This is a short extract of the story The Freebie, which first appeared in the July 2002 edition of The London Magazine. The full story features in Chris Page‘s paperback collection of short fiction Un-Tall Tales and the ebook collection Shorts. Now read on.
BILLY WAS just thinking he ought to call The Enemy when the phone rang. It was The Enemy.
‘Hi, this Justin Lastname of The Enemy here. Can I speak to Billy Freeb?’
The Enemy? Justin Lastname of The Enemy? The Justin Lastname of the The Enemy? Billy was not sure what to make of this. On uncountable occasions in the past howevermany years Billy had not called The Enemy. Whenever he was conscious he thought he ought to call The Enemy, but he never actually did. Now they were calling him.
‘Yeah, this is Billy Freeb,’ he said.
‘How’re you doing Billy?’ asked Justin, brightly business like. ‘Your name has been buzzing round the office lately. We at The Enemy are very excited about what you’re doing.’
Billy was picking his nose. He stopped and said ‘uh.’
‘Yeah, we thought we’d do a short piece on you. Nothing grand just yet, maybe five hundred or a thousand words, a photo. See how it pans out.’
‘If, of course, you agree. What do you think, Billy?’
‘Er … How did you find out about me — my work?’ he mumbled at the edifice of awe and fear that had popped up next to the telephone.
‘Well I have a big memo right here on my desk, Billy. Makes interesting reading, almost enough for a story but without one crucial thing — you yourself, Billy.’
‘I see … As a matter of idle curiosity, do you know why you happen to have a big memo about me on your desk?’
‘Oh, I imagine one of our staffers saw one of your gigs and put your name about.’
‘I haven’t actually done any gigs,’ said Billy. ‘That’s kinda the point, isn’t it.’
‘Oh …’ the sound of a seismic shift of papers, something heavy toppling, ‘that’s — ’ and the light summery rustle of memo, ‘right. Well, I suppose one of our staffers didn’t see one of the gigs you didn’t do and decided to put your name about. So what do you say, Billy? Why don’t we meet for lunch? I …’
‘Billy? Billy? You all right?’
The mention of food had sent Billy into peristalsis.
‘Aaaaaagh!’ he expanded, but pulling himself together with an eviscerating drag on his cigarette, he arranged to meet Lastname at an Indian restaurant in Islington.
‘See you there,’ said Billy.
‘Check,’ said Justin.
Great! Fame! And Billy had done absolutely nothing to earn it but think about it! And a free lunch to boot! Not that he ever ate — that was against his principles, or against the chemicals in his blood — but a free lunch means free booze — and that was very for his principles and the chemicals in his blood, both.
But fame. ‘I don’t believe it’ said Billy lamely, the dead receiver still in his hand. ‘Help.’ Abandoning the handset to the floor, he lit a cigarette and stumbled giddily from the hall into his room.
He felt profoundly nauseous. His body didn’t miss food too much so long as he remained supine or drunk, but he was neither at the moment, and now with this adrenaline rush on top of this morning’s quart of black instant coffee and ten Camel, his legs suddenly felt rubbery and he badly needed the toilet.
‘I don’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I refuse to believe it. Someone’s yanking my chain.’ Either that Lucien Savage had put someone up to it — in which case he was dead meat in the Kropotkin Arms — or the call was genuine, in which case he would have to face an interview with the gargantuan Justin Lastname … and there from, record contracts, gigs at Wembley, TV spots, fame, wealth, an active and varied life — unlimited sex, drugs — everything he had ever wanted. Really, it was a no-win situation.
The thought of drugs helped to steady his mind.
He had to get rid of this deeply settled sensation of poison and incipient death, get clear-headed, get on top of the situation. He did this by making another pint of black coffee and pacing round his flat drinking, smoking and retching.
He reasoned his next job was to find out whether the call from Justin Lastname was straight up. With this new task he took his pacing into the spare room of his spare, lopsided flat.
The spare room was unused except by himself. He would sleep there once or twice a week when that Lucien Savage squatted Billy’s own bedroom, overriding Billy’s own squatter’s rights in order to do sex in Billy’s bed to whomever. That whomever was invariably a very recent whomever whom Savage had just met — perhaps just minutes before — in Billy’s neighbourhood, from whom he wished to keep his own proper location a secret and/or whom he couldn’t wait the length of time it took to get across town from Stoke Newington to do sex to.
