bustle. At a street wagon he bought a coffee, and rang the buzzer of the tall building. Going up in the elevator he brushed some curls back from his face, and the door slid back to reveal the sleek brick and wood workspace. The model-type behind the front desk recognised Lester, and cheerily waved him down towards the studios.
He greeted old friends and newer associates on today’s project. He was 4 minutes early. He settled into a deep swivel chair in front of the mixing desk next to the sound engineer, and waited.
Time edged on, they made small talk. People came in and checked that everyone had drinks. 10 minutes went by. Then 20. With the sighs of agitation from the 6 people in the room growing, 40 minutes came round. Somebody was paying for all this. Still, the all-important client hadn’t arrived. Lester had already asked the engineer to call the studio they’d be linking up with to explain the situation.
Lester’s phone pinged. With nothing better to do, he checked it. The Lawyer again…’Congratulations.’
So….that was that. 11 years of his life, signed off on the dotted line. After a moment, he turned it off.
As he was returning the phone to his jacket, the studio door burst open. Lester wasn’t looking behind him, but he certainly heard the fired-up angry female voice bawling out ‘Where’s the damn copywriter?!’
The studio hushed. Lester slowly revolved his chair towards the noise. ‘Well, I’m the……damn copywriter. Good morning….who are you may I ask?’
She strode up to Lester’s chair. ‘Exactly you asshole….why haven’t you answered any of my calls?’
Taken aback, he hesitated before replying, ‘I haven’t had any calls.’
‘Oh really’ she trilled sarcastically. She flipped out her phone, looking at it with a confident leer. ‘What’s your number?’
’716, 812, 7790.’
She stared at her screen. Her face lost some of it’s rigor. She turned from him, and punched keys on the phone. A few seconds later, her sharp tones filled the studio again.
‘Hey Louise, you fucked up on the copywriter’s number. It’s 7790, not 7791. I’ve been calling for days, no wonder he’s sat here not knowing what the hell is going on. Clear out your stuff sister, you screwed up bad. Goodbye.’
She turned to stare at him again. He could hear her breathing through her nose. He took stock of her – power suit, model hair, dominatrix shoes.
He had to break the icy air. ‘I’m sorry, but are you involved with the Mercedes commercial we’re recording?’
‘Involved?’ she boomed. ‘This is why I was calling you. I’m the new head of marketing in this territory, and we have to change the fricking script!’
Lester let a couple of beats go. ‘What happened to Steffan?’
She snorted. ‘By now you can probably read it in the financial pages. A few, er, personal problems came to light 2 days ago, and he had to vanish. I’m April Jones, I’m in charge now. So, this goddam script?’
Lester looked up at her calmly, even though she was pretty much in his face by now. He felt sad about Steffan; that was one clever guy, plus a joy to work with. And had this nightmare in front of him just fired someone over the phone?
‘Well April, the ‘frickin script’ has been approved right up to board level, we’ve all been working towards this for months. In fact, we’re late for our link to London. The actor is waiting for us to dial in.’
‘Oh yeah, the Brit. That’s another thing I’m not down with. Listen, the people we’re trying to talk to…’
Calmly Lester cut her off. ‘This is the 3rd in a series of commercials that’s designed to run until late next year. We’re half way through telling a story, and Michael Lamb is the voice of the campaign. We can’t stop this now.’
She shooed someone out of a chair, rolled it to him, and sat. She turned back to the person she’d just evicted and announced, ‘You. Get me an iced water. Just water and ice, no fricking fruit, ok?’
Spinning back to face Lester, at last she talked a little quieter. ‘Story? See that’s my problem. We’re selling cars guy, duh? People don’t need fairy tales….tell em to get down to the showroom and sign. We’re selling cars. And remember, it’s me that’s signing the cheques now.’ She crooked her head and flashed her best sarcastic smile.
Staring into her eyes, Lester ran through the possibilities of who she had to be fucking at HQ to have got this job. And he couldn’t help but dwell on that ‘duh?’
His voice lowered. ‘April, do you realise that guy you just ordered to get you a drink is my Deputy Head of Design. Oxford graduate, talented kid.’
‘Today you all work for me; he better get used to it.’
