Who the fuck is Jerome?
No idea. No matter how deep I scrabble around in the usually-fertile soil of my memory, there is nothing there. I don’t recall meeting anyone called Jerome. Ever. But there it is: a reminder on my phone calendar to meet him a week today in the King’s Head, of all places. I’m not much of a drinker, and I haven’t been in the King’s since I was a student: that’s twenty years ago.
I stare vacantly at the phone until the screen goes black, jolting me out of my daydreaming. I press the wee button at the bottom and bring the calendar back. Its tasteless, waiting-room combination of brown and beige tones is supposed to be inoffensive, but right now I’m finding it really annoying. I scan it for clues, going back a whole twelve months to September last year, but there is no indication of when I made the appointment. Going forward another year there are no other appointments either. Just the one for next Tuesday; it seems like a strange day of the week to have a meeting in a bar.
Jerome. Where could I have met him? The wedding, back in July, maybe? It was well-catered, right enough, and I had a few too many, which might explain why I don’t remember him. I get rid of the calendar, find Maria’s number in my contacts, and dial her. It rings out and I check my watch to make sure she’ll be home from work. Yep. She should be in by now. Maybe try the house phone in a few minutes.
I go into the kitchen to make tea. Just as the kettle boils she rings: “Hello? Peter? I’ve a missed call from you. Were you lookin’ me? I was up the stairs there. You alright?”
“Hiya. Yeah fine, thanks. How’re you two getting on?”
“Ah yeah, you know. Grand. Pluggin’ away. Trying to pay off the wedding and all that. What can I do for you?”
“Well,” I reply, “hope I’m not disturbing you. I was wondering if you could do me a wee favour … it’s a bit mad.”
“Fire away, and I’ll tell ya,” she answers, “as long as it’s legal. Never know with you.” I picture her smiling face, the old cream-coloured BT phone up to her ear, and realise I haven’t seen her since the wedding.
“Do you know … was there anyone called Jerome at the wedding?”
She draws out the first word, “No. Don’t think so. Why d’you want to know?”
“It’s like this: I was looking at my diary on the phone today, you see, and I noticed an appointment with a guy called Jerome, for next week. Only, I don’t know anyone called Jerome. So I thought it might have been someone I’d met at your wedding, and forgot about.”
She laughs. “Aye well. You were pretty full when we poured you into the taxi. No wonder if you didn’t remember meeting him. But I don’t recall any Jerome being there. We certainly didn’t invite anyone of that name. Jeremy neither. Here … what if it’s Jeremy, and you put it in all wrong and then the phone autocorrected it?”
I hadn’t thought of that. “Jesus – you’re just making it worse, for fuck’s sake,” I laugh, “I don’t know anyone called Jeremy either.”
“Hmmm. Hold on, I’ll go and ask Luke.” She puts down the phone and I hear her footsteps on the wooden floor of the hall fading as she goes into the back room. There is a brief muffled conversation, then the footsteps return. The line crackles as she lifts the phone again. “Hello? Yes. Luke reckons Mary White’s boyfriend is called Jerome.” She shouts into the other room: “You sure, love? The tall skinny fella with the ginger hair? Was up going nuts dancing? Yes. No. James, aye. Yeah I thought it was James.” She comes back on the phone. “Sorry Peter. Thought we had him there.”
“It is James, I know him,” I answer, deflated, “he’s a rocket. You’d not forget him in a hurry. Sure, I’ll keep on looking. Thanks anyway. I’ll call round soon, it’s been ages.”
“Yes, do that. Maybe next week after the mystery meeting? You can tell us all about it. Anyway, here, have fun with the detective work. I’ll have a wee look at the guest list after dinner and see if there’s anything there might help. I’ll give you a buzz if we find anything, ok? See you next week; bye!”
Back to square one. But with the added possibility of autocorrect. Let’s see. Tea ignored, I go back into the calendar and type in ‘Jereme,’ ‘Jeromy,’ ‘Joreme.’ The autocorrect suggests both ‘Jerome’ and ‘Jeremy’ in the Spellcheck panel for each, but doesn’t actually correct what I have typed. Probably not Jeremy then; I wouldn’t have got it that wrong, even after a few glasses of wine. I switch the kettle back on.
Stumped. Can’t think of anything else to do except turn up on the day and see who’s there. Hopefully someone I recognise. But what if it’s a setup? Or a frape? No. Too elaborate for a frape, and I don’t know anyone that’s interested in practical jokes. It’s not my birthday or anything like that. Also, I never leave my phone out where it could be tampered with, or nicked. Never. Keep it tight since that one got stolen on me. What if it’s something sinister? Could it be? Visions of capture by Somali Pirates, Captain Philips, ocean, sunburn, flit through my imagination. No. Don’t think so, I’m not worth robbing or blackmailing. But on the other hand, maybe I should get Maria to scope out the King’s Head before I arrive anyway, just see if there’s any kind of suspicious activity. Jesus. I’m acting like a spy; ‘Harry’s Game’ or something. It’s probably just someone who came into work or I met somewhere who wants to sell me a water filtration system or double glazing or some other shite. Wise up and stop wasting time on it. It’ll be some wee man in a suit wanting to talk to you about your pension. If this Jerome guy was so dodgy, I wouldn’t have made the appointment in the first place; I have good instincts about people.
