(Dedicated to David and Nicola Cernik Mitchell)
There was no doubt: the ping of my instant message service always made my heart beat faster.
After more than thirty years in investment management, I had grown tired of the chase: more money, more luxury, then emptiness. But every time I got an email, the whiff of a new deal got my blood up, even if I’d stepped back from my firm’s sharp end years ago.
I stared down from my 27th-floor office into mid-town Manhattan, looking at nothing in particular. I surveyed the Hudson River; the bridges, the wharves and the whole mess of humanity in between. I was fifty-seven years old, and held the titular role of Executive Vice-Chairman (no, I don’t know what that means either) in the firm I’d founded twenty years ago. I fished my mobile out of my inside pocket and looked at the screen:
“Jennifer Boyce has viewed your profile.”
A message from LinkedIn, like so many others. The consultants, PR flacks and charity bunnies who wanted my money or time or both. But this was different – it carried the name of a woman I’d desired dementedly, beyond reason, in a time and place now lost to me. Gone from the world, found only in the palace of memory. And this name, this woman: they’d gouged a place in that memory – I could see her now, even though I hadn’t been near her for forty years.
Scotland in the 1970s – or at least, my Scotland – was as far away from bagpipes and tartan as it could be. Other men might get sentimental about life back then, but not me. They might remember fish and chips in newspaper, the contents sharp with salt and vinegar, crisp batter cloaking the fish; walking home half-drunk on bad ale in the freezing night, barely able to see under dull orange streetlamps; or football matches in the rain that always ended in fights.
Others might remember all this with relish. But I remembered the cold. And the boredom; the factories closing, the stench of cheap tobacco, and the faces of the older men from my village. By ’75 the place was long since in decline, and men who’d served their country in World War II found themselves on the scrapheap, the only trade they’d ever known – fishing – stolen from them by vanishing stocks and an unsympathetic government.
Such were the conditions I escaped from, ending up in this glass-and-steel tower on the corner of Wall and William Street. New York, New York, USA. Mr. Graeme Henderson, Executive Vice-Chairman. I’d escaped from Scotland, from its narrow beauty and bowed-minded people to the heights of Manhattan. To success, wealth – and utter boredom.
I clicked on the email from LinkedIn out of curiosity. This particular Jennifer Boyce might be a PR person here in New York. Or maybe from some charity or other: she was probably going to hit me up with a message about alpacas suffering in the hobby farms of rich tech executives.
Before I could look at the email, my phone pinged. A text from Susan, my wife: I’d either forgotten some engagement, or I’d have to stop by the store and pick something up on the way home. Or something about one of our kids. Whatever it was could wait.
Jennifer Boyce was the most beautiful girl at my school. In case there was any doubt, my school was blessed with a lot of pretty girls – or at least, that’s how it seemed to an awkward fifteen-year-old from a fishing community. In contrast to Jennifer’s apparent confidence, I felt paralysed by a sense of inadequacy: bright and a loner, I was distant from Jennifer and her gang, who smoked and dated the boys on the football team or the hard men, the loud, brash bullies. Outside this magic circle, it was whispered that Jennifer and her friends Leigh and Pippa had already “done it” with their boyfriends. Evidence for this claim amounted to the occasional used condom in the school toilets – no evidence really, when I looked back on it, beyond the febrile imagination of frustrated teenagers.
I remembered standing next to Jennifer in a local shop at lunch-time once. Back then, children were less inclined (though not totally disinclined) to steal. Gaggles of them would wait at the counter in bunches to be served. No “two only in the shop at a time”: more like you’d get a kick up the arse from the shop owner if you tried anything. And the old girl who ran the shop must have been sixty at least.
That day in the sweet shop, Jennifer wore the school’s regulation deep blue sweater and a white shirt underneath, her tie carelessly knotted at least six inches below her neck, the top two buttons of her shirt undone, her thin tie knot just visible above the sweater’s V-neck. Standing next to her, I could see the uplift of her young breasts under her clothes, smell the coconut oil in her recently-shampooed blonde hair, a hint of cheap perfume. She had china-blue eyes and a full mouth with skin pinched pink by the cold Scottish spring.
The queue for the counter moved forward. One of us had to go first. I motioned silently to Jennifer to move forward and she smiled at me.
