Rufus Emmanuel is the name of a nasty little creep I met at a party. He’s nine years old, small for his age, tastelessly dressed, and he responds to everything I say with, ‘Really? That seems unlikely.’ The most interesting thing about Rufus Emmanuel is his dad, who is also called Rufus Emmanuel.
Rufus Emmanuel senior is someone I’d really like to be like – and to like me. Because he’s someone who cares about the future. His computer is made entirely from renewable sources. All his bags are reused. He never does anything in the short term that he, or anyone, might regret in the long term. Which is why it seems to me one of life’s great cruel ironies, of which pessimists tell us the world is full, that Rufus Emmanuel’s single direct contribution to the future, his son, should be such a nasty little creep.
Rufus junior and I were the dregs of a party that should have ended hours ago, but that he couldn’t leave because his dad was still talking – to my friend Cissy – and that I couldn’t leave because I’d promised Cissy’s fiancé, John Leviathan, that I’d accompany her home – which is a euphemistic way of saying I’d make sure that no-one else accompanied her home. Cissy has a tendency to fall in love with herself when she drinks, with the double effect that she expects to be propositioned at least once, and will forgive herself for saying yes once, at least. Sometimes Cissy has been known to be accompanied home by crowds. It occurs to me that she’d happily settle for just Rufus senior tonight, if I weren’t around to act as a sort of portable, detached (and thus unwelcome) conscience, which sets up a nice contrast between her and me, because I don’t seem to be able to get anywhere with Rufus junior.
Rufus is standing next to the buffet table spearing the remains of the food with a used cocktail stick. He is grinning so widely that spit sometimes drips from his underlip, but never quite lets go. I can’t imagine why it would hang around, and yet here I am. He greets my approach with the offer of a massively punctured olive, which I eat without knowing whether this is a rite of passage or a prank or a bit of both. Then he announces: ‘You should never wear orange.’ To which I respond defensively: ‘Lots of people here like this dress.’ To which he responds: ‘Really? That seems unlikely.’ To which I almost respond by kicking him hard in the shin, but instead I take a second horribly savaged olive and eat it slowly with a look of defiance. ‘You should never eat in public,’ he says.
I send a panicked glance across the room to Cissy, who callously turns her back to me and laughs ecstatically at a joke I know she can’t really have liked, because, 1: she never gets jokes, and 2: Rufus senior doesn’t get the point of them. I catch a glimpse of his confused face over her chiffoned shoulder, but he doesn’t stop talking to her about the endless reusability of bags, or whatever it is he’s talking about. Either it doesn’t matter to him to be understood, or he hasn’t quite understood that she doesn’t understand. Either way it doesn’t bode well for a long-term relationship. But neither has been put off yet, and they’ve been talking for hours. I find myself feeling impatient for their disillusionment with one another, like a vindictive God watching the universe and knowing the plot. I turn back to Rufus junior and venture an ice breaker.
‘Do you like phones?’ I say, holding out mine as an example of what I mean. ‘Why don’t you have an iPhone?’ he says, with a sixth sense for a sore point (it exploded). But he takes the phone anyway and starts to fiddle around with it, commenting every now and again on the silliness of a photo or the idiocy of an app, though without seeming to be conscious of me at all. It’s as if he isn’t criticising me but the phone, and I’m happy to have found a way of entertaining him at no further cost to my ego. I remind myself that I like myself in orange. When I look back across the room, Cissy is laughing uproariously at something I’m sure she shouldn’t be laughing at, and leaning in towards Rufus senior, whose glasses are misting. When I turn back to Rufus junior, I find that he’s disappeared, but that there’s a new folder on my phone called ‘Shit’, which I can’t open. I wonder vaguely whether it contains my unconscious.
When I look back across the room Cissy and Rufus have also left, which perhaps proves that people only exist while I’m looking at them, and that if I turned quickly I might potentially catch life out in its eternal game of filling my visual field with stuff, but maybe it also proves that I’m a bad friend. I decide that the best thing to do about this second discovery is to let John Leviathan know and plead forgiveness. I open my Contacts and find it empty, except for the mysterious personage, ‘Sucker’, whose number is apparently, 999. I go to my text message folder and find it empty too, except for a new one from my friend Tod Sarassen asking me whether I know that someone with the initials RE is posting vicious things about me on Twitter. I say, ‘No … But Cissy has pulled (again) – what shall I do?’