Dark thoughts clouded across Lester’s mind. He tried one last thing. ‘You do know a lot of these cars retail for like, a hundred thousand dollars yeah?’
She let out a bored sigh. ’5,000…a 100,000? It’s the same deal. Trust me, in business you just take no prisoners honey.’ He calculated that she was at least 10, maybe 12 years younger than him.
Lester looked down at the floor, gathering his mind. Glancing up, he half whispered ‘April, I need to talk to you outside.’ He raised himself to full height, and paced to the door. He didn’t wait for her, just walked out into the corridor.
A while later, she appeared. Her heels tic-tacked across the oak floor. ‘Lester, right? I do hope we’re not gonna get off on the wrong foot here?’ She crossed her arms and stood against the wall opposite, her eyes challenging him.
He looked down at her, studying the contours of her face. She was pretty, but probably kept a small army of helpers busy making sure she looked flawless.
‘How about we cut a deal April?’ He stepped forward, and placed both hands against the wall behind her. Leaning in closer, he stared down over her. A flicker of surprise shot across her face.
‘Let me make this commercial my way, just as it was agreed — and tonight we’ll have a meeting about how we should go forward. Blank page. You and me, you call the shots.’
Her eyes narrowed a touch. ‘What about the team?’
‘Nope. Just you and me. You obviously have strong feelings, and I’ve been writing these ads for a long, long while. I’m sure we can come to an understanding. Like you say, it’s business.’
April fought to not betray the discomfort she felt. He’d physically dominated her with this caveman routine, and that was a cheap trick. She’d wanted to kick his shin. But she was wise to the dirty tricks people used to get ahead, so she lifted her chin slightly and calmly offered, ‘Ok, my office, 7pm?’
‘No. Scruffy Murphys, edge of Hell’s Kitchen. 9.’
He turned to walk back into the studio. ‘Wait! Is that a bar?’
Lester stopped, but didn’t turn to her. ‘Yeah, great bar. Look, unless you fire my agency, I’m gonna write your ads. So if you want to change them, meet me at Scruffy’s. He opened the studio door and left her.
Back in the leather swivel chair at the front, he turned to the sound guy and said ‘Ok, let’s dial up London — I have some apologising to do.’
April snuck in and sat at the back. Her mind was racing. She didn’t listen to the proceedings, just stared at the back of Lester’s chair.
A few seconds later, the lights flicked up on the connection box, and Lester knew he was talking live to an actor across the Atlantic. ‘Michael, so sorry we’re late man, you know how it is — we had to save the free world here again.’
A deep rich chortle came through the studio speakers from thousands of miles away. ‘Oh you poor fucking colonials. Now then loves – lets sell some expensive German stuff, let’s make art, and let’s get paid.’
The commercial got made, exactly as Lester had heard it in his head. After the collective high 5s, with people drifting out, he smiled at April. Frostily, she met his eyes. Heading past her to the door, he came close. ’9, see you then.’ At that he was gone.
April was not known for her kindness towards her fellow colleagues….and the rest of that day she was truly a bad-tempered witch. She surpassed herself. At long last the clock ticked by to a point where they could leave, and shake her out of their hair. By 5.33, she was alone.
The meeting was approaching. ‘That arrogant pig,’ she mused to herself; ‘That fucker’s on borrowed time.’
She knew that a destruction job came best from a subtle beginning. There was less screaming and shouting at the end that way. Yes, she would fire his agency tonight; but now she headed home to shower, pick out the right outfit, and make herself look devastating. It was all part of the job.
The cab dropped her at the far end of the theatre district. The air was alive; couples chattering arm in arm, the pull of neon, the noise. It was pitch dark night, but that’s when this place woke up.
Scruffy Murphys didn’t look as bad as it’s name suggested. She pushed through the door, and a wall of sound washed over her. Scruffy’s had a jukebox, and it only contained rock tunes. She sauntered past the pool tables, taking the place in….it looked roughly 50/50 men and women; at least it wasn’t some skanky guy-hole. Not spying Lester, she went up to the bar. A tattooed and quiffed guy appeared in front of her, smiling. ‘Yes ma’am, what can I get you?’
‘Just a diet Sprite please.’