Dave. I blushed when she spoke: Jennifer Boyce obviously didn’t know who I was, even though she had my hormones – and thus, my mind and body – in a noose. I tried to counter their rush by remembering the rumour that Jennifer farted uncontrollably in a Chemistry lesson once, but it was useless. I wanted her, though I couldn’t get a word out. It was all just want. Useless want. Pointless desire wracked me, as rich in my imagination as it was barren in practice.
After that encounter in the local shop, we didn’t speak to each other for months. Despite being at the same school we were light-years apart. Jennifer hung out with sportsmen, smoked and wasn’t interested in class, focused on boys and having fun. I was the opposite – mired in delusions of grandeur, hopelessly ambitious and committed to my schoolwork.
The months rolled by and became first one year, then another. I thought constantly about Jennifer Boyce, felt like throwing up every time I saw her. My heart beat faster when she was around – just as it did when, as an adult, I thought there would be another deal, another sale.
As a boy, I had no understanding of desire, never having had it fulfilled beyond the odd clumsy kiss at parties with random girls who were a bit more drunk than I was – not that it was difficult to be more drunk than a teetotal teenager. At the end of year ten, I passed my exams and went into sixth form; Jennifer failed hers and had to repeat a year.
Leaning back in my leather office chair, which creaked gently as I tilted backwards, I glanced at the text message from my wife, Susan. She would make a Zen poet proud: “Toilet roll. Honey. Ground beef. Almonds. XXX.” I shot a quick text back to my wife with three kisses. A cursive means of saying, “Message received and understood. I will comply.”
As I neared the end of my time at school, I took up swimming to alleviate the stress of my final year exams. By arrangement with the school authorities, I’d been given permission to swim in the morning before starting revision at seven AM. At quarter to six, three mornings a week, I could be found ploughing up and down the tiny thirty-foot pool in the school’s sports complex. My parents let me carry on, supposing it better to swim and study than drink and smoke, habits to which many of my peers were already prone.
I heard that a group of girls also had swimming privileges. Apparently they turned up later, around 7AM, but I was usually long gone: I just left the key beside the door under a brick and headed for the library to work.
One day close to my exams, I heard a noise as I was towelling myself off in the men’s changing rooms. I glanced over at the key, which lay next to my pile of clothes. Then I heard a voice. A girl’s voice, calling.
I wrapped my towel around my waist and stuck my head out of the changing room door. Jennifer Boyce stood in the corridor outside the men’s, dressed in a black swimsuit beneath an unbuttoned overcoat. She wore deck shoes, no socks and had a towel and a bag with her school uniform in it tucked under her arm. She shivered a little. Her body showed tan lines on her neck from the summer sun, her hair a little longer than I remembered it, gold against the white flesh below the neckline of her swimsuit that dipped towards her breasts, their outline jutting forward under the tight suit’s thin material.
She looked at me frankly and I felt that by-now-familiar sickness well up in my gut. The sickness of want. Of need.
“I was looking for the key. Sorry, I’m a bit early”, Jennifer smiled.
“Oh, no problem. I’ve just got it in here. Hold on a sec” – and I turned back towards my pile of clothes while holding the door open, not wanting to be rude. I reached for the key on top of my pile of clothes and grabbed it, then turned back to find Jennifer standing in the men’s changing room. I let go of the door, and we stood there looking at each other.
“Thanks.” Jennifer held out her hand. I proffered the key and she took my hand. Then she held it. Whether she stepped towards me or I towards her, I could no longer remember. We kissed, and I felt a burn from my groin through my guts and up through my pounding heart. I didn’t know, didn’t care, how to kiss. I was need, nature unbridled, emotion and chemicals, battering heart and open mouth, eyes wide shut.
By contrast, Jennifer knew what she was doing. She placed her hands gently behind my head and kissed me again. This time our kiss was long and deep, my arousal more and more evident under the damp towel that covered me from waist to knee. Forty years later, I still remember the stench of the cheap bleach they used to clean the changing rooms. The showers that wouldn’t turn on or off properly. The steam on the windows, condensation gathering in the early Summer morning; the faint tang of piss from the urinals in one corner of the changing room.