Tod doesn’t reply to this, perhaps because it isn’t an interesting question, because the only thing I can do is retire with my tail between my legs. The question becomes interesting later, though, when I arrive at midnight at John’s front door, after a post-party nightcap and a lot of brooding. John answers the door in goggles because he is in the process of glue-gunning together a matchstick sculpture of Cissy that he plans to present to her on their wedding day. It’s life-size, but otherwise completely unlike her in every way, just as Cissy is herself completely unlike the person he imagines he is about to marry. It occurs to me that it would be just as insensitive (for different but related reasons) to tell him at this point that the sculpture isn’t Cissy as to tell him that Cissy isn’t Cissy, as he knows her, so I decide to help him with his wedding preparations instead, by making a matchstick sculpture of their first child. When I last used a glue gun I glued my hands together, but there are no such complications this time, perhaps because I know to point the gun away from myself – and also perhaps because I am turning away from myself metaphorically: pointing the gun of attentiveness towards John and his child.
In the morning (which I awake to on John’s pull-out sofa bed), it strikes me that what seemed kind in the moment may not have been kind in the long term. I start to think in the way Rufus Emmanuel senior likes to do, in terms of future futures. But I can’t think what to do with the information I have. In the absence of a good plan about how to explain matters (including not just Cissy’s disappearance last night (which may mean nothing of course) but all her disappearances in the company of men she likes (which probably cumulatively mean something)), I decide to help myself to some coffee and to check my emails on John’s MacBook Pro. The password is ‘Cissy’ (I have to guess because John is asleep), and the wallpaper is a picture of a vegetable that looks curiously like Cissy. When I open my inbox, though, I’m immediately distracted from all thoughts of John’s crisis by one of my own. The glue gun of attention is pointing at me, again, after all, because this is what Rufus Emmanuel junior says:
Hello again. Don’t ask me how I know all this: you should assume that I have good evidence, because I do – why else would I embarrass myself by emailing you? These are the things I know:
1) That you stole your boss’s car.
2) That you were an accomplice in a diamond heist.
3) That you impersonated your colleague, Carmen Haze.
4) That you spied on the cultural theorist, Gio Calvetti.
5) That you stole a cat from Nicholas Larensen.
6) That you drink more than you should.
I want £500 for my silence.
Best wishes (not really),
Panicking, I wonder who can possibly have told him my secrets. It couldn’t be Tod because Tod is loyal, for all his faults, and it couldn’t be John, although Tod tells him everything, because John is the sort of person who makes sculptures of people he likes. The sort of fame that interests him is laudatory. The only person who knows everything who would be likely to talk is Cissy, who is probably cuddled up next to Rufus Emmanuel senior right now.
Cissy agrees to have a drink at 5. She peers out at me from her furs with little shiny eyes that catch the remains of the late January light. ‘So I told him your secrets, so what?’ she says, adding by way of explanation, ‘Rufus and I are in love.’ ‘Let’s leave aside the fact that people who are in love tell one another their own secrets rather than other people’s,’ I say, ‘What interests me is whether Rufus has spoken to Rufus.’ She looks confused, and proceeds with her own story. ‘Rufus and I left the party at around 10, and couldn’t find any taxis, so we decided to break into his friend’s house (which was nearby) and swim naked in his pool. Rufus said his friend wouldn’t mind – that he would understand if he saw me. Rufus said he has never seen anyone so beautiful or met anyone with as interesting a slant on life as me. He said (while we were swimming) that it had never occurred to him before that being so eco-friendly was in fact quite funny, although not in a way that detracted from what he was doing at all. He said he would chuckle now when he reused his bags, but would still reuse his bags, so the environment wouldn’t miss out. He said I had brought laughter into a life that had seemed too full of serious things. He said I reminded him of laughter and should always wear yellow, the colour of laughter. Incidentally, he also said at that point that you should never wear orange.’