From behind, a voice cut in. ‘That’s bullshit. A Heineken for the lady Leon, with an apple vodka shot please my man, times 2.’ Lester settled onto the stool next to where April stood. ‘Sorry, had to take a leak. You’re a little late April, but I expected that.’
‘What if I don’t drink beer, Lester?’
He smiled. ‘In the right place at the right time April, everyone drinks beer. I notice you didn’t question the shot.’
Leon reappeared, placing 2 chilly lager bottles in front of them, and 2 shot glasses filled to the brim with clear liquid. Lester picked up a bottle, and raised it up to her as a toast. She glared back. This wasn’t quite going as planned. His voice almost purred at her, but only as quietly as the jukebox would allow….’April — please, do you wanna sit down?’
She sat, and reached out to her Heineken. Drawing it to her lips, she stared into him one more time, then glugged down a third of the bottle. He laughed, ‘Good. Try the vodka. It’s gorgeous….that’s why personally I sip it, not neck it.’
In her mind she said, ‘Fine, if we have to play some game here for a while, so be it.’ She raised the small glass gingerly, and sniffed. An aroma of ripe orchards surprised her, and she wet her lips with a taste. It truly was delicious.
‘Thought you’d like it’ he said, watching her reaction. ‘Do you play pool, or do you want to wait for the wings?’
‘What?’ she stammered.
‘Sorry, you’ve never been here, right? Every couple of hours, the kitchen put out bowls of free food on the bar.’ He brought up a finger to his mouth. ‘Ssssh, it’s a ploy to keep people in here, drinking. I suggested it. Around now, it’s usually chicken wings. And let’s be honest,’ he said looking down at her body, ‘You won’t have eaten.’
April didn’t know whether she wanted to punch him, or introduce him to her parents — just so her mother and he could gang up on her.
She gathered herself. ‘Free food?’
‘Yeah, it’s no brainer marketing. Wings, ribs….stuff you take out the freezer and bake. It’s cheap to do, but these guys…..’ he swept his hand across the bar, ‘Love it. We get a great crowd in here.’
Sheepishly he murmured, ‘Yeah, well, I kinda own 49% of this place.’
At that she regarded him for a moment….but she had to revert back to the script in her mind.
‘Ok, the ads for Mercedes. I gotta be honest, I’m not happy with the direction they’re going; nothing personal, but…….’
‘April, fuck all that. Come play pool.’ He called over to Leon, ‘Another round friend.’
‘What? This bar may be half yours asshole, but this is a business meeting!’
He looked away towards the front doors. After a moment, in a deep tone he said, ‘Hmmm. Beat me at pool, and my firm will resign your account. Just like you want.’
She spluttered, ‘This is a game to you?’
Coldly he replied, ‘These days April, pretty much everything’s a game to me.’ He sighed, looking down. After a pause he turned and grinned at her. ‘C’mon, bring your drinks, and let’s play pool.’ He started walking to a table.
Without much option, she followed him. At the table, 2 guys were nearly finished. Lester watched for a moment, then reached into his back pocket. ‘I’ll play the winner for a hundred’ he announced, and placed the single bill on the edge of the table.
Both guys stopped, staring at him. They glanced at each other, then back at him. They shook their heads. Lester shrugged ‘ok’, and motioned for them to complete the game.
After the guys finished and shuffled away, Lester started to set up the balls. Not knowing whether to be impressed or bored, April said to him, ‘A hundred? You think you’re that good?’
He laughed; ‘Shit no. It was just a big number to get them off the table.’ He took a slug of beer, picked up the cue, and with a ‘plack’ sound scattered the balls over the table.
April had been schooled by her grandad, at his big house down south. It was a close game, and midway through she ended up shouting Leon for a third round of drinks. They arrived with some crispy hot wings. Out of sight as Lester played, she devoured many.
He hit a shot to win the game….but the ball stubbornly echoed between the jaws of the pocket.
‘Fuck’ he hissed. He drained the vodka shot. April laughed, and walked to the table. ‘Got your resignation speech prepared, Mr Writer?’
She aimed, a little unclearly at first due to the swift intake of beer n chaser combos…but glanced a beautiful edge on the final ball. ‘Thunk’ it went, dropping in. She stood tall and thrust a triumphant fist up in his direction. ‘I win. You don’t write no more ads for Mercs Writer Man!’
