FICTION: Cynthia, where are you? by Simon Lowe

It’s an ambient scene, this world, so at ease. Giving up space to be here. Playing dead in the parks, on beaches, pointing at dots in the sky, a dallying sun. Goodness, look at us lolloping for a change! Paused in manic time, re-tuning ourselves for the day. But not so Jenny and Terry. Whilst others play with texture once more, Jenny and Terry have rushed to their office in Central London for an emergency conference. An ill timed mess requires their attention. Such a shame, given this fine tempered start to the weekend; and they have families, disappointed families.

Jenny’s husband, for example, wears technologically advanced fibres; he’s consumed protein and electrolytes, ready for a 100 km cycle; his weekly, luxury disappearance. Now, because of Jenny’s high flying-ness, his Saturday will be counted down, slowed and shared with baby Ella: babbling, bouncing, baby Ella, all bubbles and squeaks for her father, all rat a tat tat on this day of serenity.

Terry uses his weekends to reorganise the minds of his twin sons, to repair the Mon-Fri damage caused by their mother. Pawing through a booming, belching Oxford Street, its pollutants and polythene everywhere, is the last thing he wanted for the day. It is a gift for Vitka, an IED to blow the legs off his bi-weekly custody plea. The boys were supposed to be at a water park. A water park is exactly where these boys should be; having a day to remember. Instead, they are loose in the offices of Hiya-Cynth media, being supervised by a receptionist unknown to Terry, who was more than willing to scoop them up for an hour or two. I will look after them very well, she said, you sort mess out upstairs. Her accent was only a country door or two down from Vitka’s. The boys agreed to send videos, to document their well being. To provide evidence, that may or may not be used in a hearing, that they are enjoying their experience with dad, away from the water park.

A banner of rolling news unfurls along a muted TV screen in conference room Alpha. It says nearly one billion people have registered to participate in Global No Internet Day. A total of twenty billion pounds has been raised so far. To help us cope better with our Age. Jenny and Terry wait for Hiya-Cynth media’s final founder and chief exec, Russell. They would have liked it if Russell had attempted to resolve this one on his own, given the day of the week and their cramped, floor to ceiling existence. After all, Russell is not a family man. His weekends are grassy savannahs in which he is free to roam, to graze and sleep. But Russell, like so many today, has uploaded software and made his internet disappear. He does not know what happened this morning or why there is so much panic at Hiya-cynth media.

‘Has anyone in Legal spoken to the mother?’ says Jenny.

‘Not as far as I know.’

‘She filing a suit, apparently.’

Jenny is receiving updates on her phone. She is being alerted.

‘A suit?’

‘Like in America, I guess.’

‘Any word on Russell?’

‘In Zeus’s, getting coffee.’

‘We were in Zeus’s earlier. The boys stole my breakfast.’

‘Stole it?’

‘I was using my phone at the table, it’s rude apparently.’

‘Seems harsh.’

‘It’s her. I mean stealing because you don’t like someone’s manners, who does she think she is, Robin fucking Hood! I made a recording on the Vitka-dicta. Gary said he’s going to use it at the hearing. It’s pretty outrageous.’

Men have begun talking about Hiya-Cynth media on the television. Terry turns on the sound and they listen to the men discussing the controversy.

‘Did you hear she’s making an album? There’s a famous producer who is desperate to work with her apparently,’ says Terry, checking his phone for a new video from the twins.

‘Something to look forward to.’ says Jenny, ‘I’m guessing it won’t be Songs from the Shows!’

‘It’s Grime.’

‘Better than Grease.’ Says Jenny smiling. How old to be making such jokes! And she, a media person too! ‘I fucking hate Grease. You know Olivia Newton-John was 29, old enough to be Sandy’s mother. Which is gross.’

‘Really? That’s weird.’

Terry does not actually believe Jenny but a solemn disinterest cancels any desire he might have to calculate how improbably young Olivia Newton John would have been had she mothered herself in Grease.

‘Did I tell you Vitka puts surgical masks in the boys cases now.’ he says instead.

‘Why?’

‘The smog. She doesn’t want them breathing the dirty air.’

‘Like Chinese people.’

‘I don’t know, she’s crazy.’

Jenny’s phone is lit.

‘He’s here.’

Nearly here. Russell is in a glass lift, attempting to recall the song he heard in Zeus’s a few minutes ago. The barista with the chipped tooth stood, expecting payment when Russell’s being was taken by a melody, an elegiac, electronically tampered voice, offering purity to his watery insides, almost reducing him to tears in front of a barista who smiled jaggedly without shame.