Jennifer took my hand and led me to a toilet cubicle next to the urinals. Inside, the cubicle was lit by a single, bare bulb, its weak light hardly enough to allow sight of what you were doing. She drew me in and closed the door, sloughing off her overcoat. Then she kissed me again. After that, she wrangled her arms out of her bathing suit, her breasts springing forward as she peeled the suit down to her waist. Our mouths enmeshed, she slid a hand inside the towel around my waist and it fell to the floor as our bodies grew closer, then touched.
It was my first time, but not hers, and it was over as quickly as you might expect. I could still taste our last kiss afterwards in that stinking cubicle, how it seemed it might go on for ever, as if my tongue and hers were melded in some other universe, jousting and playing endlessly around our mouths. I remembered the dirt in the corners of the cubicle where the cleaners had been careless; the thin antiseptic toilet paper half-in, half-out of its holder. NOW WASH YOUR HANDS PLEASE stamped on every sheet. Then the sound of a door opening – her friends arriving for swimming. And she was gone, exiting the men’s changing room with the excuse to her friends that she’d been in there as the girls’ toilets were out of commission.
Our encounter took place on a Friday – the sixth of June, 1980. The next Monday, I heard a rumour that Jennifer had been snogging a guy from the West of Scotland Schools Select Football XI at a weekend party. Ten days after that, I finished my exams and left the school to take up my first job as an assistant to a broker/dealer in Edinburgh. I never saw Jennifer Boyce again, or spoke to her.
I put my phone down, lifted up my tortoiseshell glasses and rubbed my eyes. Then I replaced the glasses and looked at the LinkedIn page displayed on my desk monitor. It was her all right: Jennifer Boyce. Business Psychology, Consultancy and Communications. Glasgow, Scotland. I peered at the profile photograph, trying to read some life history into what little I could see of her from the posed, yet curiously blurred, photograph. That she had aged went without saying – so had I; so had the world. Her hair was shorter, but still the same colour, tastefully dyed mid-Summer blonde, as if she had never wanted to let go of being young – but who does? Her eyes looked the same. But was she married? Divorced? Happy? Lost?
I scrolled down the page, looking for some clue in her employment history as to who the woman I’d wanted so badly, and loved so briefly, had become. Almost nothing to go on – the usual litany of companies, some of which I’d heard of. No mention of interests or a family, though it was hard to believe she had neither.
I looked down at the mobile phone on my desk with that message from my wife about groceries. I killed the message app and put the phone in my pocket. Then I moved the cursor over the button marked “Connect with Jennifer”, and clicked on it. The desk phone rang – my assistant, with a request for me to come down to the lobby to glad-hand some new clients.
I got up from my desk and headed for the door, feeling the blood still pumping in my veins, my arousal only half-subsided. The sickness of memory. Why had I wanted to contact her? Desire had never diminished in me: it had just been cloaked by bitter experience and distance. That she had looked at my profile suggested she remembered me – but maybe my name had been served up to her like a sick joke by some warped algorithm on LinkedIn.
As I walked out the door, I heard another email ping. I checked my handheld: “Jennifer Boyce has accepted your connection request.” I put the phone back in my breast pocket and pressed the elevator button to take me down to reception, trying to remember this client’s sector of activity. Some kind of Life Sciences investment vehicle, or something. I’d run our Life Sciences book for a few years, so I knew a bit about the sector. And it was a decent mandate – about half a billion. That should buy a few portfolio managers on the floor below me their Lamborghinis– and then they’d find out how much that stuff really means.
The elevator doors opened and the receptionist showed me in to the meeting room to the left. As I walked in, my heart gave a twist when the three people around the table stood up to greet me. There, on the far side of the meeting room, was Jennifer Boyce. If anything, her profile photo had not done her justice: incredibly, she was more beautiful in her late fifties than when she was a teenager, her features ripened; her figure as lithe as I remembered.
Jennifer wore a deep red, thigh-length jacket trimmed with black, a filigree gold chain round her neck with a diamond-studded pendant. Her hair was cut into a bob, its golden tones now richer than I remembered them from our teenage years. Jim, one of our Portfolio Managers, introduced me to her colleagues, then:
“… this is Jennifer Boyce, representing the Association of Scottish Pension Funds…”
I took her hand, my heart cantering as if almost forty years counted for nothing and I was back in the men’s changing room at school. She looked at me and I saw the clarity of those china-blue eyes, her perfect teeth as she smiled.
