From the fringes of the cocktail party, Rob Hamilton watches as Owen Huntly, the Dependable Insurance Company's super salesman and master stud, tracks down an intern. The Discovery Channel has taught Rob not to interfere with Nature, but, when he sees how the giggly twenty year old in her first cocktail dress has been cornered by the wolf in Armani, thirty years her senior, thirty centimetres taller, and thirty sinewy kilos heavier, he steps in.
"Owen Huntly! Don't tell me the Parole Board let you out early." Rob's pulse races as he slaps the big man on the back, and grasps and shakes his hand. "Oh, Sarah, Bruce Buller from Claims needs to talk to you urgently." The intern slips away, a rabbit from a snare. Rob sees anger flare in Huntly's eyes and he closes his own as the big man draws back the shovel of a fist that could knock you half way across the hotel ballroom. After a second, Rob opens one eye. Huntly laughs and feigns a punch to Rob's jaw. Gold flashes among the vulpine teeth.
Rob ducks into the crowd. The gnawing premonitions of backslapping strangers and soggy crudités, forced bonhomie and dyspepsia that distracted him all afternoon are realised, but he doesn't care. Perhaps the many skulled flutes of champagne have helped. He joins and extricates himself from conversations that coil back on themselves like Möbius strips. He laughs at jokes without catching their punch lines, and indulges the low opinions of people already in their cups. He smiles and nods, exchanges an occasional handshake with a manager up from the provinces. Rob reckons if he keeps moving with apparent purpose he can avoid further engagement. But, when he hears the MC say, "Ladies and gentlemen… can I have your attention… ladies and gentlemen… please… I give you the new Chief Executive Officer of the Dependable Insurance Company… Andy Wu," he freezes like the slow child, petrified in the silence of musical chairs.
"Hey, wait a second." Rob downs a glass of champagne and clinks it back onto the silver tray. The waiter, too young to be so camp, tuts and looks heavenwards as he takes another.
The lights dim, and a snatch of We are the Champions booms through the PA system. There's a general murmuring and shuffling forward as Andy Wu strides across the stage to deliver his speech. His smiling image towers above the audience on a triptych of screens. Rob has met Andy almost daily in the two months since he took over as CEO, and yet he too is mesmerised as the handsome and youthful leader holds his hands wide, today more tele-evangelist than his usual methodical actuary. "Team members of the Dependable, I want you to join me on a journey." But Andy's hyped-up delivery soon lapses into the monotone Rob had expected, and a twenty-five minute commentary on information-rich PowerPoint slides follows.
Rob is bored before the third slide and retreats to the bar. In the glare of the stage lights his photochromatic lenses have become shades, so he pockets his glasses. Now blurry, the screens have a pleasantly psychedelic feel. Rob can make out a woman next to him, someone new enough to the Dependable not to know that drinks are never served during the CEO's presentation. He leans towards her, reckless in the near darkness. "Twenty points if he says 'going forward' again."
"And going forward–" Andy says within seconds.
Rob senses her glance. Perhaps there's the hint of a smile in the gloom. "That was nothing," he says. "Our Stepford CEO is making it too easy." He breathes in her perfume and adds, "All right, forty points for 'customer focus'." Rob realises he's swaying a little. He swigs champagne to steady himself as he tries to make out her face.
Andy says, "And, going forward our focus will sit squarely on the customer–"
"Come on, that's close enough."
The woman shushes him. He probably reads too much into it, but it was a very gentle shushing, amused but proper, altogether a sympathetic kind of shushing.
Andy wraps up, several times. After an awkward pause, a stomping ovation erupts. When it peters out, and the lights come up, Rob turns to the woman, "Can I get you a drink?" He slips on his glasses, and is taken aback. She's mannequin svelte. Her glossy black hair is cut in an audacious bob that reveals the nape of her neck and ironic ticks of eyebrows. She's immaculately and expensively dressed, but it's her sparkling eyes that belittle Rob most. Her smile is disabling as she takes his nametag between her thumb and finger. "That's OK… Rob Hamilton." And she leaves him.
