The taxi pulled up outside Granita and Trellis and Milton-Houghton piled out. Trellis paid the cabbie; he would put it on expenses. Milton-Houghton habitually straightened his tie. He was old school and wouldn’t dream of dining out in public with a lady incorrectly attired. It all added to the theatre of life anyway, with which he was well-versed after decades at the bar. Whatever women claimed about liberation, equality or feminism, being a gentleman was an honour and a blessing, he knew it. He also knew Mary liked him whatever kind of punk appearance she put on and right-on mush came out of her mouth, but then factoring in the myriad of blokes out there and their proclivities he could hardly blame her or any other female for getting stroppy and giving as good as they got.
Gathering his thoughts yet simultaneously readying himself to put them aside all the better to begin an all-out offense on Park and Slacker, Milton-Houghton cleared his throat and exhaled the far from fresh air. He glanced through the plate glass window and caught the eye of an arresting-looking young woman he immediately knew must be Mary. With typically suave assurance he nodded to acknowledge her as Trellis graciously held the door for the more senior man. He strode into the restaurant and raised his arm in her direction.
Mary, who was not without manners, pushed her chair back and rose to her feet to begin the customary exchange of pleasantries which would kick start the lunch. If Trellis had been wearing a hat he would have doffed it. Instead he nodded, politely accepted a menu that was being already being pushed in his direction and pulled up a chair. The three of them shared an almost co-conspiratorial silence and then Mary, in spite of herself, giggled.
‘Congratulations!’ offered Peter.
‘I haven’t had a baby!’ replied Mary.
‘No but all the same.’ interjected Milton-Houghton.
‘It’s not the same!’ laughed Mary.
‘You must be very proud all the same, a two week run at the Almeida. That’s no mean feat.’ Trellis asserted the plain facts.
At that she nodded. She was the toast of the town and she knew it. False modesty could go hang, but why did Milton-Houghton and Trellis want to wine and dine her? Trellis, well he was in effect her boss, so that made sense, but what was Milton-Houghton’s interest, she knew who he was, just, like everyone else she could look it up on the internet, and yes he was a veritable grandee. She supposed that she was to be enlightened over the course of a pleasant lunch, South African steak or none. She gazed, slightly quizzically at the older man. Correctly interpreting the expression on her face for curiosity Milton-Houghton mustered all the assurance and authority of his back ground, education and privilege and pronounced:
‘We are going to have a lovely lunch. Business comes afterwards, please my friends.’
This was inevitably the cue to begin enthusing over the menu which was nothing if not ridiculous.
‘Have what you want.’ he added, by way of explanation, ‘Peter is paying!’
‘True, it is my turn.’ Trellis smiled, ‘But next time we’ll meet at Rules. Okay?!’
‘I love shell fish!’ enthused Mary.
‘You want Sheeky’s for that sort of thing.’ Peter informed her, ‘the chef here is from New Zealand; he does amazing things with offal. Although as you are from South Africa I suppose it is biltong all the way with you. Nights around the brie staring out into the savannah.’
Mary grinned. What stereotypical views people had of her country!
‘It’s a very beautiful country, indeed.’ she offered politely. Thankfully no one countered this with an observation regarding Mary’s visage and so she was spared the embarrassment of having to pretend she had no idea what they were getting at. It was true to say the hair and piercings generally put off more generalised observations on her looks, for which she was thankful, although the slew of aggressive diatribes that could be counted on from the pit of the internet when ever she pronounced on the issues of the day, obligatory as a ‘micro celebrity’ on what ever was the bush telegraph of the moment, never seemed to abate.
Naturally she made liberal use of whatever facilities there were to ‘block’ such pests. Mary could not fathom the frame of mind that decreed that the best thing to do with the trolls was to fan their flames or to ‘expose’ them. It gave them the oxygen of publicity, which they craved, off the back off their ability to insult or complain, current synonyms for ‘engage’ or ‘interact’. As she was in ‘show’ business she accepted that there inevitably must be some exposure, but for the life of her could not understand the eagerness of the politicians of the day to embrace such platforms.
In reality they needed some sort of attached communications officer to manage their on-line presence but the diy ethos of web 2.0 and ease of entry made every plonker with a smart phone a producer of meeja and the trend seemed to show little sign of reversing for fame hungry politicians or indeed anyone eager to be digitally ‘included’. The fact that such ‘inclusion’ was basically a ball and a chain seemed to have passed most people by and the revenues this constant clicking generated for the Silicon Valley billionaires went largely untaxed and unremarked on, such manifestos as Lazzarato’s immaterial labour an obscure foot note to a national public life which was to all intents and purposes running on fresh air.
