The Laureate by Tom Conaghan


Short Fiction by Tom Conaghan


At certain times of night, it is hard to know where you are in the hotel complex other than by the carpets. The bedrooms all have the same executive swipe of red, blue and yellow shards. Those in the four restaurants and seven bars are a blue-grey shade with red and white dots. In the health and leisure suites, they are that petrol colour that Laura would wrongly call teal.
Otherwise the corridors are all identical, probably mass-produced somewhere else and fitted together here in the city. I know by counting my steps that in sixteen paces I will come to open the same heavy fire door that has only just closed behind me.

No one here at the Expo ever met Laura, so after vaguely worrying how my indiscretions might be viewed, I am relieved to find it has not affected me adversely. I thought I even recognised sympathy for my soldiering on bravely. I definitely felt sympathetic for myself. Although, as Laura has said, feeling sorry for myself is pretty much my default emotion.
That my self-pity is a cliché I am afraid only makes it worse. As a middle-aged white man, it is all that has been left me. Sometimes I feel like something lounging and overgrown on the savannah; with no natural predators, trying to swipe with such huge slow paws has become comical to the closing ring of others.

Since arriving here, I have had plenty of opportunity for self-pity. I have not made any of the seminars. In fact, until last night, I just lay in bed here. In this direction there are no skyscrapers; from bed all I can see in the daytime is the pulsating haze of sun, fumes and troubled air. At night there is a permanent electric twilight, a phantom radiance from the city below.
In such a position I have spent a lot of time trying to remember when all of this began. I definitely felt its descent at the end of last year. But the root of it, the deeper urge to disassemble, I chart back to years ago, when the last of the kids left for university, when we sold the Hereford place and moved back to London. I could not know it then but this was to begin a time of destabilisation – — at a stage of life I had expected would be mostly one of consolidation.

With my new freedom, I went out a lot, getting back late and generally pretty drunk. As I locked the door in the dark it often felt that the house had assembled itself hastily and was facing the wrong way. I would lie on the sofa and eat toast and watch cartoons, crumbs appearing on my shirt. I knew I had to go to bed but could not, in the grip of an inertia so vast I did not think I would ever be able to switch off the TV or even move again. And then, tired and glum-drunk, I would feel my old infant sense of the eternity of death; a cross-section of the graveyard with me lying under the ground, bored and cooped up for the rest of time.
Which is when I would awake, freezing cold on the sofa in the middle of the night. I couldn’t face getting up, couldn’t face the rest of the house and the deathliness of our bed.

The move to London was good for work though. I became CEO that year – — my commitment to the firm, evenings with clients, my singlemindedness were all seen as positives. I celebrated that night. I remember nothing of it but woke up in the office in the dark.
I walked home drunk; the tube was still shut, and I could not understand the night buses. On the way, I remember I lost the sensation of moving my own legs and felt instead like I was carried on a conveyor belt faster than I could bear.

I was seeing Michelle at the time, the ex-wife of an old friend of mine. I met her often around the area walking a ridiculous Afghan hound. It must have been winter because
I remember those first semi-accidental meetings were by orange streetlight. I jogged loudly, my exhales echoing around the street like the hoots of a steam train.
Since I turned fifty, I have been greatly amplified; my sneezes are explosive and shock passers-by. When I hiccup my sudden clucks, Laura says, are part of the belligerent pall I cast over the house. My midnight peeing is like a storm in a forest. To be honest, I am not unproud of my grand noises.
Anyway, so it was that – — with my ululations and luminous running clothes – — when I slowed to talk to her, Michelle could often not speak for laughter.

Life then was not bad or unhappy or even stressful, so much as just featureless. Maybe it was the valley of a rut; I didn’t talk to anyone in the family except for the mutually appalled shock when the kids called and it was me who picked up. Everything Laura and I said seemed to annoy the other, which we dealt with by mostly not speaking. By the end we only talked to read aloud what we had written in the calendar and even with this she seemed incredulous and stupefied. So yes, naturally I felt open to something that would bring a bit of substance.