Cissy says she can’t stay out any longer because she’s meeting Rufus for more naked swimming at midnight and needs a catnap. She yawns felinely, and leaves. I pay the bill, and wonder how I’m going to manage to stomach paying £500, bearing in mind that this £40 cocktail bill (for just four cocktails!) is making me uneasy – or maybe that’s my conscience. It occurs to me that one of the downsides of being a chaperone is that you’re automatically complicit in the things you witness, whether because you agree to throw in your lot with someone else, whatever they’re up to, or because you promise someone to intervene if things go wrong. If you’re the second sort of chaperone, and you don’t intervene when things go wrong, you’re as foolhardy as the chaperone who agrees to take responsibility for whatever happens to happen – like Christ, but without God on your side, if things then go wrong for you. You have the opportunity not to take responsibility for a bad thing, having originally decided to be the more responsible sort of chaperone who doesn’t go along with everything, and you blow it, and no one is on your side. It certainly feels as though no one is on my side now, and I want to blame this on the Cissy and Rufus situation, although, in a way, what’s potentially messing up my life is incidental to what’s making theirs beautiful – as incidental as Rufus junior seems to be to Rufus senior, bearing in mind that he must have made his own way home…
Tod says he’ll meet me for a drink at 4 tomorrow, though he’s busy so he won’t be able to stay long, and in the meantime I brood. I check Twitter for the ‘vicious’ posts, and am vaguely relieved to find that RE doesn’t divulge anything incriminating, though sad to find, that, apparently, I have numerous bizarre Beckettian mannerisms – e.g. I tell all my stories backwards, I walk off in the middle of sentences (my own and other people’s), I march continuously to the accompaniment of a soft ‘rum-pum-pum’ sound I make conspicuously by puffing out my lips whenever I’m not talking (when I’m talking, my feet ad lib), and I cower and cry a little bit whenever I hear my name.
‘X,’ Tod says the next day, ‘you need to stop worrying about this. No one is going to believe a nine-year-old, especially if his so-called ‘evidence’ is Cissy’s pillow talk. Cissy isn’t even supposed to be engaging in pillow talk with anyone but John, and, believe me, she and Rufus will want to keep this whole thing a secret.’ ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but it doesn’t matter whether RE is credible on an objective level. This isn’t a court of law. The problem is that he’s threatening to spread rumours about me online that are true, and spectacular, so people will want to believe them – and anyway, no one will know that the initials ‘RE’ refer to a nasty little nine-year-old with a chip on his shoulder because his dad sometimes forgets about him. He could tweet all this tomorrow and I’d be out of my job.’ ‘You’re being melodramatic,’ says Tod. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but somewhere between my melodrama and your massive underestimation of the seriousness of this situation, is how I should be feeling.’
After I’ve left Tod (at 7ish), I go back to John’s to continue work on my sculpture of his firstborn. John pours me a whisky when I arrive (he already has one himself), and we each fall into a workmanlike meditative silence, exchanging words only when one of us needs to use the glue gun or replenish our whisky. While I work, I wonder how to tell the man whose future I’m helping to design that he may not have the future he wants, and also wondering whether I should feel guilty about all the stealing I’m being accused of – and that I’m guilty of, if not about. The only thing on RE’s list that I didn’t do is steal Nicholas Larensen’s cat. It was Tod’s cat, that Nicholas Larensen stole, and we were just reclaiming it.
At around 10, John looks over at my sculpture and says with fatherly wonder, ‘It’s a she.’ ‘Her name’s Ophelia,’ I say, ‘She’s let down by all the people she loves, but she has amazing dignity.’ ‘That’s nice,’ says John, “Ophelia Leviathan’ sounds quite good too [I disagree with him about that] … Well, I’m going to bed now. If you want to carry on, make sure you switch off the glue gun when you’ve finished with it, because it doesn’t like to overheat.’ I carry on working until midnight, and then just sit there until 3, or maybe 4, staring at Ophelia’s tragic features, whispering (a little drunkenly because I’ve had about half a bottle of whisky): ‘I’m sorry, Ophelia, I’m sorry about everything. I know I shouldn’t steal or lie, but I’m not sorry I made you. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve made.’