The sales prizes are next. People aah in concert as pictures of tropical beaches flash onto the screens. Ululating maidens in grass skirts and coconut bras thump across the stage, and gyrate to the rhythm of tribal drums. Andy Wu stands paralysed amidst the show, and Rob feels a pang of embarrassment for him, momentarily. The sales conference will be held in Tahiti – hence the African drums – Rob wishes he could confide to someone.
Andy has handed out the sales prizes in an orgy of whoops and hugs, and Rob resumes his weaving through the melee, hoping for a proper chance to talk with that woman. He spots her with Sir Gerald Leet, the Dependable's chairman, and his brutish deputy. Perhaps, she's the trophy wife of a big shareholder. It doesn't matter; he'd never have the nerve to approach her again. Yet, she does look like someone who might understand the fifth season. Rob imagines himself, confident as he'd been in the dark at the bar, starting to explain it to her. He's tried so many times with others: "When I was a young boy, Dad told me you could have five seasons in one day – yes, five, not four – and me and my brother, Chris – he's a big hotshot merchant banker in Aussie these days – we used to play spotting the fifth season: raining when it's sunny, blossom in winter, that sort of thing. Of course, it's much more than that–" Strange as it may sound, her being a misplaced goddess and he a crapulent toad, but maybe she is the one who could really understand it all.
It was a mistake to stop in reverie. Bruce Buller, the Claims Manager, snags him. "Hey. Sarah the Finance intern just reminded me. I've got a claim declinature for you to sign off."
"Really?" Rob looks over Buller's shoulder, and scans the room. "Can't we discuss it tomorrow?"
"Two million dollars – that's how much we're in for." This must count as cocktail party small talk for Buller.
"Is that so?" Rob spots the woman standing alone, back at the bar. She's got a gilded air about her as though she's sashayed here from a Scott Fitzgerald short story.
"You won't have any problems signing it off from a legal viewpoint, will you?" Buller says. "In fact," he glances at Rob, and then back to his glass, "I was wondering whether you even need to see it."
Rob twigs what Buller's up to. "Well, I can't say that until I've seen the case. As legal advisor, I have to look at the legalities, don't I?" He gives Buller a disciplinary look. "Remember what the Ombudsman said in the Russell complaint?"
Buller's expression turns gloomy. "Suicide. The policy is only six months old." He gulps from his tumbler of scotch, and Rob wonders whether Buller's regret lies with the suicide or the demise of such a young policy. Buller shakes his head and says, "Declinature, clear as day."
"Yeah, yeah, mate, but you know I need to see the file."
"Clear as day."
"As you say." Rob glances over Buller's shoulder and sees Owen Huntly lifting the woman's hand to his lips. Oh brilliant, now his life has been ruined again, he might as well spend the rest of the evening listening to Buller prattle. "So, tell me, who's the deceased?"
"The name of the deceased was Artemis Washburn. It's a suicide." Buller checks his watch, empties his glass, and walks away.
She, not it, you heartless bastard. Rob surveys the knots of people: they're starting to get rowdy. He's had a few drinks but feels sober as a presbyter next to these amateurs. At the bar, Owen Huntly is working his seductive magic. Rob slips out.
Toni Haast was not invited to the Dependable cocktail party this year. The omission is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, she won't have to put up with Johnny, her partner, discussing their private life with anyone prepared to listen, but, on the other hand, she won't be getting an award. Toni had won 'Employee of the Year (non supervisory category)' for two years running, and chose gym membership as her prize. But this year the competition was overlooked in the company restructure, and, no matter how she cuts and pastes the figures around her budget spreadsheet, she can't afford to pay the gym fees herself. But Toni is well practised in sweetening disappointment, and she tells herself early morning walking is just as much fun as gym.
Toni had, of course, pictured what she might wear to the cocktail party, but she hasn't got a fairy godmother, and it would all be over by now. Her twins, Byron and Kyron, are tucked up in bed, and Johnny is asleep in front of the television. She wrestles the remote from his hand and zaps the screen, gathers up toys and their parts, and drops them into the toy box. The house could do with a vacuum, but Toni sits at the kitchen table and takes a file from her shoulder bag – 0002847-1: death claim. It's against company policy to take files from the office, but she can't get her work done otherwise. She scans the claim summary: sum assured – two million dollars. God, a payout that big would be like winning Lotto. She sits back to work out how she'd spend two million dollars.
