French Exit, a Short Story: A portrait of a social saboteur by John Miskelly

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I am the king of the French exit. That’s the key to all this, being able to slip out unobserved, no goodbyes, no fanfare, no acknowledgement that my passing through that door is anything other than an innocuous fag break or dutiful inspection of the new patio—“That’s some nice work there mate, did you source that stone locally?” Like I—like anyone, really—gives a fuck.

Exit in plain sight, that’s my game. Some pricks, the type who makes me want to do this stuff in the first place, they need a fucking guard of honor when they leave, hugs and kisses right up to the threshold and still waving from halfway down the street, like they’re being deployed to Helmand in the morning or something.

House parties were easy because they’re fluid, more atomised. Everyone’s moving about, mobile, working the whole flat room to room. I really honed my skills at university. It helps that I have a forgettable face and a dull name. Not that I haven’t worked, of course—you don’t reach these levels of inconspicuousness without hard work and dedication to the craft, but I admit I do have a physical advantage with my forgettable face, much like Lionel Messi and his low centre of gravity.

I’m also the king of small talk. All these attributes facilitate one another. “Where’s that bloke? What’s his name? Paul? Pete? That one I was talking to a while ago about something or other?” “I think he went out for a smoke.” I’m already halfway home mate, out of earshot of your petty hang ups and boring gap year anecdotes.

That’s what life’s all about. Showing your face, making an appearance; ingratiating yourself just enough to get on in life so that the idiots don’t bother you any more than is absolutely necessary for society to function. Everything else—birthdays, Christmas, weddings, anniversaries, graduation balls, reunions, friends, families, “relationships”—is just fucking baubles. Cheap sentiment is inescapable, a pollutant leeching into everything from breakfast cereal to car insurance to buying a new toaster. I blame American sitcoms.

These days everyone’s having these dinner party things. These are like house parties but everyone’s tethered to one place, sitting in the same seat for an entire meal. They’re like business meetings, an extension of the work place where everyone checks in with updates and reports on the shit they’ve learned or achieved in the last fiscal quarter; competing comparing, squaring off while collectively maintaining an outward illusion of friendship and solidarity like it’s all for one and one for all.

I attend as many of these as is necessary to sustain my illusion of normalcy, sitting quietly, bored, listening to the asinine patter of my peer group (yet another generation of compromised posers, frauds, hypocrites, and dipshits), willing the roasted centerpiece to come to life and skull fuck the host to lobotomised oblivion. I keep getting invited to these fucking things. Nobody can just be an asshole malcontent anymore, no one can be left alone, so I must just be “introverted” or “broody” or “mysterious” or something else out of the middle-class bobo handbook of cod psychology. Everyone has to be somebody so they project something where there isn’t anything there. Still, as I said, it’s all about keeping up appearances.

And I’ve found a way of entertaining myself, having a bit of fun at others’ expense, and bringing a bit of sincerity and entertainment to proceedings.

The only downside to it is that it takes a bit of routing through the bins. This can get gross. Other than that, I like the work—it’s like a treasure hunt, gathering together apparently innocuous bits of info that individually might mean little, but together coagulate into a larger truth about a person.

The couple I did the other week—a guy and girl I knew from uni, one of which very nearly even remembered my name when I bumped into them at the bus stop—live the whole ethical lifestyle shit. Right there and then they had to tell me all about it, the way these people always have to tell you more than you care or need to know. It’s that universal narcissism disguised as openness and warmth that the upper middle-class have nailed.

They gave me their address so I could get to their place for the evening of the shindig. I did their bins that very night, and then I went back the next day and loitered on the other side of the garden fence. Nice sunny day, French windows open, none of this anti-climb gunge on the fence. I popped in for a bit while they were upstairs.

I rocked up at their place about three quarters between on time and what would be considered late. They were clearly a little bit surprised I actually turned up at all, being as it was more a gesture than an actual invite. Nevertheless, I proceeded to do my thing—hover about and deploy my precisely calculated, totally forgettable brand of small talk.

Once all the Pringles and hummus and carrot sticks were polished off, we all sat down and I spoke only when spoken to—no jokes, no controversial statements, no contrary jackassery or any of that attention-seeking bullshit. I complimented the meal with some generic platitudes and generally kept my head down. I made a couple of excuses to leave the table, so when I did it for the big show it wouldn’t seem too out of the ordinary.

On one of these trips I headed into the kitchen (“Just going to grab a glass of water, anyone want anything?”). While I was leaning up against the sink taking a breather from the lengthy bout of lofty nonsense I’d just endured, I spotted something sticking out of the bin. It was the cardboard cover of a ready-made meal, with a picture on the front that looked an awful lot like the “homemade from scratch, took me most of the afternoon” starter we’d all just enjoyed. I pulled it out of the bin and couldn’t quite believe what the gods had bequeathed unto me: a perfect appetizer (ha!) to the evening’s entertainment.