“Graeme. How nice to see you again.”
“So you two know each other?” Jim was incredulous. “I mean, Scotland is a small country, but what are the chances…?”
“I know”, Jennifer smiled again. “Graeme and I were at school together.”
I listened as Jim began to outline our firm’s understanding of their fund’s objectives. They were looking for high-growth opportunities to offset the impact of low interest rates over a long period on returns. The investments had to be early-stage. High Alpha, with good longer-term potential. All I could think about was our tongues meeting in those filthy school toilets, her body as she peeled down that swimsuit. I felt that sickness again, that sense I hadn’t had in more than forty years.
As Jim went on talking, I felt my phone buzz in my breast pocket. We were at that point where people begin surreptitiously checking their phones and sending emails during meetings. I noticed Jennifer had been fiddling with hers, and asked Jim to excuse me, saying I’d be back in a minute.
I went to the men’s room and splashed some water on my face, drying off with a paper towel. I breathed deeply and was tempted to slap myself, telling myself to get over it. Then I fished my phone out and the e-mail I’d heard arrive. Another one from LinkedIn:
“Jennifer Boyce has sent you a personal message.”
I clicked on the link and LinkedIn’s Messenger opened. Inside the little box were five simple words: “I never forgot you, Graeme. X” Then I checked my look in the mirror, straightened my tie and walked back to the meeting room where Jennifer held the floor:
“… historically, Scottish Funds have been too conservative. We need a manager to open up new areas like personalised medicine and in-vitro cell reprogramming. I understand your firm has a good pedigree. And of course” – Jennifer looked at me, and I saw her pendant glinting in the V of her blouse – “Graeme knows the Scottish market.”
Jim nodded. “That’s true. Graeme is our greatest asset in Life Sciences. I have a presentation to show you – we’ve achieved a gross return of twenty percent” –
“—Maybe later, Jim.” I suggested.
“I think I’d like time alone with Graeme to talk to him about what these Scottish universities’ concerns. Then maybe we could review your general presentation with my colleagues from SeaBird Investments, our US partner?”
Jennifer had just dismissed Jim in the most gentle terms.
“Sounds good”, he said. Then the others got up to leave the room.
“Why don’t you guys stay here? Graeme and I can find a break-out room, or just chat in the hall.”
My heart battered in my veins while I tried hard to remember everything I’d ever read about sample stability maintenance and Scotland’s pension funds. Meanwhile my body burned and I could feel myself harden as Jennifer stood up.
Once we were out in the corridor, she took off her jacket. I asked our receptionist to find us a meeting room and she offered two I rejected before she came up with the smallest, darkest room on our lower floor. I led Jennifer towards the room, listening to her heels on the marble tiles behind me. When we arrived at the room, I opened the door and turned round to let Jennifer in first. She walked in, turning to me, and I noticed she’d undone a button on her cream blouse. She laid her coat on the table and I shut the door. For a split second we stood there looking at each other, and the scent of that bleach from that freezing-cold changing room came to me, the stink of piss from the urinals and a line of poetry from some English lesson when, no doubt, I would have been staring out the window dreaming about the woman who stood in front of me forty years later.
It was time to level with her about the experience my firm had claimed for me on our website. I wanted her so badly I could hardly breathe: I wanted to lean in and kiss her.
“The truth is I”—
But she shut my mouth with a kiss and pressed me up against the door. Then she put her arms around me as I snaked my arms up her back, kissing her lips, her face.
And after that? Life became that morning forty years ago, all over again. Only better.
A 2018 recipient of the British Columbia Writer’s Award in Canada, James W. Wood’s work has appeared in leading journals around the world, including The Times Literary Supplement (UK), The Boston Review (USA), The Fiddlehead (Canada), Poetry Review (UK), and others. Wood has authored six books of poetry, including Building a Kingdom: New and Selected Poems, 1989-2019 (High Window Press, UK, 2019) and a pseudonymous thriller selected for the Rome Film Festival in 2011. He has been nominated or shortlisted for nine literary awards, including the Bridport Prize and T.S.Eliot Prize. www.der-jimmelwriter.com