Toni re-reads the slanderous remarks Mr Buller, her boss, has scribbled on the file. How many times has she told him she's not sure it's best practice to put those sorts of comments on record? But he doesn't seem to care. There's a deep ring around the intermediary's name, and he's written: 'Very fishy – decline – suicide, clear as day'.
Toni examines the documents and makes careful notes:
Artemis Inglewood Washburn – born 1 May 1958, Santa Cruz, California.
Occupation – dream maker. Toni underlines this. What's 'dream maker' supposed to mean? How did that get through Underwriting?
Purpose of insurance – security for venture. What venture?
Significant medical procedures in last 10 years – tumour removed (non-malignant) 27 September 2008. Was it definitely was non malignant?
Died Exmouth – 9 August 2010.
Policy taken out – 12 April 2010.
Cause of death (provisional) – multiple injuries; coroner's report outstanding.
Policy owner – Artmor Investments Ltd.
Intermediary – Owen R Huntly.
How could Mr Buller have made those same facts into suicide? Toni sits back in the chair and rubs her eyes. Has he got more experience, or is it just better understanding? She decides that neither explanation is right: her boss is plain wrong, and that's unfair to Artemis Inglewood Washburn, whoever she might have been, and it's unfair to her too.
Even in the dark of the car, Samantha Wu knows her husband is still smiling at his performance, and this lets her relax. She unfastens her earrings and stows them in her handbag. She's already imagining herself in bed.
"It went well, didn't it?" Andy says. "Look, I'm not saying my speech was the Gettysburg Address but–"
"Yes, darling. I told you, it was awesome."
"So, honestly, what did you really think of it?"
"It was – um – very – technical," Samantha says.
"And inspirational," she adds immediately. The streetlights flash across her face as Andy drives. Samantha closes her eyes and inclines her sleepy head away from him.
He wakes her from her doze. "Do 'technical' and 'inspirational' really go together?"
"When you do it, they do." Samantha yawns and squeezes Andy's forearm. She smiles as she remembers the man who'd tried to get her to play bullshit bingo during Andy's speech. Now he's someone who doesn't know the meaning of 'career limiting move'. "What does Rob Hamilton do?"
"Internal counsel – why?"
"He seemed quite amusing."
"A bit of a clown, actually. He asked me if he could change his title to consigliere like in The Godfather. I don't see him surviving long. So, you really thought my speech was both technically accurate – and inspirational?"
"Mmm." Should she tell Andy about Rob Hamilton calling him a Stepford CEO? No, he'd only feel hurt.
"Well, that's great."
Andy's enthusiasm for his new job is sweet. He's like a little boy fired up by the latest collectible cards, but Samantha thinks he's fooling himself. None of the people who gazed up at him as he talked about embedded value and the cost of equity, could guess what a darling he could be when they were alone together. She can't tell him what she thinks – Andy, they didn't care that it was you up there talking. They were clapping the style of the presentation, the numbers, your suit – anything but you, my you.
"Is something wrong?" Andy says.
"Oh, I don't know what it is, darling." She sees him glance across at her. He needs to know more. "All right, these cocktails parties. It's like you're running for president. And you have to do all that handshaking with these weird people, and laugh at their stupid jokes. It's all so fake – I just don't like it."
"No babies to kiss, though," he says.
"True, but lots of sales consultants wearing too much make up and not enough dress."
"Really? I didn't notice," Andy says and gives her a boyish grin.
"Naughty." Samantha taps her husband's knee. But when she thinks back on the events of the cocktail party, it's more than the sight of bosomy young women with their arms around her husband that bothers her. She'd spotted the chairman, Sir Gerald Leet, and his sidekick, Michael Dyer, plotting in a corner. The chairman looks as though he's been disinterred and Dyer's hands, knuckly and mapped with highway veins, were those of a strangler. Sooner or later they will do something nasty to Andy, Samantha is sure of that. She'd approached and hailed them brightly, and, as she'd anticipated, their conversation stopped. She steeled herself and kissed Sir Gerald. She was pleased to see the trace of her vermilion lipstick left on his cold, grey cheek.
And then there was the Salesperson of the Year. He swaggered over to her at the bar, cockily swinging a gilt trophy. He placed it in front of her; he obviously knew what impressed women in these parts.