When I wake up I’ve glued my hands together (again), though the glue gun’s turned off – it must have been its dying last ooze. Anyway, I decide that this means I’ve become self-preoccupied (again), and should be focussing more on others, so I make John a cup of coffee and a bacon sandwich and take them upstairs to his room. John is so nice that he says ‘thank you’ although he’s in shock. The copy of today’s Times that he’s reading in bed on his MacBook Air (he has two computers) is in the process of informing him that his fiancé is a member of a gang of delinquents called ‘The Pool Crashers’ who wander drunkenly from one mansion to another in Mayfair in search of swimming pools. Few bother to swim when they find them, but some do; there’s a picture of a loving couple swimming naked in a pool belonging to one of Prince Harry’s school friends. John immediately recognises Cissy from a swarm of freckles on her thigh. He doesn’t know Rufus Emmanuel by appearance (though he happens to be reading his book – called Green Futures), but he’s seen enough to start to feel sick. I tell him that Cissy and Rufus probably aren’t pool crashers themselves: they’ve just crashed a pool crashing party, by the looks of it. He nods as if that sounds sensible, and bolts to the ensuite to be sick.
Because it sounds like he’ll be in there for a while, and because it would be especially insensitive of me to leave him alone right now (though I’m a little bored), I decide to check my emails quickly. I’ve only just logged in and found a new email from Rufus junior in my inbox, when someone rings the doorbell. I assume it’s Cissy, and it is, and she doesn’t seem particularly happy to find me at John’s at 8 in the morning in yesterday’s clothes, but nor does she bother to question my explanation (i.e. I’m here to glue together her daughter.) After this brief exchange, she more or less ignores me, probably because she’s mentally preparing to announce to John when he emerges from the bathroom that she’s in love with RE senior. ‘I’m in love with Rufus Emmanuel,’ she says, when her fiancé appears, green, from the bathroom – a metaphor for the Rufusian future, unbeknown to himself (or itself.) ‘What?!’ he says, ‘that little prick who’s been bullying X?’ ‘No, of course not,’ says Cissy, with some impatience, ‘and I’m sure X is being melodramatic about that. What I mean is, I’m in love with someone else.’ ‘Me too!’ says John, and he points wildly at the sculpture of Ophelia I’ve been working on all night. I experience a weird quiver of maternal protectiveness, but not for long, because John has spotted his mistake. ‘I mean I’m in love with this someone else,’ he says, pointing at his sculpture of Cissy. ‘It’s me!’ says Cissy. ‘What I’m saying, though,’ says John, ‘is that she isn’t you!’ ‘But she is!’ says Cissy, ‘You’ve made a whole sculpture of me out of matchsticks! I love you!’ she adds, incongruously from my perspective. ‘I love you!’ says John, equally incongruously, and they embrace.
When I’m back at my office computer (at 9.30ish), I’m surprised to find – having skimmed RE’s ‘urgent’ request for a meeting at 4 – an email from Tod, advising me briefly to: ‘Just pay him.’ ‘Why the change of tack?’ I write back. ‘Because he has to be bluffing,’ Tod replies after a minute or so, ‘There’s no way he’ll cash the cheque. He just wants to humiliate you.’ ‘How do you know?’ I shoot back. ‘I don’t; it’s an informed guess,’ he writes, ‘You’re a fun person to wind up – you’re melodramatic.’ ‘Thanks,’ I say, and add: ‘BTW, John and Cissy suddenly seem to be a unit again.’ ‘I know,’ he says, ‘I just got a text from John. Go figure!’ He then proceeds to ‘figure’: ‘It’s something to do with a sort of voluntary mutual delusion. John thinks Cissy’s someone his experience teaches him she’ll never be, and she’s prepared to believe in his ideal, despite knowing herself.’ ‘That sounds likely,’ I say, accommodatingly, while reflecting that Tod has become cynical about love since Nicholas Larensen stole his cat.