I was holding it in my hand when Sarah, one half of our esteemed hosting team, came into the kitchen. “Oh sorry Pat, I didn’t know you were in here. What’s that?” I came over all apologetic and coy. “Sorry, I just saw it poking out. I don’t want to expose anyone. I hope it doesn’t get him into trouble.” She was staring at it all pursed lips and narrowed eyes, the look of someone bottling a fit of rage, perhaps to release later when everyone’s fucked off home. Before I knew it, she marched into the dining room and presented the lie to the whole table. It was like at school when the teacher confiscates a note or busts a kid cheating on a test; everyone waits for the kid to start crying or the teacher to send him to the headmaster or give the poor sod a proper bollocking. It was great. Her mouth was arranged into a smile, but her eyes had this sheen of burning resentment to them and they were pointed directly at him. His face was cherry red, just staring blankly, all vacant like an incontinent old donkey.

Eventually, some clown—some prick called John, if I recall, who was already halfway pissed— comes to his rescue, referencing some little-known sitcom or film these people watch for just such an occasion as this (“This is just like that bit in…”), and everyone relaxes and laughs and they’re off again talking about London house prices and the air miles of avocados. I won’t lie: I was disappointed. It was a bit of an anti-climax, but a nice foretaste of what I’d prepared for later.

By the end of the main course, everyone was a little worse for wear and deep into a conversation about Syria, coming over all earnest and professor-like and referencing ever more obscure Guardian columnists and ‘60s U.S. foreign policy decisions, so no one noticed me slip out of my chair again. This time, though, I didn’t head to the kitchen or toilet, but the front door, retrieving a pair of gloves from the pocket of my coat and a brown manila envelope from the inside breast pocket—the kind you see on spy thrillers, all conspiratorial and whatnot—then tip-toed through the kitchen and out through the back door. I legged it round the house to the front door and plopped the envelope through the letter box. I gave the door a swift knock then hauled ass back round to the back door, slipped inside, closed it as quietly as I could, and listened for the change of conversational tone. I’d just about caught my breath by the time I heard someone ask, “What’ve you got there, Sarah?”

I slipped back into my seat unnoticed, everyone focusing on the envelope now in our female host’s hands. I’d even printed off a proper address sticker so it looked dead official and professional and whatnot. She looked bemused; everyone else was smiling politely, assuming perhaps that this was some wholesome parlor game inspired by some broadsheet weekend color supplement wank rag.

“It’s just…stuff,” she says, tipping the contents out into the middle of the table. To be fair, it did look pretty innocuous; mouldy receipts, crumpled bank statements, and a bunch of emails that I ripped off his computer when I let myself into their living room the other day.

“Hey look it’s your CV, Si!” said one of the guests, reaching into the pile.

“Come on, there’s no reason why anyone should be interested in that,” said our male host, Simon, trying to sound all calm and unflustered while he made a grab for the CV.

How many of your friends’ CVs have you actually seen? They can tell a lot about a person’s life choices, how far their good conscience really goes, what their ambitions really are, and how much of their projected supposedly altruistic selves is merely a fabricated construct of bullshit and half-truths. I’m not talking about homecooked meals that aren’t, I mean the fundamental building blocks of trust—stuff relationships are supposedly built on.

“Don’t tell me: Greenpeace, WaterAid, Amnesty,” said a male guest in thick-rimmed glasses.

“I thought you were an ethical lawyer,” said the petite female guest sitting next to me, studying the CV with a look of mild confusion on her face.

He was clenching his jaw really tight and his eyes were staring straight ahead at nothing, like he was battling through a bout of travel sickness or something. Meanwhile, Sarah had hold of the thing, with that pursed-lipped look on her face again, like she had back in the kitchen.

BAE Systems?” she said, “Arms manufacturers, Simon?”

“It was back in the day, when I was really hard up. Before we were married,” he lied.

“You say here that it was only last year,” she said.

“So after all the Saudi Arabian bribery stuff then?” said the petite one. “Or was that during? Were you advising them on that bribery stuff, Si?”

“I didn’t know you were looking for a permanent contract,” said the one I think might be called Greg, reading another document he’d grabbed from the pile.

“Is this someone’s idea of a joke?” said Simon, all angry now, swatting at the pile so that it fanned out across the table. “Some fucking sick game!”