It was the sort of ‘free at the point of use’ ethos that made the National Health Service so loved but of course someone is paying for the thing or stuck in the galley heaving the oars, she made a mental note to ask Milton-Houghton if he had any connections to the Coltan mining industry just as soon as they had finished the cheese course. Whatever the huffing and puffing about ‘modernisation’ there was nothing particularly modern about open cast mining or the eager scramble for minerals, which were the lifeblood of the silicon endeavour. At least she was fairly sure she would get some sort of informed hearing from Milton-Houghton in this regard. Her time at SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies) had bequeathed her a glaring knowledge of the world’s inequalities and lunch with one of the leading lawyers of his generation was sure to reveal some choice insight that she might not have considered before.
‘Three weeks until ‘Backlash’ opens then!’ Peter opened his napkin onto his lap and smiled at Mary. ‘I think that deserves a toast!’
The serving staff appeared as if magically and filled all their glasses, a respectable quaffing’s worth but hardly up to the brim. These receptacles were actually like gold fish bowls. Mary supposed she would be drunk by the end of the meal or at least tipsy and started to fret about making her way back to her current Airbnb billet.
So, Peter put it to her straight: ‘How do you know what you know?’
Mary took a deep breath and got ready to recount her tale…
‘When I came to this country I started working as a stripper to help pay the rent. I met some really interesting people, you could say it was one big sexy family. One of those people was Maybelline Rose, you might have heard of her. She is a long time associate of Douglas Park, any way I became friendly with Maybelline She’s a great woman and really showed us newbies the ropes in terms of doing that sort of thing to get by. The thing was she has seen it, done it and got the t-shirt, she knew all the wrinkles, how to tell when it was going a bit potentially wrong with the punters, how to extract the bigger tips, where to keep the money we were earning when we were working, which might sound a triviality but was anything but, where do you keep money when you are barely clad, you might glibly suggest stuffing it up an orifice but it’s a serious problem. So I was very glad that Maybelline had decided to take me under her wing. I mean where I was working, at a place in Shoreditch, the people who were running the establishment were pretty good but generally working conditions did leave a bit to be desired. Secondarily you might take the somewhat censorious line that I didn’t strictly need to be performing strip tease to make ends meet, I mean you know about my family, right?! I have money behind me. But I have always wanted to do my own thing, to be my own person and actually, once you had figured out the pitfalls to being a stripper the money was excellent and great flexibility too. I could go to lectures at SOAS, do my reading, pay rent and bills, meet a really interesting cross section of the population and so long as I could turn up look half way alluring and perform a more or less acceptable version of the burlesque my whole set up could be kept ticking over, and I have dance training too and all the sport in the childhood, I mean I am pretty much an athlete, which you have to be. So it was the perfect solution to my quandary at the time, which was that I didn’t want to be cap in hand to my father and whatever his expectations or ideas were for me.’
‘Was it ever an issue regarding any of your tattoos? Short hair?’
‘You are insinuating I look like a lesbian! I know you men from your social class and generation. No never, I mean I have great tits and they more than compensated for any short fall there might have been in the glamour department vis a vis my bouffant, that era of glamour girls such as Lusardi, Sam Fox and who ever with what I would call ‘the seventies look’ has not entirely defined the market for show girls and besides at that point I was not such ‘the finished item’ you see before you today, I was much more girlie. Part of the reason I cut my hair so short in the end was because of the attention. It got too much and I didn’t really want to have to be relying on a fella or any kind of ‘heavy’ if things got out of hand. I wasn’t looking for the limelight and still am not.’
It might have been the case that ‘Backlash’ was enjoying a packed run and Mary was the toast of the town but as the saying goes you are only as good as your last hit. So Mary was eager to commence work on the follow up, the somewhat curiously titled ‘Rather Them’. Taking as its inspiration the molestation of scores of girls from government care homes in the Oxfordshire area, Mary was mining a grimy seam that the likes of Loach had done so well for decades and to considerable public acclaim.
It seemed there was no end to the way the chattering classes liked to wring its hands over the misfortunes of the lower orders and to pat itself on the back at its ‘response’ to their plight. Well if Mary could save one troubled teenager from the clutches of a dirty old man the ends more than justified the means. She clutched her wine glass in appreciation at the notes of gooseberry shot through with straw and glanced over at Milton-Houghton in a manner she hoped was not too simpering.
As if on cue he intoned:
‘Next project, Mary?!’
Mary lowered her eyes once again in faux modesty and gathered her thoughts, which were slightly floating after a good glass of white wine.
‘Dickie, I think I told you, I am working on the aftermath of the Rotherham affair, the play will be called ‘Rather Them’, I aim to do for the troubled teen what ‘Cathy Come Home’ did for the homeless back in the sixties. Secondly there is no one else around at the moment who is prepared to tackle this subject.’
‘On account of the men being Asian.’ interjected Trellis.
‘Correct!’ shot back Mary.
‘So maximum controversiality hopefully without causing too much out and out offence.’ the Lawyer remarked.
‘Absolutely.’ Dead panned Ms Mary Slacker. And on that note Trellis realised he had better book up the Almeida for a little longer.