According To Mark (extended extract)

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According To Mark (extended extract)


Memory can prove incongruous, bereft of logic, order irrelevant. I’m struggling with the correct chronology but perhaps it’s okay to piece it until the whole forms.  I’m finding it’s the details that take precedent. You can mislay whole chapters of your life but never forget particular lines. Certain things sting. They cement. They’re an easy recall.  I can remember the workplace.  I can remember the day. I can remember the words...

“I enjoy seeing my wife in just her bra, how about you?”

I have an office job. I work in payroll, which is a strange expression. I don’t actually ‘work in payroll’ I work in an office where we (mostly I) produce the payroll. I’m thinking about that job now and I realise the reason I am being pedantic is partly because I can often be pedantic but mostly it’s because I do not enjoy working in payroll, or working in an office where we produce the payroll. Not any longer; I have a new boss. A new and loquacious boss.

“I enjoy seeing my wife in just her bra, how about you?”

His name is George. And he’s been trying to destroy me. He’s been grinding me down. Systematically chipping away. Inexorably crushing. Today is his cruellest assault yet. And cleverest. Today he hits me with that devastating over–share.

George has effusive facial hair, and not only that, George has taken exams in payroll. I did not know payroll exams even existed before George arrived but apparently they do and that may explain his salary and the fact he has been awarded a company car. Not only did I not know that payroll exams existed but had I known payroll exams existed I would have been unable to imagine the type of person who might wish to sit payroll exams. I do not have to imagine any longer.

George has just returned from “the washroom” (that’s how he refers to the toilet) and obviously assumes it’s acceptable for him to confide.

“I enjoy seeing my wife in just her bra, how about you?”

Just like that. No warning, no preamble, no pretext, nothing. I notice his hands are still dripping.

“I… I’ve never met your wife.”

“Hey! Steady on. Cheeky. No, I meant your girlfriend.”

He wipes his paws on the front of his rigidly pleated grey trousers. I notice there are curled hairs around his knuckles.

“You… you want to discuss… my... girlfriend...”

“No, well, yeah – you know. I just meant you know, do you like…”

“She’s a vegetarian.”


“And she collects antique china.”

“Oh. Right. No, I meant do you like to see her…”

“She searches the charity shops for curios.”

His wet hands have left damp prints on his thighs. I’m appalled and unwittingly reminded that for some inexplicable reason he refers to his trousers as “slacks”. And that there is no excuse to mention your trousers in the office. At all. Ever. I want him to stop talking but he doesn’t.

“OK, but how do you prefer…”

“And she likes books.”

He’s still standing. Slack stained and proud.

“Yes, but…”

“Difficult ones.”

“I was asking about what you…”

I wish he’d sit down. I wish he’d shut up. He doesn’t do either so I have to keep talking. I have to deflect.

“She rates Jane Austen above E. L. James.”

“Yes, but…”

“And she has her refuse collected on a Wednesday.”

“But do you like to see her…”

“Recycling is on Thursdays.”

“Do you have a favourite thing she…”

“Green waste once a month.”

I’m desperate for him to sit down. I’m suppressing a screech.

“I was just asking about you know…”

“For bulkier items you have to ring the council.”

“I was just wondering if…”


“Oh. I was just curious…her name’s Rebecca isn’t it?”

“BE QUIET! Please! For the love of Marigold, please…”

“Hey now, don’t talk to me like tha… remember I’m your superior.”

“Supe..? Oh Christ, you actually believe you’re my…”

“Well, I am the Payroll Director.”

“You’re… yes… yes you… you are… you honestly truly are…”

He does sit down. Finally.

I left then. I exited. I had no other choice. My turn to visit the washroom.

When I got there, I chose cubicle 3 and sat with my head in my hands. And I don’t know how long I’d been there but eventually I was not alone. I sensed Mark Twain’s jocular presence a mere moment before I received his gentle taunting. His teasing whisper in my ear,

“There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist.”

Fair enough – I must have looked a sorry state; midnight–blue underpants round my ankles and goosepimples on my thighs – it was a poor venue for a prolonged melancholic slumping. I asked Mark Twain what the answer was. (I thought it was worth a try.) He answered immediately; he didn’t avoid the question or even ask for clarification of what exactly the question was. I liked that. He just gave it to me straight,

“It is an odious world, a horrible world – it is Hell; the true one, not the lying invention of the superstitious; and we have come to it from elsewhere to expiate our sins.”

And even though his answer arguably wasn’t the answer, it was an answer, and an answer that gave me explanation rather than comfort. But that was semi–soothing too. I liked his honesty. Of course I did, I very much liked him. And at least he’d been listening. I liked that too. And I liked the word ‘expiate’. I’d forgotten what it meant but I would look it up when I went back to my desk. I felt better; Mark Twain knew how to put things in perspective. How to state the truth and not be bowed. He gave me strength. I thanked him and hitched my trousers.