"Salesman of the Year," he told her, presumably in case she couldn't read.
Samantha tapped the trophy with a polished nail. It was so tempting to scrape off a tiny bit of the gilt to reveal the plastic that was surely beneath. But she knew that sort of behaviour was below the wife of the CEO.
"Very nice, but it says Salesperson," she said.
He ignored her. "Owen R Huntly." He held out his hand.
"Samantha Wu." She held out hers.
"That's an unusual name." She guesses he meant, but you're not Chinese.
"No, the other."
"Ah, it's not that unusual in Singapore."
Rather than shake her hand, the Salesperson of the Year gently pulled it, for a dreadful moment, Samantha thought, towards his lips. She heard the note of panic in her voice as she added, "Yes, my husband is Andy Wu – your CEO."
The Salesperson of the Year did not kiss Samantha's hand but nor did he seem perturbed to learn who she was. He turned her wrist and bowed to take in her perfume. "Well lucky old Randy Andy to have a wife who wears Banlieu by Vichy."
Samantha realised she hadn't pulled her hand away. "That's clever." She didn't mean 'clever', she meant 'outrageous' or perhaps 'creepy', but she thought it was somehow clever all the same. She pulled back her hand.
The Salesperson of the Year could pass as a Greek god. Athletic, tanned and, with his greying gold curls, he was magnificent to look at – but coarse too – and she guessed pretty stupid: just how she imagined Greek gods must have been. But, like Western history, Samantha divides her life between before and after – in her case Andy. Before Andy: well, yes she might have had a fling with a Greek god. After Andy, though, she has her purpose in life.
"I've got to go," Samantha told the Salesperson of the Year. "The CEO's wife must circulate."
"Sammy." There's urgency in Andy's voice as he calls her back from her reverie. "What are you thinking about?"
When they stop at traffic lights, Samantha sees Andy is no longer smiling. She touches his hand as he grips the gearstick. A car screeches to a halt next to them. It revs and lurches in a pool of violet light, and, faintly discernible through darkened glass, four pasty youths stare. Samantha can't tell whether the expressions in the shadows of their hoods are malevolent or admiring. Andy presses the central locking.
"I saw you talking to Owen Huntly," he says.
The lights turn green, and Samantha feels Andy's hand tense on the gear stick. "Leave it, darling." The hoons squeal off in triumph. Andy pulls away slowly from the mark, and the engine growls like a pit bull denied a kill.
"I said I saw you talking to Owen Huntly, our esteemed Salesperson of the Year."
"Oh that–" Andy always winces when she swears, "–vain twit."
"He's very good looking, though." Andy checks her face for reassurance.
"Maybe, if you like that sort of over the top, testosterone dripping, male
thing–" Samantha reins in her animation; she's supposed to be too sleepy to talk.
Andy doesn't seem to notice and says, "Apparently many women do. I hear he's a real ladies' man."
"Not this lady." Samantha leans over to kiss his cheek. "Andy, I'm really, really tired." She rests her forehead against the side window once more. She should tell Andy she loves him, but his constant need for reassurance sometimes drains her.
"Well, Huntly needs to watch himself," Andy says. "One step out of line, and I'm going to nail that MF," he adds in a badass cop voice.
Samantha doesn't respond. So Andy tries again. "If Huntly doesn't watch out, he might just find himself the prey." He glances again at her for approval, as if he's about to say, 'geddit?'
Samantha closes her eyes.
Back in their apartment, Samantha nestles among the cushions on the settee. It's her soft haven in this stark place she so regrets renting. Andy draws the blinds precisely and switches the television on. Samantha covers her eyes against the glare from the huge screen. "Please, turn that down," she says.
Andy mutes the sound. He seems more interested in images than noise anyway. Samantha covers her eyes with a pillow.
"Andy, if you could be anywhere, or do anything, what would it be?" she asks.
"Sorry?" But she knows he heard, and eventually he says, "I don't know."
The faint clicking as Andy flits through channels irritates her, especially as he's avoiding her question. Samantha wants to tell him he's too close to the screen but isn't sure what's wrong with that. "Aren't you going to ask me?" she says.
"I don't think I want to. You make me nervous when you're like this."