I’m quarter of an hour late for my meeting with Rufus Emmanuel junior, because, I explain to him, ‘I’m much in demand at work.’ ‘That seems unlikely,’ he snipes. I toy with the idea of asking him, ‘Why would you think that I’m not in demand?’ but hesitate for the same reason that I haven’t asked John or Tod to help me open the ‘Shit’ folder on my phone. ‘Anyway,’ I say, ‘This is your cheque for £500. Now maybe you’ll leave me alone.’ ‘It’ll be a pleasure to leave you alone,’ he says, which suddenly makes me nostalgic in advance for his negative attention – a convoluted matter of looking ahead to the inability to look anywhere but back, at something that makes me miserable anyway. So I rack my brains for a question that’ll keep the conversation going. ‘I’m curious,’ I say, not altogether truthfully, ‘as to why you only wanted £500.’ ‘Ah’, he says, ‘Because you wouldn’t have been able to afford anything else, judging by your clothes, accent and manners, and because a £500 deduction from a monthly wage that just about covers rent, meals and a bit of drinking is bound to be inconvenient in a really close-to-the-nerve way. I mentally see you preparing your daily repast of boiled cabbage, lentils and gradually diminishing pasta, and it makes me smile with my heart.’ It’s at this point more or less exactly that I realise that RE isn’t bluffing at all.
A few days later, £500 disappears from my bank account. My first thought is to ask John for a loan, but I already owe him £3,000 – and more if you count all the whisky and the damage I did to his first glue gun (when I first glued my hands together.) My second thought is to ask Cissy and/or Tod, but I can’t imagine either saying yes, though both are rich, so I give up. It’s also a few days after my meeting with Rufus junior, that I’m reminded of his peculiar sounding phrase, ‘makes me smile with my heart’ – and remember that it comes from the song, ‘My Funny Valentine’, which makes me wonder whether all his viciousness might be a kind of confused declaration of love. After all, that song could be pretty vicious in the hands of a sociopath – ‘Your looks are laughable/Unphotographable’ etc. It’s the sort of thing I imagine him saying unaffectionately, apropos of nothing. It’s a little like telling someone they should never eat in public. Maybe he imagines that we’re soulmates because my history of theft makes me a sociopath. But he’s completely wrong about that. Theft is just something I get up to when I’m drunk, when it seems like an entirely harmless and inexpensive (indeed, potentially the opposite) way of spending time. The nostalgia (this time real-time) that the memory of my drunken thieving arouses in me is a welcome reminder that whatever RE’s motives may have been, the end-result is that I have no drinking money and am sitting here eating cabbage, lentils and diminishing (not real-time) pasta, because of him.
I’m solemnly eating cabbage, lentils and a few forlorn twists of fusilli on Valentine’s day – which may seem like a nice day to some people, but not to anyone who’s halfway through the desert of a month of pennilessness – when an email pings into my inbox from ‘Rufus Emmanuel’, and, in spite of myself, I smile with my heart. But, as it turns out, my heart has jumped the gun in this instance, because – before I read the email – my eye is caught by the paraphernalia of status: the ‘Professor’ ahead of the name, the Oxford College (namely, Crispsmith College – I didn’t know it existed!), and the link to a flamboyant advertisement for Rufus Emmanuel’s new book. It strikes me as tautological to give Green Futures a green cover, but then, tbf, what other colour could it be? Even white would seem subversive of the message. Anyway, the email says:
Dear X (if I may),
I’m emailing you on Valentine’s Day to tell you that I love you. When you first glanced across at me at the party the other day, my heart melted, and so did all my elaborate theories about the future (thankfully, the book is published), because the only possible future I could imagine was one with you – though I didn’t (and still don’t) know how you feel about me, or what our combined futures might look like – although I think I can safely say that they’d (may I say ‘they’ll’?) be somewhat more attractive than Rufus Emmanuel junior, poor fellow. I often wonder what you’re doing, bearing in mind your history of adventure, as described to me by our mutual friend, Cissy. I associate you with the colour orange, not just because of your dress at the party, but because orange (for me anyway) is the colour of adventure. You should always wear orange.
All My Very Best wishes (really),