Savage hated Billy because Billy had a two-bedroom squat which he refused to share with anyone, because it was the only squat in the world with a telephone, and because Billy’s universally connected parents had found the gaff for him and sent round a council workman with keys and a claw-hammer to open it for him. Billy’s parents had done this in the hope of keeping him off their backs and out of their pockets. Indeed, with Billy safely stowed away down here in Hackney they might be able to make that move to Richmond without him finding out where they had gone or even noticing.
Savage would usually show up between one and six in the morning and put upon Billy’s sleepy-stoned-drunk head while propping the unconscious whomever against the doorframe. Billy would put his foot down: not this time. Invariably the argument would get round to the flat theme and Savage’s line would go like this:
‘Listen, man, you’ve got all this space here which you jealously guard, which you, which you squat like a Tory. You’ve even got a telephone that you never use, for Christ’s sake — I mean what’s the point of having a telephone if you never talk to anyone? You’re a bloody hermit, Billy, you don’t deserve friends. Look, if you won’t let anyone live here, why not just be a human being once in a while and let your mates dip a finger in your manna?’
Savage was not rankled because he was without adequate accommodation, having talked himself into an overly generous share of someone else’s squat in Kentish Town, and neither did he believe that Billy was taking space that could be better used by any of London’s tens of thousands of more deserving people. Savage was rankled simply because he was that kind of guy.
‘I’ll tell everyone in the Kropotkin that Mummy had your squat cracked for you,’ Savage would threaten. Savage knew a lot of things. He was a stockbroker and in order to trade his shares — his cathode blips, his abstracts, his non-products; like an air traffic controller trading radar contacts — it was imperative that he knew an awful lot about different things. Dragnetting for knowledge, he ended up knowing a lot of things that were not strictly relevant to his trade. Thus, for example, he knew that Billy had not come by his squat by the usual ritual of crowbars, Loony Brew, sweats, and cold nights on raw floors. In fact, he knew a lot else about Billy, almost everything in fact. He knew so much about Billy partly because they had grown up together, and partly because he was secretly shagging Billy’s mother.
With this Kropotkin threat Billy always gave up arguing. Of course, Savage could simply have said ‘Mummy, Kropotkin’ as soon as Billy opened the door, sending him to the greasy, malodorous sleeping bag in the spare room without debate, saving everyone a lot of time and precious calories, but that would have been no fun. It was no victory unless you rubbed your opponent’s nose in the futility of opposition. For his part, Billy could have surrendered the moment Savage rang the doorbell. However, he was strongly possessed by an optimism derived from an over-active compensatory fantasy function, and this optimism consistently told him, adamantly, without any apparent irony, and without any obvious reference to the unencouraging mountain of precedents, that this time he would fend Savage off.
It was this same mechanism that allowed him to believe that his outward lack of activity was in fact tightly coiled potential.
Billy could call Savage, find out by oblique means whether he had made the Lastname call. He could address Savage as Lucien. Savage hated the name Lucien, and insisted that people call him Savage or, better, Sav, because Sav was reminiscent of savvy, which kind of means suss. However, this plan was fraught with danger and required some careful thought. Hell, he could just call Justin Lastname at The Enemy. That was the only sure way to find out. Yes, that was what he would do. With that, his nausea intensified, and without thinking he fled the flat.
A little later, bolstered by a very rapid can of Stupor Brew and wearing a second in his hand, he made the call expecting to be greeted with indignation and outrage. Billy was risking his life with this manoeuvre: one harsh word could be the end of him and nearly had been on many occasions. A less than doting word or look from the staff at the local burger joint where he went for the free smiles could condemn him to bed on a vodka drip for a whole week. Instead, after a suitably important time on hold, he found himself talking to the same Justin Lastname.
‘What’s up, Billy?’
Once Billy had laboriously explained that the cat he did not have had mistaken the big dog-eared memo pad on which he had not written the name and address of the place they were to meet for the big dog-eared Persian that had never lived next door — on which Billy’s cat would have certainly had a crush had they both existed — and had raped the note into illegibility, they reconfirmed the time and place of their meeting,
‘Cheers, Billy. Thanks for calling,’ said Justin.
Now Billy’s elation was unrestrained. He drained his can in one, and while he waited beerily by the phone for a whole two minutes for Savage to call so he could say ‘Sorry Lucien, can’t make the pub for lunch, I’ve got to see Justin Lastname about the band,’ he reflected that The Enemy could not have called at a better time. Yesterday was Giro day and he still had nearly twenty pounds left, and he was at a relative peak both mentally and physically. Then he stumbled into the toilet, threw up and fainted when he tried to stand.