"OK, what's your answer?" he says, and turns off the television.
"I don't know either." Samantha takes the pillow from her eyes and fixes him resolutely. "And I don't care, as long as I'm with you."
"Really?" Andy gazes at her; he looks delighted.
"Of course." She holds up her arms, and he comes to stroke her cheek. She moves into the caress like a cat. "Let's go to bed, now."
When the bedroom is this silent, Samantha knows Andy is awake, vexing himself.
"What is it, darling?" she asks. "Please tell me, I'm so tired. I really need to sleep."
"Nothing." The silence deepens before Andy says, "OK. Sometimes I feel like I'm walking a tight rope – the only thing is, I don't know how to do it – but I understand if I stop or look down or think about it, then I'll fall."
Now is the time to show resolve. Samantha sits up. "We should leave here as soon as we can. You should really find something else to do."
"Why do you say that?"
Samantha catches the hurt in his voice. "I don't like these people," she says. "They're all using you."
Andy laughs. "And I'm not using them?"
"I care about you. I don't care about all the others." Samantha switches on the bedside lamp. "Let's go. Andy, I'm serious. You resign tomorrow, and we could be anywhere in two months' time." She shudders at the torture it would be, before she adds, "we could go back to Singapore, be near your parents."
Andy blinks in the sudden light. "Oh, Sammy, imagine how walking away from this would look on my CV."
"It wouldn't matter."
"And it wouldn't matter to you if we lost everything?"
"No," Samantha says, "and besides, I could go back to work, if you don't find something straight away."
"What, go back to having your bum pinched in business class? I'm afraid that's a bit hard to believe." His patronising sigh stings her.
Samantha eyes Andy as he straightens the duvet. "If you really think that, you don't know me." And she snaps off the light, snatches a pillow into an embrace, rolls over, and is asleep before Andy can extricate himself from this first wrong turn.
In the aisles of Liquor Shed, no one competes with Rob Hamilton for a bottle of pinot noir. He slaps a gold credit card on the counter where the notes and coins of student loans are meted out for six-packs of Tui and Raskalnikov vodka mixers.
At home, Rob carves the foil from the neck of the bottle, lines up the point of the corkscrew, and twists to release the genie that will grant his wish of blissful intoxication. But, when he pulls at the cork, the corkscrew snaps. "Jesus Christ." He traces his finger across the fractured metal. "What crap!" After a struggle, he manages to push the cork in with a knife, and pours himself a glass of frothing wine.
The cat pads from his daylong slumber, and arrives, tail high, in the kitchen. He insinuates himself around and between his master's legs, mewling coarsely. Rob stoops to stroke the sagging belly. The cat's name is Oggi. It's not a name Rob would have chosen. He would have called him something ironic like 'Rover' or 'Spot'. But five years ago, his friend Melissa, lawyer to the oppressed, had asked Rob to look after the cat for a while. Like the refugees Melissa represents, Oggi came with his alien name and a long, unhappy story implied. Rob picks up Oggi, careless of the white hairs that always cling to his black jacket. The cat's eyes close, and his body vibrates with depthless joy.
Rob knows he won't speak to another human being for more than half a day. That's just 0.01% of his allotted three score and ten but it adds up when repeated so many times. "Fancy some fish, my furry former-fucker?" he asks the cat. Oggi knows the routine well. He can't contain his emasculated pleasure as Rob circumcises the tin. Oggi lets out a belly deep yowl in anticipation, and claws at Rob's heels. Then the powerful ex-tom hunches, obscenely noisy, over a bowl of stinking fish meal.
Rob downs his wine, pours another glass, and, turns on the radio. He's pleased to hear a familiar voice compere nostalgic music. He flits through the identikit photos and irate residents of the local advertiser. Before dropping it in the wastebasket, he removes the home improvement supplement with its before-and-after roofs and driveways, and, best of all, the curiously pornographic pictures of demure models stepping from showers: this is reserved for the bottom of the litter tray.
The post holds no surprises, but his voice mail tells Rob that his big brother, Chris, will be in Wellington for the weekend, and they simply must touch base.
Rob fills another glass. "'Touch base', eh? Chris, Chris, when will you ever learn? We are not fucking bonobos."