Being unfaithful doesn’t feel like anything. Breaking matrimonial vows doesn’t come with a crack of thunder or the ground erupting in flame. I have had three and a half affairs. The first one obliged me to change jobs, the following two and half women all quit (one, I heard later, even emigrated.) I think I experienced something like regret but, when trying for a drunken weep in front of the TV, the only feeling I could muster was an urge to justify myself.

Michelle was a strange one. A thoughtful, assertive, well-read feminist with no self-confidence. Her texts were so convoluted – — “no forget I asked that but no go on is it possible to think” – — that though Laura was reading them, it took her ages to realise we were sleeping together.
She had some sort of skin condition that meant she had to wear special gloves all the time. I initially thought it was kinky but it grew to disgust me. I couldn’t help but check my hands in case I might have caught it off her.
It carried on for six months. About four of those were due to my reluctance to finish it with someone who lived nearby. As opposed to the office relationships, here no one could be forced to leave.
In the end, it was me who had to leave when Laura threw me out. Or rather her brother did, apparently the outcome of an intervention her family had organised for her. He came to the front door when my key failed to open it. He gave me a wheelie suitcase they had packed and said that her prolonged tolerance of me was causing them all trauma. He is a big boy and my decision not to fight him was purely due to my fear of pain and not from any wish to avoid a scene.
After finding out I could not talk to Laura, I berated him for a bit from a distance, eventually leaving when he came out of the porchlight towards me. Nor could I find his car on the street.

I arrived here Wednesday night, and my phone says it is Saturday so, although it all seems unreal, I must have been in this hotel for three days. The opening ceremony was supposed to be on Friday, though naturally I was not able to make it. Since then I have just lain here.

Not living at home affected me less than I expected. I took a private room in a hostel near Holborn. The backpackers came and went but I had my suits all hung up and my Clarins in the ensuite. One night I half remember trying to buy weed off an Italian boy but his English wasn’t up to it; otherwise I didn’t talk to anyone.
This was where I got the news, I was going to be Chair of Judges at the Expo this year. I would give the opening address on the first night and announce the prize on the Saturday evening. It was a big thing.
As befits the traditional culture of our host country, said the email, we hope of course Laura will be with you at top table and in the press photos. There have been TV cameras there in recent years and last year The Sunday Times ran a feature on the prize. The email said to make sure I was ready for any opportunity for publicity.
After I got the news, I started receiving texts from everyone, even people I didn’t know had my number. I remember wishing my parents were still alive.
The first person to actually call me was Laura, which I momentarily thought very magnanimous of her. But of course, she hadn’t heard the news and was instead shouting about something else. She sounded dreadful. I could not even recognise her voice at first and did not reply, thinking it possibly an attempt at some type of identity fraud. When she eventually stopped screeching, she said she wanted to know what poison I had been spreading. Apparently, the kids had taken my side in the whole business; the eldest told her that she had always been a bit mad. I said I had not spoken to them. I thought that maybe they did not know about the previous affairs and were shocked by the sudden split in their parental base – and that they may be onto something.

The new living arrangement suited well while I got ready for the Expo. Being a judge meant a lot of reading and I was able to lay out the scripts in piles around the room. I was a little galled that my own entry to the competition was not in the submissions but I presumed this was because it had to be disqualified when I became Chair of Judges.
Though of course Laura would not be accompanying me. I imagined taking Michelle, but I did not think I could handle her eviscerating self-consciousness for the length of the flight, let alone manage to coax from her something as simple as a smile for a weekend of ceremonies.
However, I must have soon forgotten this decision because my text of 22:39 that night invited her to be “the companion to the Chair of this year’s Expo International.” A stray symbol here and there and a few full stops instead of spaces but otherwise a pretty cogent and highly prestigious booty call.

I only have to enter the hotel bathroom for the toilet seat to lift automatically. But with whatever it is I seem to have it sometimes does not make it up in time.

All the reading for the prize took a large chunk of the year, at least into early summer.
Michelle seemed to be seriously considering coming to the Expo. I wondered if it was a way of punishing me. She sent emojis of luggage – “ready when you are!” – and then later that evening she would say she didn’t think it was a good idea, what did I think, honestly, she needed to sleep on it.