The click of the kettle switching off interrupts my chain of thought. Normally I put it off way before, or it goes on boiling for ages, but I’ve let it go the distance this time. C’mon. This is stupid. Teabag in my favourite mug, I take the milk from the fridge, open it and sniff to make sure it’s good. It seems ok. After a quick stir there are a couple of floaty bits, but it’s drinkable. I’m not that fussy. I take out the marker and add milk to the shopping list, then get the last two Malted Milk biscuits out of the packet. Add them to the list as well.
Jerome. The name conjures up images: A tall black man. A Catholic. A Frenchman. An Irishman. Jerome K. Jerome, ‘Three Men in a Boat;’ never thought it was a strange name before now. No point speculating, although it’s hard not to. Stumped as I am, I decide to do some research while I wait for Maria to call. I take my tea over to the table and bring the laptop out of hibernation. Straight to the web, I ignore the lure of emails and Facebook. ‘Wikipedia’ first: get a general idea.
Saint Jerome. Here we go. Bit of a rake in his youth: “Superficial escapades and wanton behaviour.” Repented of his wicked ways though. On many’s the cold dark morning. Well. Didn’t we all? Latin Vulgate Bible his greatest work. Patron saint of translators, encyclopaedists, and librarians. I’m quite pleased by this: class: even us librarians have a patron saint. Bit controversial in his time, Romans not mad about him. Rumours of him and a widow called Paula. Ah, Paula … and Rome; there’s a spot. Would love to go back. Feast day 30th September. Not far off, next week in fact. Paintings by Bellini and other Old Masters I’m not familiar with. Removing a thorn from a lion’s paw in the Syrian desert. Sounds vaguely familiar but I can’t remember the story.
Enough. Despite my love of books, I’m not really all that interested in Jerome’s works and letters. Time to make some dinner and then read a bit. Maria still hasn’t rung by bedtime; nothing coming from that quarter by the looks of it.
It’s only on Friday when it occurs to me. It was staring me in the face the whole time, and I never thought of it. Jesus. So simple. It’s quiet at work; not many in today. Friday afternoon at the beginning of term, of course, a lot of the undergrads go home for the weekend or else they’re on the rip, especially the freshers, wee bastards. The ones that come in here are doing serious work: postgrads, doctors, and profs with tight deadlines. Even so, most of the lecturers are gearing up for the new semester and they’re cramming in the last-minute stuff in other locations.
I like to have a bit of banter or conversation when I’m on the desk; it helps to make the day go in. I’ve been here long enough to know some of them quite well. Generally I make a bit of time for the ones I like, even if there’s a queue. And then there’s the others, just plain ignorant or awkward, and I try to get them through as quick as I can, without any unnecessary words or eye contact. Hate awkwardness. And then there’s the ones that fall between; those that might have potential for some kind of social contact, but it hasn’t been realised yet. This afternoon it is one of the in-betweeners that does it. As always, her mass of red hair arrives in my peripheral vision first, then I get the muttered “Taking these out. Please.” This time, she’s borrowing a sizeable pile of books. As usual, she’s not up for a wee chat. I wish she’d smile.
When her mobile goes off it’s loud; the ringtone is candy-floss pop music. It’s unexpected, and the reflection of my face in the monitor expresses simultaneous surprise, disappointment, and hilarity. She reads this expertly, reddens up, fishes the phone out of her bag and jabs at it. And then stands, fidgeting with the phone. I am holding on to the last two books, for badness.
I smile up at her: “I hate it when that happens. You feel like everyone’s looking at you.”
She fixes me for an instant with dazzling blue eyes, then looks down again and grimaces: “So. Embarassing.” Welsh accent. I hadn’t noticed it before.
“Ah, it’s not so bad,” I reply genially. “If you were in Special Collections, total disaster. But here, no. It happens all the time. Make all the noise you want.”
I hand her the books, and she moves down the desk to bag up her haul, pauses to scrutinise her phone, then hurries away towards the exit, my offer of contact rebuffed. I wonder for an instant who was calling her, and whether it was important.
The phone. I haven’t researched the phone. The address book. Fuck. So obvious. I leave the desk, walk in behind the stack on the left, and check. There he is: Jerome, in white letters and digits against a black background. Mobile phone number, no other information. Now what? Ring? I wrestle with the idea for the remainder of the working day, but there’s no real choice: I have to call him.
At home, faced with the cold plastic reality of the phone I am no longer resolute. Tea doesn’t help; it just makes me piss. Stronger measures are called for. I pull on my coat, pocket my keys, and exit the house. The street is quiet enough at this hour, but it’ll be a different story by 1 a.m. when the bars kick out. I feel like a microscope specimen in the off license. Fluorescent light reflects off refrigerated cabinets, and packs of confidence-oozing youngsters jostle and slabber as they stock up with plastic two-litre bottles of garish high-alcohol pre-load. I settle for a French red, Bordeaux. It’s more than £10, so it should be ok, according to my rulebook.