When I exited the cubicle Liam from accounts turned from his point position at the urinal. He gave me the sly–curious look.

“Who were you talking to in there?”

“Me? No one, what are you on about?  All those numbers must be crunching your mind.”

Mark Twain’s whispers cannot be heard by others. He has chosen only me and consequently I am proud, I am grateful and I am protective. And I was not about to explain. I have no desire to share. Liam wears brogues and knows little about me but by nature he is cautious and prudent. I am aware of his type and so I gave him the Dagenham stare.  He immediately quietened, turned his head and refocused on his aim.

On the way back to the Payroll Department (deciding to take the long route past Marketing and PR) part of me wondered was I overreacting – was I perhaps being unfair? Was I being too quick to judge and despise? Part of me recognised I had been curt with Liam and part of me was part–ways prepared to doubt my righteousness re. George. I even gave it some thought – here you go, have some, it’s yoursas I re–directed and took the very long route back (two circles of the quadrant lapping Accounts and HR as well as Marketing and PR) before finally bracing up and re–entering Payroll. Room 313. 

I’d considered how some men find it hard to bond with other men and admittedly ours was a strange blurring of power situation. I had been carrying George for most of the 6 months since his arrival and we both knew it. He had struggled with the quirks of our particular payroll system and I had been very patient whilst picking up his slack. Perhaps he recognised this and was trying too hard to be friendly or some such?  Making clumsy efforts to engage? Gruesome attempts at gratitude? Maybe he was just an awkward type and I should be more tolerant? But “I enjoy seeing my wife in just her bra, how about you?” How do you answer such an enquiry without losing self–respect? Or self–control?

Especially today.

Anyway, when I returned, I was kind of almost ready to appease but as I sat down opposite George, he looked toward the clock and raised an eyebrow. He honestly did. And that did it. I’m ashamed to say my reaction was immediate. I picked up the red metal Winston Armitage Long Arm Full Reach 20 Sheet Capacity Stapler and raised my own eyebrow.

We shared a moment. Then finally George spoke.

“Our recycling’s collected on a Monday...”

And immediately Mark Twain asked,

“Who is that overgrown pirate with the whiskers and the discordant voice?”

“George.” I whispered to Mark. And now I stared Dagenham at George. But, unlike Liam, George didn’t give it up. Perhaps he’s never been to Dagenham. Whatever the case he only hesitated for only a few moments then was off again.

“They did want to only collect fortnightly but I organised a petition.”

That triggered Mark Twain to chip in once more – he offered George some sage advice,

“It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.”

George didn’t react but I laughed loudly. George looked nonplussed. For a moment I had forgotten he couldn’t hear Mark Twain. My laughter was effective though – George finally stopped his inane drivel. We stared at each other for a while longer and his eyes were the first to drop.

We kept our heads down and worked in silence for the rest of the day. And my anger simmered. You see it’s not difficult; it should be easy; the rules are simple, there’s no excuse to get it wrong. Neutral football or popular TV. Not wives and girlfriends! Especially not today. If he had come in on a Monday morning and said “How lucky were Arsenal on Sunday?” Or “Hey, did you watch the new Doctor Who?” Anything along those lines and we’d have been off and running and that’s how seam–free a transition it could have been: boss to colleague, colleague to mate, stress to calm. But no, he hadn’t. He’d thoroughly irritated me from Day One and now he’d just topped the icing on the cringe cake. On today of all days. What impeccable timing. “I enjoy seeing my wife in just her bra, how about you?”

Dear oh dear oh dear…

And I was aware that now, under these new circumstances, even looking toward the man was unhealthy. I knew I had to block certain thoughts and I had to avoid all that could be avoided. And I had no idea why I had even come in to work today – was it just habit? Forgetfulness? Masochism? Idiocy? Why had I got out of my bed and on to the train? Why when I hadn’t slept a wink? Maybe because I hadn’t slept a wink? I didn’t know. But I did know George should not be mentioning wives and girlfriends. And certainly not their bras or his peculiar penchants. There was no excuse. Particularly not today. Even though I know George is unaware that Rebecca and I have split up. And what a perfect description that is. Split–up – sliced apart – cruelly carved like the slabs of meat decomposing behind the deli counter. George is unaware that Rebecca and I have split up but that doesn’t absolve him.

“I enjoy seeing my wife in just her bra.”