Then there was that ridiculous argument that ended up in court. In a fit of pique I threw some money at someone and was charged with attempt to bribe an officer. I was amazed. Bribery? I said, you’re wasted here. Bouncers and police all seem to lack a sense of humour. A night in Lamb’s Conduit street would not have been too bad but when I called my secretary to call my lawyer, she seemed to have also tweeted something, which was picked up by the Evening Standard, and then by the Mail, and then became pandemic back on Twitter.

So then, after all that reading, the day before we were to discuss our longlist, I got the call telling me I had been taken off the panel. It was Roger who called, although mostly just to complain about Jane for making him call. When I asked him if it was about the arrest he said he was not allowed to say anything much.
They still wanted me to give the opening speech but that would be all of my involvement in the conference.

Michelle blocked my number – which was fantastic to be honest. Better than any course of therapy is the mobile number of an old flame who will never read your messages.

The flight went at 5am on a Wednesday morning so I took a room by Heathrow for the early start. In the bar I met Deborah from Belgium, who had been put up there care of Lufthansa while they redirected her luggage from Naples. Her appetite for drink was impressive and at about 1am, while I debated if there was still any point in me going to sleep, she accepted my invitation to come to the Expo. We had more drinks and took the hotel minibus to the airport. Sat amongst an extended American family I became amorous and Deborah hit me in the ear harder than I have ever been hit before, and said to take my hands off her, she was married. I looked at her, doubly stung, unable to tell if she was serious.

I think I slept on the flight but it felt hectic and exhausting. At some point during the journey I understood that something was wrong. A quotidian discomfort in my kidneys had risen to become an undeniable chill. I looked around for Laura and was resentful that this stranger had taken her place. She had slept in her makeup and was frightening to look at. I slept poorly again and, after we had landed, I stayed in my seat until everyone else had got off. Deborah though seemed in high spirits, and I did not have the wherewithal to be angry when she showed me the tin of cocaine she had inadvertently smuggled in her handbag. All I was worried about was the queue for the toilet; absent-mindedly I imagined that her alarming a sniffer dog at the airport would be the best way to get rid of her.
She seemed undaunted though and instead of keeping a low profile, caused a terrible scene when she accused the passport official of staring at her breasts. She shouted for the supervisor and, when the official tried to explain himself, jiggled her breasts at him. I could not stand fully upright without pain and, distantly, beyond my anxiety, all of this seemed like some gaudy TV show.
At the taxi rank she called the cab drivers thieves and rapists. When they started to get out of their cars, we left the queue, her shouting, me bent over the airport trolley.
She tried to get an Uber but her low rating with drivers back in Brussels apparently prohibited this. In the end the only car we could get without returning to the taxi rank was a pink limousine.
I laid down in the back, scrunched in a foetal ball. She seemed to find it all hilarious and stood up next to me, her top half through the sun roof, illuminated by headlights, shouting “is there a doctor? my husband is dying!”
When the limo stopped in front of the hotel she climbed out through the roof. I slid off my seat onto the ground. Even in the humid night I think I knew I had wet myself. I did not say anything though and managed to turn and shut the car door before the driver noticed.
On the gravel driveway, under the uplit hanging baskets of the hotel, she heaved and pulled at different parts of me, although I could not be moved until the doorman came and scooped me up into the hotel wheelchair. But I was no sooner in than Deborah started up again, shouting that he smelt of alcohol.
Outside, her shouts were lost amid the traffic but, as we went into the hotel, they became suddenly thundering and echoed around the foyer, making everyone in the restaurant turn. A table full of industry guys waved at me, startled. I raised a hand from my wheelchair.
And so, it was in this way that everyone knew I had arrived.
I don’t know when Deborah left but I remember hearing her shouting at the hotel staff when they would not give her a room of her own. She would not stay with this pissy old man, she shouted. I don’t know when she went but I did not see her again. Some time afterwards someone came to the door asking for her – something had been found in her belongings in Naples. He looked around the room and then left.

