Peter Haliburton, first syllable pronounced ‘hail’ as in ‘hail storm’, his wife Caroline, her friend Marie and I stood looking at the delinquent vehicle in a lay-by about seventy kilometres from Poitiers. An hour earlier he had rung Porsche customer services who recommended a garage with an approved Porsche mechanic, but the problem had not been as serious then and he decided against diverting from our scenic route through France.
He was not an easy man to argue with, or to talk to in any way at times like this. A partner – expecting soon to be a senior partner – with a firm of City accountants, the prestigious car was a public statement of his growing status. He doubtless considered it a reward for talent and hard work; office gossip debunked it as the outcome of determined string-pulling.
Marie and I had followed the de luxe vehicle from London in my modest Vauxhall. Now he stood glaring at it, his face flushed. Opposite him Caroline forced a thin smile, resigned to the inconvenience. He looked challengingly at each of us in turn, as though one of us might have caused the problem. To break the awkward silence I asked, ‘Has it been playing up for long?’
‘Hmph! If there had been an inkling that something was wrong before we set out I’d have had it seen to,’ he said, as though I had accused him of being negligent. Caroline opened her mouth as though about to speak, then closed it without uttering a sound. His gaze fell on me again. More calmly he said, ‘Everything was perfectly normal until we hit French soil, or French tarmac I should say.’
After glancing briefly at Marie, who looked terrified, he turned to his wife. ‘Bloody thing. Caroline, you try it for a while before I go berserk.’
Five kilometres further on the car pulled up again. Peter got out and walked round to the driver’s door, while Caroline slid over to the passenger seat, carefully holding her finely pleated skirt in place. Evidently he was not satisfied with her ability at the wheel. She must have felt awful. Neither Marie nor I found the courage to go over to her to say a few sympathetic words.
Although outspoken and abrasive, Peter was not usually this offensive. At work he enjoyed controversy, and recklessly disrupted long established practices and relationships. The firm, a staid accountancy practice called Lindler & Haliburton, still bore his grandfather’s name and the family connection allowed him to defy the gentlemanly atmosphere of respectful conduct and play the enfant terrible.
The three-year-old Vauxhall reflected my less elevated position. The accountants were the professionals, the firm’s raison d’être. Several promotions during my six years’ employment and the high demand for computer experts in the City did not change the fact that I was counted among the ‘support staff’. The most recently recruited trainee accountant was regarded as intrinsically better than me. He might not earn as much to start with, but in a few years time could expect to rise in rank and salary above all us lesser beings.
Marie was a rather frumpy woman of about thirty in an old-fashioned looking dress of flowery cotton whom I had met for the first time that morning. She was not very talkative, but smiled a lot and we exchanged pleasantries now and again. The journey had been fine until Peter’s car developed the transmission problem.
He pulled up for a third time in front of a dilapidated garage converted from what once must have been a barn. Ahead was a road junction with a small collection of miscellaneous buildings including a few houses and a hotel.
‘Bloody woman’s made it worse,’ he announced to the neighbourhood as he got out of the car. Caroline did not react but sat stiffly, her face expressionless.
‘Hello,’ he shouted to a man in overalls who walked towards us from the garage. ‘You speak English?’
The response was a shake of the head, and I hurried forward to act as translator. The garage owner confirmed that the nearest approved Porsche mechanic was in Poitiers, and that the best plan was to get him to come out with his équipement de dépannage. He telephoned to make arrangements, and returned to say that the earliest the mechanic could be with us was eight-thirty next morning. Peter was not satisfied.
‘Tell him we need to have the car attended to straight away. How far is it to Poitiers? We’ll have a breakdown wagon take the Porsche in. You can drive us all down there in the Vauxhall. Tell him we can’t wait until the morning.’
I passed on the message, but after unwillingly making a further telephone call the garage owner returned shaking his head. Whether we stayed where we were or went to Poitiers, the car would not be repaired until the morning, absolument pas.
Peter refrained from another outburst, reluctantly turned to me, shook his head and said: ‘Is there an inn or hotel of some kind over there?’
Large signs at the front and on the side of the building, clearly visible from where we stood, told us we were looking at the Hotel des Amis.
‘Looks as though it is.’
‘I suppose we’ll have to bivouac there for the night. What do you think? Caroline? Marie? Willing to rough it, or should we ask Mark to take us to look for somewhere better?’
‘It’ll do for one night. At least you’ll be on the spot when the car is fixed in the morning,’ said Caroline.
‘Good girl. Marie?’
‘It looks quite respectable from here; these little famil- run hotels in France can be very nice.’
‘The garage owner probably runs the hotel too. That would explain why he’s arranged things so that we’re stuck here for the night.’ He looked expectantly at me.
The accusation was groundless, but not worth arguing about. ‘Maybe. Do you want me to drive you over and come back for your luggage?’
They decided they could manage the couple of hundred yards to the hotel on foot and I put their bags in the back of the Vauxhall. At reception, Madame, who although middle-aged had retained much of her prettiness, took a handful of keys and showed us up to a large double room on the first floor. Marie and I watched from the corridor as Caroline and Peter inspected it, looked without enthusiasm at the shower and lavatory, but finally pronounced the accommodation acceptable for one night. The allocation of two smaller rooms on the second floor to Marie and myself was then a formality. As we went to get our things from the car we heard Madame call out loudly towards the back of the hotel. ‘Georges! Georges!’
A young man of perhaps twenty, his long hair pulled back tightly into an untidy bun, rushed from the dining room to help with our bags. He had smudges of chocolate around his mouth and smears of it on his T-shirt. In the pockets on the outer thighs of his military style trousers were bulky cylindrical objects that made them stick out rather like a clown’s costume pants. He looked uncertainly at our assorted collection of baggage until Madame told him to take the two cases nearest the stairs up first. Though Peter looked at him open mouthed, thankfully he made no comment. Georges’ hands looked perfectly clean, but Caroline, unwilling to trust him with her property, was visibly alarmed as he picked up her finely stitched leather suitcase.