Why on earth did he have to tell me that? I couldn’t get over it. The intrusion. It was not forgivable. (And I did try.) The trouble was I could now imagine it. I had no choice but to imagine it. He’d planted the image in my mind. He had violated me. The image was there. The seed had grown. Anchored. I’d never met her nor seen a photo but I could picture her clearly and the sight was shocking. And I knew it was warped but that didn’t help. I realised I was procuring a picture of a person’s partner purely from my passionately subjective point of view but that didn’t help either. I had no choice. I could only imagine her courtesy of my cursed view of him. I knew that it was wrong, unfair, disquieting, damaging and bizarre. But I had no choice. It was unavoidable. There it was – another unwanted image – firmly planted and deeply rooted.

Now every time I looked up from my desk and toward the man sat opposite (and believe me I tried not to), every time I looked up from my desk and toward the man sat opposite, I saw her image. The woman whose torment I could only imagine.

The Sherry Wife of George.

That was how I viewed her.  That was my image of the person I had never met but now knew so intimately. That was the coping strategy I had granted her. A bottle of sherry. A sad–eyed woman, bare below the breast, clutching a bottle of Christmas sherry. I didn’t want the image but it was embedded. And it was no less real for being unreliable. And it was no less vivid. I had constructed a spectre based upon biased suspecting. I hadn’t wanted to but I had no choice. And I was on her side.  I was completely on her side. And her pain was excruciating. And I felt that pain. I recognised it. I understood it. I empathised completely.

She was married to George.

And I hated George for what he had done to her and for what he was doing to me. George the Destroyer. And I did not want to see his half–naked other half in my already half–hampered mind. BUT I HAD NO CHOICE. There she was, larger than life–sized – her hair dishevelled and her nail varnish chipped – he had done this to her. He had done this to me. And do you know what was the worst thing? Her smile. It was pained to the point of… I don’t know. I didn’t have the words. I didn’t have the words I just had the image. And the pain. She was looking at him and all he stood for. I felt for her. Unequivocally. I saw the tragedy and the blight and the bitterness of never–to–be–realised dreams. I saw the acceptance and the regret and the shame and the disappointment and the humiliation. I saw all that it meant to be married to George. I saw it all as she stood there, regretful, vulnerable and inebriated under his greedy beady–eyed gaze.

In just her bra.

And I wish Mark Twain would talk to me more, but he doesn’t. He’s choosy with his timings. And, when he doesn’t talk to me, I become agitated and I fear that Samuel Langhorne Clemens is ambivalent; I fear that in reality he giveth not one iota of a flying flip-fuck whether I live or die. And then I feel bad because I try unfashionably hard not to swear. But that’s not the real tragedy; the real tragedy is the doubt, the lack of faith. And I feel guilty for thinking of him as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, for although that is his ‘real’ name, the one he was awarded at birth, he chose to be known as ‘Mark Twain’ and that’s one of the reasons I admire him. I like to be known as ‘Robert’ and not ‘Horatio’ even though that was my own birth award. It’s just one of the many things we have in common.

And then because of my guilt and lack of faith I chastise myself; I chastise myself for letting him down. I chastise myself for not following through at the British Museum. And then I curse the Count of Monte Cristo but I know that it was ultimately my decision. And no doubt Mark Twain now thinks I’m a time waster. He is no doubt angered that I failed him and he is punishing me – giving me the intermittent treatment. And I desperately want to expiate (which means atone for – I did look it up) but I don’t know how.

And tonight it’s worse than ever because the Sherry Wife is there; she’s stubbornly on the periphery. She has left the office and boarded the train with me. She clings to me tenaciously. And even though on the journey home I sit on my hands and tap my feet and keep my eyes closed tight and hum the national anthem incessantly, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work on the tube to Stratford or the train to Chadwell Heath. Their images are still there but Mark’s soothing voice is absent. Rebecca and Damien and George and now the Sherry Wife are all there (in full HD 3D CCTV) but there’s no Mark Twain to help me cope.

And when I arrive home, I pour myself a bath and even though the water is not hot I get into the bath and I close my eyes and this time I am determined to wait. For as long as it takes. I am going to lie here and expiate as best I can. And I do. And my patience is eventually rewarded – eventually Mark Twain is in the bath with me. His words once more are in my ear. And he confirms again what I now know to be quintessentially true. His whisper is clear, calm, concise. It’s reassuring and it’s warm. It’s contrast to the icy waters. It’s a reminder.

“Suicide is the only sane thing the young or old ever do in this life.”

And with huge relief I realise that he does still care whether I live or die. He is not ambivalent. Of course he is not. He has reiterated his advice. And now I can open my eyes and I can get out of the bath.

Now I can finally reach for the towel.



If you'd like to read more about Robert's adventures with Mark Twain you can find details of the book here.

According To Mark by H.B. O'Neill



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