I did not make the speech that Friday night. I could not stray that far away from a toilet it turned out. The coincidence was dizzying. At possibly the greatest height of my success I had been struck low like a baby, like an animal. I needed to piss nearly constantly. And not just the old sense of need but with an urge that was unbearable, a feeling like molten lava weighing down my gut. Any effort to withhold it was agony.
Being kept as if chained to a toilet makes one given to conspiracy theories; maybe it was not a coincidence; maybe I had been poisoned; the schemers who had taken me off the panel had kept me on the speech to see me humiliated; Laura’s brother had paid Russians to daub me with some isotope.

I don’t know what everybody had been told about me. My arrival had been far from secretive so they would have known I was here. However, no one came to my room and I naturally presumed what with one thing and another I was in disgrace.

That Saturday night, not feeling any better but full of a restless devilry that my prize-giving had started without me, I went down to the “Seattle” bar, with its friezes of the Space Needle and Frasier in his headphones and the blue carpet with red and white dots.
The bar was mostly empty; the ceremony must have started. The piped Muzak was a Nirvana song played on a flute. After the first few drinks, I felt buoyant, cheery for the first time in a while, though perched up at the bar, strangely precarious.
I imagined myself going into the ceremony – sitting at the back, half out of sight, half visible, like some spectre in an opera. I was full of injustice and drink and resolve; soon I was up on my feet, swaying over the dots of the carpet, headed for the conference room.
Within a few paces, I felt a stabbing pain in my insides, and made it only as far as the fire exit sign before I had to lean against a sofa.
I looked around. Another fluted Nirvana song had started. The barman raised his nostrils at me. I did not want to stumble past him to the toilets here. I could not go into the ceremony like this. No, I would go back to my room and my accustomed ensuite.

I must have then gone out a different direction from the way I had entered. The carpets kept their pattern for the length of at least three corridors and then unexpectedly opened up to a cafeteria, “The Danube.” A pile of trays sat at one end of a long metal counter. Along this were rows of vending machines. The only person I could see was in the distance, mopping the floor.
Beyond this, after a few corridors, I found I had opened enough doors to at least get to the bedroom carpeting. The palm of my hand trailed over the surface of the walls. I grew afraid I would not get back in time. This attempt to live normally had been only a pretence – I should not have strayed this far from a toilet.
I grew panicky then and veered off the corridor, through a door onto the fire escape stairwell, hearing my footfalls clapping up the concrete steps. Away from the air conditioning and amid the hot breezeblocks, I could hear the city’s noises. But by the time I got to the third floor the discomfort had grown so much that I returned back through the doors, back to the anaesthetised corridors, the hush and bump of each door and my hunt for a lift.
I could feel myself teeming, swishing with piss, the drips already dampening my underpants. I wrapped my hands over my bladder for some hope of warmth. It was becoming painful to clench this, to push against this hot heaving tide. I was worried that I was doing myself some awful damage, ripping or haemorrhaging something.
There were no landmarks or anything to convince myself I was on a different floor from the one I had left earlier. My panic was such that at some point I started trying my plastic keycard in the bedroom doors. I wondered if I would die like this, after everything my life had promised, tunnelling down to find myself here in this thin trench, each door giving on to nothing more than the next one.
I went past the double doors of Conference room 3. Here the door mechanism seemed to ruminate on my key card for a second, giving me hope of finding a bucket, a pot, an untended water bottle but instead the door just beeped and stayed locked.
I went on, or possibly back, now knocking on doors, no one answering, passing no one in the corridor.
Then there was a noise from behind me. A man’s face appeared in the corridor and quickly withdrew. I lunged back and hammered on the door, leaning on it so heavily that when it opened, I mostly fell on him.
He exclaimed and recoiled, trying to move backwards but not fast enough. I bounced off the door and into the room, the arm I put out to protect myself smacking into his lit cigarette, orange sparks falling from where our hands touched.
I feared he might think me an attacker and defend himself, but he seemed only dismayed, like he was fed up that yet another drunk incontinent guest had burst into his room.
“Please help?” I said from against the wall.
He was a local, in catering scrubs – his bare arms showed tattoos, his collar was open to reveal an intricate medallion and he looked at the blackened end of his cigarette perched, like a strange insect, between his fingers.
“I need a toilet!”
He did not say anything.
“I need to go to the toilet desperately. Do you have a toilet here?”
I held my groin and he frowned at me. He shook his head, held his hands out, but I did not leave: I could not go back out there again. I showed him my hotel keycard. He still shook his head, spoke angrily now, stepped back and gestured to the room. It was dark but I could make out rows and rows of bunk beds.
“Where is your bathroom? Where is the toilet?”
He held his hands out, ushering me to look for one. He spoke more then, pointed in one direction then another and mimed using a key and then wagged his finger at me.
I don’t know what I thought then, maybe that he had a reason to lie that I did not have the language skills to find out. I brought out money and showed it to him; I had not spent any of it. It still had the elastic band around it from Marks and Spencer’s bureau de change.
He went quiet and thoughtful, like a baby, and some painful emotion swept down over his face, making him momentarily glower at my hand and then grimace as it seemed something collected distastefully in his mouth.
He swallowed. His hand gently pinched his fingers around the whole sheaf of money I was holding. We looked at each other and I slowly felt the upward gravity of the notes lifting out of mine. Agonised, desperate, hopeful of the promise of a transaction, I unheld them more and more until they were gone.
Looking only down now, he opened the door to a wardrobe, gestured to it and stepped back.
“What?” I said.
But he would not meet my eye. He gestured again to the wardrobe.
He bowed very low.
I hobbled forward, feeling the right leg of my trousers very wet now, and looked in the wardrobe. The pain had spread out so the muscles cringed as far down as my knees. In the wardrobe I could see material – rugs and blankets I hoped, not clothes – and I looked back at him. He was still next to me, his head still bowed.
I shook my head.
“Is there nothing-”
He exclaimed and pointed, suddenly commanding now. I shuffled forward to bring my feet up to the floor of the open wardrobe. I tried to straighten up, to undo my belt, felt my trousers hot and cold in places with piss, which is when I saw the open window. I think I had already started, definitely had it out, wet and shy in my hand, as I pushed past him, up on tiptoes at the sill, pissing out on the city and all the people without distinction; the guilt, the humiliation, the sense of dying, all dismissed by a relief so intense it was like an equal pain. From below I could hear disturbances but I kept on, some of it pooling on the sill and dripping back by my feet.
God knows how long I was there.
As I went back past him, his head was still bowed and I, no longer bent over, noticed for the first time how much taller than him I was.