Now, it has become very important, in his mind, to remember. But how did it go? The words, something like, How long till you…and say…you wait…da da da. It reminded him of other things. Vital feelings. There was an early Takeout album or one of Devil Dry’s bedroom recordings, before they found a studio leaving their souls under the duvet. Russell tries singing a verse but can’t get it right. Other songs interfere. Other songs that don’t matter nearly as much.

‘Buenos dias,’ says Russell placing a giant egg box of coffee cups on conference room Alpha’s giant table.

‘Alright Russ,’ says Jenny.

Terry sniffs for snacks. He wants to ransack Russell’s pockets.

‘Missing the internet?’

‘I am at one with the world!’

‘You won’t be when you see this.’

‘Not Miss Sassy’s usual patois then,’ says Russell.

‘No,’ says Terry, adding sugar to his coffee, for sustenance. ‘And don’t you start with the racism. Jenny’s already claimed all Chinese people wear surgical masks.’

‘No, I didn’t.’

Jenny loads the clip from her phone onto the big television.

‘As good as.’

‘No, I really didn’t,’ repeats Jenny.

‘Patois isn’t racist, anyway, my surgeon was Spanish when I had my knee done. Very hairy, but very good. He told me that.’

‘That’s great, Russ, now you’re not going to believe this,’ says Jenny showing the clip, happy to redirect the conversation.

Miss Sassy, Hiya-Cynth media’s Hey-Ho breakfast host, sits on a bean bag reading messages from birthday cards. She does so with the help of six year old Toby, who takes the cards from a sack and passes them to Miss Sassy. Toby suffers with nerves and lacks finesse. He accidentally rips one of the cards, slicing it in two. Miss Sassy directs a strong criticism at Toby. She frames her criticism with profanity.

‘Ouch,’ says Russell, smiling. ‘That’s hilarious.’

‘Not really,’ says Terry. ‘I think we can all agree. She’s out.’

Jenny nods, continuing to gauge the latest reaction on her phone.

‘It’ll blow over,’ says Russell.

‘Blow over?’ says Terry. ‘Are you serious?’

‘You can say anything on Global No Internet Day. No one’s bothered.’

‘Russell, we’ve received three thousand complaints,’ says Jenny, unsurprised by Russell’s relaxed reaction. ‘The regulator will fine us massively.’

‘That’s nothing. Miss Sassy brings in a big audience share, she’s popular, we shouldn’t rush to a decision.’

‘Jesus, Russ,’ says Jenny, closing her eyes to avoid her own exacerbation. Her phone is lit with a picture of her husband, resting against a fence next to a bike, appearing happier than she’s ever seen him.

How long r u going to be? Ella won’t eat anything? Can’t you fire sassy and come home?!

My friends, if I can call them that, say I should relax. In their combined opinion, he is no different to any other, it is better to leave it, ignore him, if you can. This is what they do. But should I be so accepting of his shitty-ness? Before we got married, when we knew roughly the same about each other as we do now, we took a trip to Amsterdam. I was hoping, with clitoris crossed, for a weekend of romance. I even took him to the red light area, for inspiration! I suggested we hire bikes, follow the river, find the Art, a cosy candlelight before kicking off bedsheets in the hotel. He preferred eating hash brownies in the cafes; this was his reason for going, to snuggle and giggle, to go happily insane. Now, riding a bike is all he wants to do. He has a garage full of them. I can’t get him off a bike now, in the same way I couldn’t get him on one then. I would rather he ate hash brownies, that would allow my expectations to dip and plateau enough to allow a little happiness to sneak in.

Finally, the boys have sent another video.

They are outside on the decking, playing with sand from the troughs intended to extinguish cigarettes. They seem happy enough, a little stupefied, a bit dead behind the eyes, but what’s new there! The receptionist seems very competent, she’s keeping them in check. What have they got now? Oh, it’s an umbrella, one of those big ones, now they shouldn’t really be holding that… ah good, she’s telling them, wow, she’s really telling them, ha, good for you. Very young isn’t she? All that blonde hair. I wonder if she might prefer to be a nanny than a receptionist. She could stay a few nights in the week if I get custody. She seems to have the knack that’s for sure. What would Vitka say? Can I afford a nanny? It would be good though, wouldn’t it? To surprise Vitka with a live-in nanny, from Eastern Europe no less! Ah, they’re waving at me, blowing kisses, going back inside, good kids really, it’s tough for them, not that they seem to know much of what’s going on. If Jenny and I could persuade Russell to sack Miss Sassy we can go, maybe the nanny would like to join us for lunch? I could take her to Zeus’s, they know me in Zeus’s. They call me by my name and ask how I am, in Zeus’s.

