Short story: ‘Blub’

Blub by Paul Torday

LAST summer was a summer of blubbing: the Olympics, the tennis and so on.

As a nation, we never used to blub, did we? Roy of the Rovers never blubbed after a football game; Dan Dare didn’t blub either, so far as I remember.

Now blubbing is part of our daily life, like man hugs. I’ve got nothing against it. You can understand how these athletes feel like a little bit of a cry after the event they’ve just won – or lost.

They’ve given their all: why shouldn’t they shed a few tears?

Personally, I never blubbed when I was being brought up, unless there was a reason, like being given a kicking by my older brother or chopping up onions for my mother before Sunday dinner.

The only time I’ve ever blubbed for no reason – until recently – was at Christmas.

Then I blubbed as regularly as clockwork, whenever they showed The Railway Children on television.

It’s always the same scene. I know what’s coming, but it makes no difference.

Jenny Agutter is standing on the platform. She’s been told to meet somebody off the train: she doesn’t know whom. There’s a cloud of steam from the engine shrouding whoever has just alighted from the train.

Then it starts; the pricking behind my eyelids, the lump in my throat, the welling up.

As the steam clears, she sees it’s her long-lost father, who has been locked up in prison for something he didn’t do and is released at last.

The tears roll down my cheeks. It gets me every time.

The funny thing is, I’ve done this so often that I don’t have to actually see the film to start the tears flowing.

I just have to think of Jenny Agutter standing on that platform, hoping against hope that she will see her father again. And the tears flow. Just like that, as Tommy Cooper used to say.

You never think something like that will come in handy, do you? I mean, as a party trick, it has limited appeal.

But the other day, my boss at the investment bank where I work gave me a rather tricky job. He called me into his office where he was munching an enormous Danish pastry and drinking out of a litre mug from Starbucks.

“I want you to take Clara Johnson through procedure,” he told me, between mouthfuls. The news wasn’t a surprise. Her desk had been performing very badly for the last quarter, if not all year. The surprise was: why me?

“I thought that would be your job,” I ventured. “You’re the boss.”

“Part of my job is knowing when to delegate,” he said, licking his fingers.

He handed me a file. It had bits of pastry and icing on it.

I knew what he meant. Clara is tricky. She might get us for sexual discrimination, or harassment. She likes arguments.

“Look at the numbers,” added my boss.

She hadn’t lost zillions. But she had managed to lose, in the last three months, more than the average family earns in a lifetime. It was impressive, in its own way.

“Be careful,” said my boss, echoing my thoughts. “I don’t want this to end up in front of a tribunal.”

What he meant was: do this right, and I’ll take the credit; do this wrong, and you’ll end up in front of a tribunal.

It took a long time for me to screw up the courage to call Clara into my office.

I’m on the same pay grade as her, but I don’t earn her bonuses.

When she arrived, she gave me that look that says: “Oh God, I’m consorting with the pond life.”

“Yes?” she asked. Clara is an intimidating lady on a good day. Nearly six feet tall, attractive in a Warrior Princess sort of way, doesn’t suffer fools gladly. As far as she was concerned, anyone who wasn’t a trader was a fool.

I wasn’t a trader.

My mouth felt dry, but I had to say the words.

“Clara, we need to let you go.”

Her expression changed, from everyday hostility into something rather more unpleasant.

“What on earth can you mean?” she asked. I handed her a piece of paper. It was her last quarter’s losses. She threw the paper back on to the desk.

“Everybody loses money sometimes,” she sneered. “It’s called taking risks. That’s what I’m paid to do.”

“Not like this,” I suggested, in my humblest tone. It didn’t work.

“You’re just picking on me because I’m a woman,” she said. “Aren’t you?”

I thought of Jenny Agutter, standing on the platform. The cloud of steam hisses from the engine and then starts to disperse.

The pricking began at the back of my eyelids. There was a lump at the back of my throat. Then tears welled up in each eye and started to run down my cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I hate these sorts of conversations.”

Clara’s expression softened. She pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to me.

“Don’t take it so personally,” she said.

“But I can’t help it.”

“Would it help if I told you I’ve already got an interview for another job?”

I shook my head. The tears kept falling. She stood up and came around my side of the desk and pressed my head to her bosom.

“There, there,” she said. “There, there.”

My boss put his head round the office door and saw what was happening. His eyebrows vanished over the top of his forehead. He withdrew.

Clara cleared her desk that afternoon. There was no comeback; no talk of an employment tribunal. My boss was thrilled.

“How on earth did you do that?” he asked me.

“Let that be my little secret,” I replied. “But don’t forget me in the bonus season.”

Last year was a year for blubbing. But I say: long may it last.