I fled out and away, my wet groin now cold where I moved against the air conditioning. I did not know which direction I was going.
Soon, I could hear and feel noises vibrate along the walls and under my feet through the carpet. It seemed they were coming closer. There was rapid drumming of someone running nearer. In the middle of the vibrations I could not make out which direction it was coming from. Had there been a camera in the room? Had the man called someone? The footsteps must have been close-by as now I could hear shouts that sounded more and more like my name.
A woman in a suit appeared at the door. At the sight of me, her eyes widened.
She entered the corridor.
“You did it!” she shouted.
I stopped. I considered trying to outrun her but knew I would be caught at the first door.
She grabbed me by the wrist.
“Come with me!”
The woman’s excitement, that had first seemed enraged, I now saw was drunken.
Her eyes did not seem to be focusing on me very well. They kept slipping off me and away.
“Come on. Quick. They called you.”
“You won. They just called your name. We didn’t know where you were.”
She stopped and looked down at my trousers. My mind raced. The prize. My submission.
We went back, over the carpets, through doors I had not noticed before, the lights in these corridors only coming on as we entered, until eventually we arrived at the doors to the Conference Theatre. My pants stuck against my thighs. My smell was acrid.
As we went, I felt suddenly weary with everything. I bestilled my lip.
Then we came to the doors of the ceremony.
“Ready?” the woman said, suddenly solicitous, but I was already past her and into the hall, making my way through everybody at their tables, clapping loudly, up onto the stage.

Tom Conaghan (Twitter: @tomconagh) teaches English in Tottenham, North London and reads submissions for Bandit Fiction. Before this he worked for Penguin Books. He has a short story forthcoming in issue 50 of Neon literary magazine and a flash piece shortlisted in the STORGY fiction prize anthology 2019.

16 March 2020