‘We need to consult with someone from legal,’ says Russell. ‘Before deciding on anything.’

‘Obviously,’ says Terry, frustrated that yet another layer of tape is being added to the parcel.

‘Where’s Miss Sassy now?’ asks Russell.

‘At lunch, we’ve got a team looking for her.’

‘And legal?’

‘Jason’s on his way.’

‘Not Brinfield.’

‘He was the only one who answered.’

‘He’s so weird.’

‘He’s young, that’s all, eccentric.’

‘Nuanced, is the correct term. Assuming it’s some sort of autism.’

‘His signs off emails as the Legal Eagle.’

‘Eddie the Legal Eagle more like.’ Terry laughs independently at what he believes is a good joke, one he can re-use on the new nanny later, perhaps, assuming she gets the reference.

‘You don’t have to be John Grisham to know she’s got no legal footing, if she had any sense she’d resign.’

‘I’m telling you, no internet day, anything goes.’

‘That’s stupid,’ says Jenny.

‘It doesn’t matter if it’s stupid.’

‘It’s our Age.’

All friends have a heyday, ours was the first year of the radio station, when Cynthia was still around. I got to DJ and play my demos in the hope some moneyed mogul was out there listening. Jenny and Terry came to all my gigs; Jenny dancing like an injured giraffe whilst Terry stood at the bar, telling everyone I was going to be the next big thing. I think he believed it too, they both did, it certainly felt that way to me. It was only when Cynthia left that we started to behave differently with each other. The business grew, and none of us knew how or why businesses grew. None of us knew how to be like Cynthia. I should have continued with my music, they should have insisted I continue with my music. To them, I am different, unencumbered, undaunted: useless euphemisms for being gay. I wonder if they ever

considered me as anything else. I spent weekends with their kids, relieving the domestic strain of their inexplicable relationships; I was best man, a wedding planner, ensured drinks were taken every Friday. Yet, they did not attend my engagement party. They wouldn’t even remember his name. Confused by my great sadness at his infidelity. Why was I taking it so hard? It wasn’t real after all. Not as real, anyway. It’s true, I have never wanted what they have, but I am tired of them assuming I cant have it. And that song, the song I need, is only echoes now, almost gone.

Jason has an open laptop cradled in his arm like some fucked up dad of the future, sneering wonderment. He is also holding a drink with a straw.

‘I guess this is why they pay me the big bucks,’ he says, skipping into conference room Alpha. ‘Morning gang!’

‘Yes, well,’ says Jenny. ‘I hope this will be a formality Jason.’

‘I’m live chatting with Miss Sassy now,’ says Jason.

‘Where is she?’ says Russell.

‘I can’t say.’

‘Why not?’

‘Client confidentiality. Listen gang, at this moment in time Miss Sassy is still an employee at Hiya-Cynth, I represent her needs as well as yours. Currently Miss Sassy does not want to be found. I have to respect that but I’ve been led to understand you have people looking for her, that’s an aggressive move. Very aggressive. Miss Sassy is feeling fearful right now, afraid for her safety.’

‘They’re runners, Jason,’ says Jenny. ‘Not assassins.’

‘Still, my client would like you to call off the dogs.’

‘Dogs? Please,’ says Terry.

‘Fine,’ says Jenny.

‘I’ll turn the mic on so you can direct any questions you have to Miss Sassy yourselves.’

‘You’re fired,’ shouts Terry. ‘Can we go now?’

‘On what grounds?’

Miss Sassy is in Jason’s earbuds.

‘For heaven’s sake! says Terry. ‘You can’t use offensive language on kids TV, it’s a sackable offence. It’s quite simple Sassy.’

‘Offensive to who though?’ says Jason, nodding to confirm this is a good question posed by Miss Sassy.

‘The general public,’ says Jenny.

‘My client believes there is a question of cultural relativism when interpreting language.’

‘I’m sure she does. Can we not just to speak to her ourselves, face to face?’ says Russell.

‘Cultural relativism? Is she serious? Are you serious?’ shouts Terry.

‘There is no online petition demanding her removal,’ says Jason.

‘So, what does that matter?’ says Jenny.

‘It’s Global No Internet Day, the impact is not going to be anything like…’

‘Don’t you start,’ says Jenny. ‘We’ve had four thousand complaints. The regulator has ordered a review, they could revoke our license. I’m sorry but you really messed up this time Miss Sassy.’

