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The ShortRead: Danny Wallace

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ShortRead of 9 April 2014

Who is Tom Ditto?

Author: Danny Wallace

What's the story: Following the hugely successful Charlotte Street and Awkward Situations for Men, ShortList's columnist turns his considerable wit to an extended narrative once again.

Tom got a note from his girlfriend. She says she hasn’t left him. But that she’s gone. But where the hell is she? When is she coming back? In his quest for answers, Tom stumbles across an eccentric group of people with a highly addictive hobby. That plus he’s certain he’s being followed by an equally bizarre girl. With each new clue to Hayley’s whereabouts, Tom is forced to question whether he really knows his girlfriend at all. Because who is Hayley? And who, for that matter, is TOM DITTO?

Release date: 24th April

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Exclusive extract...

I think I’m pretty good at my job. It’s not as hard as it seems. There’s just a few tricks, is all. Like, for a lead stor y, you’re looking at forty-five seconds. But you want audio for at least fifteen of those. You need to mix it up. Now, that’s not a problem if someone’s grabbed some off Sky News. You’ll roll on a press conference, clip it, whack it in the in-queue. You add what we call a ‘slug’ – BLAIR AUDIO RAW, maybe – and boom, if it’s big, you snap it. Get it on the twelve o’clock and you sound like you went round his house yourself.

But you might not have any audio, and that’s when you have to get inventive. Let’s say there’s been a smash and grab at Westfield Stratford. When you’re prepping, you’d write, ‘There’s been a smash and grab at Westfield Stratford … my colleague Simon Lamp has more …’

Then you’d saunter down to the kitchenette, maybe stopping at the vending machine to see if they’ve replaced the Topics on the way, and you’d find Simon Lamp making a cup-a-soup in someone else’s mug.

‘Read this out,’ you’d say to Simon Lamp, and then Simon Lamp would put on The Voice (we’ve all got The Voice we use) and hey presto, suddenly it sounds like Simon Lamp has been chasing down the big story himself, probably with hundreds of other dedicated journalist newshounds, pounding the streets of London for scoops, sources and snitches, flatfooted and grim-faced, press cards poking out of their whiskey-stained trilbies, cocked fivers in hand, all ‘maybe this will refresh your memory …’.

In reality, Simon Lamp wouldn’t even know what he was reading and now he’s halfway back to his desk with his cup-a-soup, probably stopping at the vending machine to see if they’ve replaced the Topics on the way.

It’s necessary smoke and mirrors. It’s its own little showbiz.

‘And now you’re up to date.’

Ten am is always my best hour. LC with LJ was over, and the workers with regular hours had started to arrive, still bleary-eyed despite their comparative lie-ins, clutching their Costa lattes or their slicks of greasy croissants pressed up against Pret bags. Constant dings of the lifts.

Top floor: management (with full access to roof garden). Third floor: marketing teams (with full access to café). Second floor: sales (with full access to coffee and snack machines, and first stop for the sandwich man). Our floor: reception and station teams (with full access to some toilets). I think you see the varying levels of importance here.

It might have been nice to socialise with some of the others, I’d sometimes think. But the hours… it’s always the hours. I’m finished just as they’re thinking about what to have for lunch. I could hang around for a bit, but then I’d be the office sad case. I could come back into town later, but that looks desperate too. Permanently out of sync, the best I could hope for was a leaving do, or retirement drinks, and when the retirement drinks of a sixty-five-year-old man you’ve never really spoken to is the best you can hope for you have to start radically reassessing your life. I wanted to talk to someone about Hayley. But how could I raise it? You work with people you barely know, you can hardly drop something like that into conversation too soon. I suppose I could just say we split up, me and Hayley. Go for the sympathy. But these days people always want to know how you split up. It’s like the first question, after ‘why?’ How fast would their concern turn to gossip?

No. Better I internalise this. Better I keep this solely between me and Pippy.

‘So I heard your girlfriend fucked off!’ said Leslie, towering over me, one hand on my shoulder while I sat at my desk. He was saying it loudly; loudly so the whole office could hear how witty and brave and how wonderfully un-PC he was.

Leslie hated ‘the PC brigade’. He hated how political correctness had gone mad. He hated how these ‘do-gooders’ were always doing good.

‘These bloody do-gooders!’ he’d say, flicking the pages of the Telegraph or the Mail, shoulders tense at the thought of meddlers telling him there is real concern about the polar ice caps, or that people should drive slower near schools.

I sometimes thought he hated do-gooders more than do-badders. But this? What had happened to me? He loved stuff like this.

‘She’s just gone travelling,’ I said, my face flush, knowing every ear in an office of sixty was on me.

‘Where to, then?’ he said. ‘Where’s she gone?’

I wanted to say something witty. Now was the time. If only I could say something witty.

And then, like lightning, like magic

‘I’m not sure.’

Leslie rocked his head back and hooted. I’d never heard anyone hoot before, I don’t think I’ve ever even used the word, but he hooted and honked and he wanted everyone to know how funny he found this; a river of laughter in full flow.

‘But she didn’t break up with you? She just went?’

‘Yep,’ I said, and his shoulders began to shake from the sheer joy of it.

‘And you’re still with her? You haven’t ditched her?’

And all I could do was listen and smile, because 120 ears and 120 eyes needed to know I found this as amusing as Leslie did, otherwise I was just part of the bloody PC Brigade. A bad egg. Someone who couldn’t take a joke.

‘You poor bastard!’ he exploded, and the laughter went on for a day if it went on for a minute, and when the torrent finally slowed to a brook, his hand left my shoulder and off he tramped to Soho, this garrulous, polo-necked, razor-burned man, so he could record a concerned voiceover for a dementia charity ‘very close to my heart’, for just £400 for the hour and only five grand in usage.

I collected my things, started to shut down my computer, cast a glance around. So now they knew. Amazing how people you don’t know that well react to news like mine. They don’t know you, so what’s happened isn’t like something that actually happened. It’s not an event. It’s like a bad thing you read about, or a disease or something, and they don’t want to catch it or jinx themselves. Girls avoid your eye because you’re a boy, and a boy who’s been left, and they don’t want to give you the wrong idea or be seen to be moving in. Boys avoid your eye because boys want an easy entry into friendship – a common bond, an interest, a mutual friend, an opinion – not this heavy stuff, not straight away, not right from the start.

No one wants to be a counsellor except a counsellor.

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