Halfway through my second glass, I dial. As the ringtone buzzes in my ear a series of ‘what-ifs’ crowd out other thoughts, and a fizz of adrenaline sweeps through me. After only a few seconds he’s there. The voice is deep and clearly foreign, but I can’t place the accent: “You’ve reached Jerome. I can’t take your call right now. Please leave a message and I’ll ring you back.” I breathe again, and hang up. Very businesslike, confident. No background noise, kids shouting, television, no hesitation. Smooth. No second name or business name either. Nothing to help me. Involuntarily, I scroll through the Jerome stereotypes in my mental gallery; he could still fit most of them. Ring again? No. I’ll just turn up on Tuesday. I don’t know what to say to him anyway. I go into the front room to finish the glass. I can’t be bothered cooking tonight. Pizza it is; a student Friday night for me. I wonder, would the saint approve..?
Tuesday 30th September 2014. The day is here; I don’t need the phone calendar to remind me of it. When I open the curtains, sunlight streams in, briefly invigorating and energising my spirit. I love this time of year: that scent, the first leaves yellowing, a touch of cold in the morning air. When I wake up in the morning I’m transported in time to my schooldays, that back-to-school buzz. But by the time I leave for the library there’s a black cloud in the sky. If I’m walking to work like a condemned man on such a beautiful day, what will I be like by 7 p.m. this evening? I wonder. I don’t understand why I’m not more excited and positive about this meeting: I know it will probably be bullshit, but what if it’s not? What if it’s transformative, dangerous, just even interesting? He probably won’t even show up. I cling to this thought like a life ring, keen for the comfort of the everyday.
Work passes by in a blur of meaningless chit-chat, enquiries, books, and swiped cards. No red-haired lass today. By the end of the day I am ready to lie down in a heap on the sofa, watch shite TV, and forget about the appointment. But these thoughts are futile: there’s no chance of me not going at this stage; I’ve become a bit obsessed. Pointless questions occupy me until it is way past time I was ready: what to wear? Drink? Say? I change into the usual casual stuff: jeans, t-shirt, jumper.
The King’s Head is a bit out of town, and I decide to ring a taxi. As I wait, jacket on, I pace, check that the keys are in my pocket (more than once), and sporadically juke through the curtains like a nosey old man. It takes forever, of course. As I lift the phone to demand its arrival, I hear the faint sound of a car engine outside. As soon as I replace the receiver the phone rings. I lift it, but there’s nobody at the other end; it’s the automated ringback service, of course.
The bar is like one of those English pubs, all black timbers and whitewashed plaster. Inside it’s oak-beamed, dark, cosy. The walls have the usual decorations: horse brasses, watercolours of old Belfast, framed cartoons. I scan the room, but there is no sign of anyone, stereotypical or otherwise, who fits the bill, just a middle-aged couple in the corner by the window, who are staring at everything except each other. Walking up to the bar, I check that Jerome isn’t hidden somewhere in the shadows; he isn’t. I catch the barman’s eye: “’Scuse me. Is there another bar here?” “Yes mate, just round the corner there.” He points down the counter to a badly-lit recess.
The back room is dingy, and completely unoccupied. I wipe the thin sweat off my palms onto the arse of my jeans and perch myself on a bar stool. After a moment the barman comes in, “Well, what can I get ya?” I order a pint of ale, and we chat while he pulls it. Always dead on a Tuesday in here, it’s a long shift. I sympathise: better to be busy, the evening flies in. No, nobody has been in looking for me. He’ll let me know if anyone does come in asking for me, yes Peter, right. After he goes, I sip my beer and survey the room. The decor is much the same as the front, except that the walls are wood-panelled. There’s an old musket hanging above the fireplace, a copper warming-pan, and next to it, hidden away in the gloom of the corner is Jerome.
Bellini’s Jerome, a quality reproduction in an ornate gold frame. Jesus Christ. It’s a set-up. Someone’s idea of a joke. I must have been fraped after all. But how? I ponder. Very clever anyway, elaborate and cunning. I suppose there will be no end of Jerome references at work tomorrow. Whoever did this must know me pretty well, must have been confident that I’d do the research and find the picture. I picture Maria, Luke, Paul from Special Collections, sniggering away. Maybe they were all in on it; I half expect them to jump out from behind the bar. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow. Have to hand it to them, it was a good job. I ring a taxi to take me home: 5 minutes. I finish my beer as I wait, and head for the door when my mobile vibrates with the ringback.
There’s a soft rain falling outside. A woman is coming up to the door, her face obscured by a large umbrella. As she takes it down a familiar cloud of red hair comes into view. She shakes the water from the umbrella, furls it, then looks up into my eyes and smiles. She is beautiful.