‘Could we chalk it up to naivety?’

‘Who’s saying that Jason? You or Miss Sassy?’

‘Hands up, yes, that was me,’ says Jason, ‘but it would be the most amicable solution.’

‘Amicable? She hasn’t even apologised,’ says Jenny.

‘Perhaps we could look at the competency of these assistants. Toby did rip the card in two!’

‘Fucking hell, is that you again Jason,’ says Russell.

‘Actually gang, I won’t lie, Miss Sassy has left the chat, her salad arrived. It’s a sensible choice in this weather and there’s nothing worse than talking with your mouth full so let’s all take five shall we?’

‘Je-s-us,’ says Russell.

Terry receives another video from his boys. They are in the back office, behind the reception desk.

I can’t see the nanny. Wait, there she is, in reception, on the phone. I suppose she’s juggling two jobs, we don’t want her to face the sack too! The boys seem typically subdued on the computers, dumbfounded in front of a screen as usual. Now they’re laughing, ha, must be very funny, they’re pointing and laughing, most unusual. Here she is, greeting them with a smile, what a lovely smile! Oh, whoops, the boys must have been looking at something they shouldn’t, she’s turned the screens off and is waving a finger. They won’t be doing that again! Great idea, she’s brought out flip chart paper and some markers, she wants them to make art, wonderful, I hope Vitka can see this, our boys making Art! I hope the nanny agrees to live in and won’t mind being in the spare room. I could paint it tonight, make it special, who doesn’t love the smell of fresh paint! I could ask what her favourite colour is, I’ll paint it tonight! The boys are waving goodbye, blowing kisses again, now she’s blowing kisses, blimey, she’s blowing me a kiss!

‘Everything alright Terry?’ says Jenny.

‘Fine, just checking on the boys.’

‘They downstairs are they?’ says Russell. He hasn’t seen Terry’s twins in months, possibly years.

‘Yes, with the new receptionist.’

‘Ah, Mitka.’

‘What?’

‘Mitka, the new receptionist.’

‘I didn’t know her name.’

‘Bit like Vitka.’ laughs Russell.

‘Not really,’ says Terry.

Wait, that’s it, ba ba ba, I wanna believe in your love to ba ba feel your love da da within me – today bu dumb dum, I wanna believe in your love to feel your love within me today. Soaring synths, double tracked vocal, so beautiful!

‘Merry Adams,’ says Jason.

‘Pardon?’ says Russell.

‘The song you were singing.’

‘I didn’t know I was… who is it?’

‘Merry Adams, Believe In Your Love, it’s a good song, currently number 15 in the charts.’

‘It’s a great song,’ says Russell. ‘Merry Adams, wow, I’ve never heard of her.’

‘She was a club singer, took years to get signed. Too embarrassed to play her own songs.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because I love music,’ says Jason, as if this were obvious.

‘Sounds shit,’ says Terry.

‘Like you would know,’ says Jenny.’

‘Look has she finished her salad yet, this is ridiculous,’ says Russell.

‘We need Cynthia,’ says Jenny.

‘The legendary Cynthia,’ says Jason.

‘I still don’t see why we can’t sack her and go home,’ says Terry, thinking he might get a first coat on the walls before tea time.

‘It’s very complicated,’ says Jason.

‘Why is it?’ says Terry.

‘There’s the product placement revenue. You would have to pay the remainder of her contracts.’

‘What product placement?’ says Jenny.

‘Miss Sassy has clothing sponsors, jewellery, makeup, footwear. She is under contract to wear these products. These are large contracts. They would have to be paid in full.’

‘She gets paid to wear clothes!’ says Russell.

‘Oh yes, she’s a brand ambassador. It’s better than sticking them on a mannequin in a shop. Also, there’s the issue of shares.’

‘What shares, Jesus Jason, could you not have mentioned this before?’

‘Miss Sassy owns 12% of Hiya-Cynth media.’

‘Wait. What?’

‘Miss Sassy’s company, KillBill is a major shareholder. You would be required to purchase these shares if it’s gross misconduct, otherwise, she’s protected, as a key stakeholder.’

‘She has her own company? How old is she?’

‘Twenty three, how old were you?’ says Jason.

‘That was different, that was Cynthia,’ says Terry, ‘ Miss Sassy is no Cynthia.’

‘I’ve received a message from Miss Sassy. She can’t live chat, a plum mousse is about to arrive.’

‘What does she say?’

‘Interesting. It’s a real confessional. She accepts children’s TV is not her best platform.’