Lester was still looking at the table. The white hadn’t finished rolling, and was heading towards a pocket. It bounced softly, nestled…then fell in.
For April, her reaction was pretty calm. She lay the cue down, and stared into the smooth fabric. Eventually she glanced up at him. ‘What does that mean now?’
‘Well now April, we experience the magical Free 4th.’ He walked to her, and said ‘You’d like to slap me now, huh?’
Looking up under her eyebrows she confirmed, ‘I would fucking love to Lester.’
He put his hand to her shoulder. She didn’t bat it away, her defences were beaten down somewhat.
‘Thought so. Come on, let’s go back and see Leon.’ Pushing his luck a little more, he gave her shoulder a squeeze.
Once sat down on stools again he said, ‘See, this is the real reason this bar really does well.’ He called out, ‘Leon!’
Wiping his hands on a towel, the inked barman appeared. ‘Ah, time for your 4th Lester? This round’s on the house, as usual.’
As Leon busied himself at the fridge, April worked out what the Free 4th meant. ‘So, you buy 3 drinks, the house buys you the 4th?’
Lester grinned. ‘Yep. There’s dozens of bars round here, but we have ways of keeping you till closing time.’ 2 beers and 2 shots quickly sat in front of them.
‘Your idea again?’ she asked.
He chortled. ‘Yep.’
‘Shit, you’re actually not bad,’ she almost said to herself. Almost.
Looking into, he slowly said, ‘April….you have no….fucking….idea.’
She laughed, thinking he was joshing. But it took a moment for their eyes to unlock.
‘So, you lost the pool match. Harsh. I get to keep making the Mercedes ads my way, yeah?’
She retained some of her steel. After all, this meant nothing – it was her call, not something decided on the flip of a coin. ‘How about we look at the next sales figures before we get hasty?’
Smiling, he said; ‘Do you know how many of those damn expensive cars I’ve helped to sell? Thousands. Meanwhile, you’ve sold….uh, none.’ He leant in more, ‘Sorry to put it so bluntly April, but it’s about real experience, and talent.’
She wanted to come back with something sharp, but what came out was, ‘And you’re all that, huh?’ The shots were taking their toll.
He studied her. ‘April, it’s late, you’re in a bar. Loosen the screw for once?’ She frowned at him. Then his face lightened, and once again he wrong-footed her. ‘Ok, well, do you wanna dance?’ He stood, and reached for her hand.
‘What Lester? We’re gonna do what now?!’ She was exasperated. Gently he pulled her up, and started leading her to the loud dance floor. ‘Weirdest business meeting ever Lester!’ she screamed at his back.
When they reached the wooden space in the middle of the bar, a cheesy but brilliant tune from the 90s cranked out from the speakers. April was seriously non-plussed at how tonight was going, but couldn’t help but start to shimmy to the guitar intro.
They danced. And danced a lot more; letting go to the big tunes. Spinning, hip swinging, singing choruses out loud. Between songs they breathlessly gulped their drinks. The night turned into a blur, and more trays of liquor were delivered. There was laughter, and shrieking at songs she’d not heard since her big brother played them when she was a child. She would have shuddered to remember, but she air guitared to Led Zep.
Eventually the lights went up, the music ended, and the place started to wind down. Closing time. They collapsed back onto bar stools. She looked windswept by now. April didn’t let go very often, so when she did she let go big. Smiling like she hadn’t in years, she offered, ‘One for the road huh?’
Lester, a little more used to the liquor, gently said, ‘I think you’re done April. Work’s out of the question as it is.’
Snorting a laugh she came back, ‘What are you, my Dad?’
‘No April, just an adult.’ He softened. ‘Look, I live near, and I think it’s best if we walk there and you crash out.’
Vexed by his sudden responsible attitude she barked, ‘Oh is that right…Mr Writer?’ She tried to stand and flounce off, but stumbled badly. Lester caught her, and steadied her until she balanced on her own.
‘You ok?’ Not looking at him, she nodded. ‘Let’s get you home.’ He held her around the waist, and steered them towards the doors.
The fresh morning air worked some of it’s magic, and she was a lot more sane when they reached his dark apartment door. He let himself in, and went inside. April stood, peering inside. She realised this was a habitat very different from her own.