But no one was listening because Sarah had got hold of Greg’s piece of paper and she was getting all teary-eyed. I had to check the name of the company Simon had written that particular covering letter to, but from the look on her face Sarah seemed to recognize the name fairly well—some rightwing think tank Tory party donor—a well-meaning legal philanthropist like Simon shouldn’t have had anything to do with.

“Who—what the fuck is this shit? This is some illegal privacy NSA Google shit!” spluttered Simon, leering at his dinner guests, his eyes eventually coming to rest on me. “Is it you, whatever the fuck your name is, shifty-looking bastard. Who the fuck are you anyway?”

That second, and it could have only been a second, stretched on and on. I tried to keep my face blank, give nothing away, melt back into the chorus line and become just another face to be ignored and dismissed. I could feel the other guests’ eyes on me, practically hearing the thoughts and questions germinating in their heads. And then, just in time, Sarah, of all people, came to my rescue.

“Don’t pick on Phil just because he’s quiet and shy,” she shouted at Simon. “Trying to shift the blame, bully your way out of it like a scheming Tory!”

There was a sharp intake of breath at this last comment.

“These are fake,” said Simon. “Some fucking stitch-up. We should call the police.”

“Are they all fake, Simon?” said Greg, sifting through the pile.

Once again I struggled to contain my composure, not, this time, through any fear of exposure, but from glee. For as much as I was relishing the spectacle I’d created—the collapsing of the marital union playing out in front us like some semi-scripted masquerade—what was equally as satisfying was the element of chance, the unknown. I’d set the start point and an end point but the route the evening might have taken between the two depended entirely on the couples’ own friends, as they became unwitting accomplices to my plan, picking out those pieces of incriminating evidence and writing the script as they went. It was the power to creatively destroy, the application of imagination in the pursuit of pain, a thrill I hadn’t felt since I’d designed and set traps for the neighborhood cats back in my youth, but with that added zest of accidence.

Indeed, even as I philosophized in my own head, Greg, completely unbeknownst to him, was about to swing the dynamic of the discussion quite considerably in the opposite direction, his hand resting as it was on a particularly crumpled but libelous store receipt.

“It’s from a chemist?” he said, “But I can’t work out that word.”

Petite girl took the scrap of paper from him and read it herself. “It’s for the morning after pill.”

Everyone, wide-eyed with expectancy, turned to look at Sarah, whose own face had practically folded in on itself with the effort of not bursting into tears. The color in Simon’s face had drained completely, the flickering candle light casting a sickly grey pallor across his features.

“I thought we were trying for a baby,” he said.

“It’s old, from years back,” gulped Sarah, struggling to speak through shuddering fits of grief.

Simon snatched the receipt from the girl.

“This is from two weeks ago!” he bellowed, throwing the receipt in Sarah’s direction, only for it to twist and turn in the air and sink forlornly to the carpet.

This was beyond professional ambition or careerist deceit; this was human life, the continuation of the species, the family name. This was great fucking fun.

I could have stayed all night, watched the poison do its work, witness the atrophy, the decay. I’d set the fuse, watched the initial blast—dare I stay for the aftershocks? But no—a couple of guests of weaker constitutions than my own were already shifting in their seats, unable to bear the horror, making those secret and tacit facial gestures to their other halves that, “Maybe we should get the hell out of here?”

I left without a word, with barely a sound, just as three others were mumbling their hastily thought-up excuses. Anyone recalling that evening would remember me, if at all, as merely a shape, static, just as I intended. They’d visualize the table, recall names and faces, but no matter how hard they racked their brains there’d still be a gap, a missing member of the party: me. “Phil? Paul? Pete? Percy? No one’s called Percy these days. Maybe there was one less than I counted. I’d drunk a bloody skinful.”

What would become of that social circle? Most likely it was fractured and broken beyond repair; its components sent spinning and drifting across all those other tangled friendship networks. I like to think of them as overlapping galaxies and myself as an unseen cataclysmic event, a black star god whose unseen presence is felt only at the end.

Simon and Sarah’s was the first one I did. On my walk home, giddy with excitement and possibility, I made loose mental sketches of other incendiaries I could deploy for future expeditions. I’ve done others since, all different to some degree. You could call it a hobby. You might call it an art—it’s definitely creative. You wishy washy liberal types might be trying to attach some loftier, vigilante motive and meaning to it, about honesty and trust and society and gender and class. Well, sorry to disappoint, but there isn’t. There’s just me—me and my fun.

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John Miskelly continues to loiter in Bristol, U.K., trying to look like he has something purposeful to do. He does not. “And it’s not funny like on television.” He is twenty nine. Other stories by him are available to view on this website.

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Madeline
Michelangelo and Princess Elsa’s Christmas Play
Trickle Down
The Librarian
Soft Tissue
Tastemaker
Crunchem Hall
The Whistleblower