‘Finally,’ says Terry. ‘Common sense prevails.’

‘And she admits it will be very difficult to work at Hiya-Cynth media as things stand.’

‘Agreed,’ says Jenny. ‘I’m sure we can make arrangements without too much fuss.’

‘As a result, Miss Sassy is suggesting that KillBill buys your controlling 51% stake allowing you to walk away. She wishes you well in your future endeavours.’

‘The nerve,’ says Jenny.

‘Is she mad?’ says Terry.

‘More to the point, is she serious?’ says Russell.

‘I’ll tell her thank you, this is a lot to take in, I hope your plum mousse goes down nicely, and we’ll get back shortly with a verdict. Would you like me to check the current value of your shares gang?’

’I already have.’ says Jenny. ‘I had no idea we were worth so much.’

‘Hang on, are we considering this?’ says Terry.

‘God I wish Cynthia was here,’ says Russell.

‘Perhaps we should take a minute to digest the proposition.’ says Jason. ‘Phew. To think I was heading to a Roman spa before you rang this morning! Isn’t life funny?’

Russell has borrowed Jenny’s phone and is sat on a lemon scented toilet with Merry Adams in his ears. He thinks about her career, the struggles, the fear, but she carried

on: unlike him, she stuck with it. And this song, it’s the sort of song he would write, the sort of song he did write before Cynthia left. The comfort he felt in Zeus’s came from a connection to Merry, a psychic commonality. She is reaching out to him. She is telling him to try once more. To do it all over again.

Jenny has stepped out to get some air, if Oxford Street still has any that is. When they decided to leave London, it wasn’t to get away from the metropolis, or a bigger house, or schools for Ella or any of that. It was a reflex. Her finger was trapped in the ridges of common behaviour. All that money. How strange that she will not to tell him- she will not tell her family. She will put a cloth over her secret pot of gold. She will be that person she knows from films, the breadwinner who loses their job but is too ashamed to tell their family so they continue to travel into the City each morning with a packed lunch, a thermos of coffee, a deceitful peck on the cheek, and they sit on a bench in a park until home time. Only she wouldn’t be sad doing this, she won’t be ashamed, she will like it. To be on her own, in a City, with nothing to do except sit, give thoughts a place to play daftly all day long. And she won’t bother packing a lunch, she will buy whatever she wants from Zeus’s, everyday.

Terry is surprised to see there is no one in reception. Then Mitka emerges from the toilet and smiles a wonderful smile in his direction. He wants to ask her about furniture, to see if she needs a wardrobe or would she settle for a chest of drawers in her room. He enquires about the whereabouts of his boys. Mitka finds this funny, thinking they are in the back office still. She says they were making banners. Banners? Terry asks. Saying what? Mitka doesn’t know. She has been busy on the desk. Many journalists want a good story, she says. You’re mess, they have lots of interest in. I tell them to go away.

Terry has a video to watch.

Where are they? That’s the street, why are so many people looking in? Oh it’s the gallery, quite a crowd. Here they are and look, laughing again. That’s good to see, and here’s their banner, they’ve stuck it on the window, they’re displaying their art! Why not, it must be good, that really is a big crowd, most of Oxford Street are looking in, ha, look at them jumping up and down, I’ve never seen them like this, their giddy, can’t wait until Vitka sees this, I bet they’ve never been this jubilant with her. I should go and see them, pick them up and kiss their cheeks! My wonderful boys.

Jenny walks to the shoppers side of Hiya-Cynth media where there is a bench next to the public gallery space. She has decided to find a new bench to sit on every week. There are lots of people looking in, they must have commissioned something controversial, some modern art, everyone has their phones out, why are they filming? Jesus, that’s Terry’s twins, what are they doing, they’ve written something on the window, they’ve… Jesus, they haven’t.

The boys banner is decorated with ripped birthday cards, fluttering like over fed butterflies around the hugely written words – TOBY IS A STUPID CUNT

And when the world wakes tomorrow, information will zoom and ping and hector us again. A firing squad that lay down it’s weapons for one day. Allowed us to escape, but we just stood there, waiting, bored and ready, suspecting immortality.

glasses

Simon Lowe

Photo on 12-07-2018 at 11.46

Simon Lowe is the author of one previous novel, ‘Friday Morning with Sun Saluki‘.

sun

He sometimes writes about books for theguardian.com.

https://www.theguardian.com/profile/simon-lowe

If you enjoyed ‘Cynthia, where are you?’ leave a comment and let Simon know.
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