In my room, as I took my toilet things from my bag and hung up my jackets and trousers, misgivings about the wisdom of making the trip returned. Peter and I were colleagues, not really friends; he did not even know that I was gay. Our working relationship had been good. My expertise with the firm’s computer network was useful to him, and for someone in my position making a good impression on more senior staff was the key to getting on. Until the invitation to spend a week with him at his house in France our social contact had been limited to office celebrations and Thursday lunchtime trips to the swimming baths with other colleagues.
We had started work at the firm on the same day, but did not speak to each other until a year or more later when he needed urgent help with a technical problem that had been souring relations with an important client. I worked extra hours, unasked and without extra pay, to devise foolproof ways to exchange data between the two firms’ computer networks, and trained those who would be using the new procedures. Had they failed I would probably not have been given another chance to show my abilities, but luckily there were no hitches. The client was impressed and wrote an approving letter to a very senior partner who congratulated Peter, who in turn congratulated me.
The invitation to join the Thursday lunchtime swimming sessions, attended by half a dozen of the firm’s most senior men, followed that success. They rarely said much to me, but simply having my name known to a group of the top men was a useful step. A fortnight later Peter delegated to me the task of contacting everyone to confirm the arrangements, and although most of the time this entailed speaking to their secretaries and sending e-mails, occasionally a partner himself would answer my call. This servile role made me feel awkward, but a few months later my own boss, the head of the information technology unit, handed me a letter from Personnel telling me of my first promotion.
Peter had ambitions he was determined to achieve. Whilst the other partners considered the computer network to be a kind of over-complicated piece of office equipment not worthy of much attention, he saw using the latest technology as a way of attracting business from rival firms that were less up to date. We met several times every week, the two of us often discussing potential new technical developments for an hour or more in his office. Sometimes he took me to meetings with clients to discuss ways of making the firm’s service more flexible, more comprehensive, and of eliminating delays.
The conservative kowtowing atmosphere made me decide against revealing that I was gay. Nobody else who worked there had come out, at least not to my knowledge, and my impression was that any kind of sex outside wedlock was considered too sordid to be mentioned. The reaction to an upstart like myself who broke with custom was likely to be haughty disapproval. Also the effect on the partners who attended Thursday afternoon swimming sessions had to be considered. How would the old codgers, as we support staff called the senior men, feel if they learned a gay man had infiltrated their group and been present while they changed into their swimming trunks?
My second promotion brought me responsibility for four staff, and the risk of hostility were I to come out was greater than ever. Until practised in my new role, I was vulnerable to anyone who might want to show me up as a novice manager. The firm was a highly competitive place. An individual’s status was determined not solely by salary, but also by job title, promotion prospects, houses, cars, family standing, and holiday arrangements. Every time someone succeeded in pushing himself a little further forward, those close to him fell a little further behind. To ‘bend over for someone’ was a term used by some of the male staff to mean being subservient, to accept humiliation. To have handicapped myself by declaring myself to be a ‘bender’ would have been foolhardy.
The electronic warbling of the telephone in my room recalled me to the Hotel des Amis. Peter was ringing to say he wanted us all to meet downstairs in ten minutes to go for a walk. He asked me to pass the message on to Marie and to find out from Madame what was on the menu for dinner that evening.
My knowledge of French was probably the only reason he had asked me to join him at his house in the Lot Valley. One day at work his secretary overheard me on thephone talking to a friend in French. One or two nearby colleagues knew a few words, but not enough to understand that we were arranging to go to a gay club. She happened to pass by during this call, and a couple of days later he summoned me to his office and asked, ‘Don’t happen to speak French by any chance, do you?’
I told him about my school exchange visits to a French family. ‘Booked your holidays yet?’ he asked. ‘If not you might like to come down to my house in France near the River Lot sometime. Caroline and I enjoy having company. She’d be delighted to have you as a guest. Languages are not one of my strengths. She knows a bit of French but those little linguistic problems that crop up now and again can be damn embarrassing.’
Not sly enough to invent a fictitious booking for Spain or Greece I mumbled vaguely about not having any definite plans, and when he repeated the invitation a month later I had still not thought of a convincing reason for turning him down. Besides, being more friendly with him could only help my career. Fearing that to spend a whole week with them might prove unbearable, I set up a potential means of escape by saying I had always wanted to visit Bordeaux, and asked if he would mind me fitting in a day or two there.
‘Good idea. We know each other well enough now not to have to put up a front. Go with you and have a bit of a fling myself for a few days if I could, but you know what married life is. You’re right to make the best of your chances while you can. There will be four of us, Caroline is bringing her friend Marie. Better warn you about Marie, I’m afraid you’ve no chance in that direction. She’s the religious type, fiancé away on missionary work, Philippines or somewhere. Still, you know what the French are like, you won’t have to look far if you want a bit of mademoiselle.’
At the Hotel des Amis Marie smiled bravely when she opened the door of her room, and we went down together to meet Peter and Caroline. We all strolled along a forest path Madame had suggested to a small lake full of fish. We walked around it, joking that the evening meal would probably turn out to have been caught there. On our way back we noticed behind the hotel a large well kept vegetable plot, in which vigorous plants were disciplined into a patchwork of geometrically straight rows, a dozen or so different crops arranged in a neatly executed ground plan. Working steadily, too absorbed in ordering his vegetable brigades to notice us, was Georges, the young man who had helped earlier with our baggage.
That evening at dinner Madame took our order for aperitifs, but it was Georges, in a clean T-shirt, his face freshly washed, though still in his old trousers with their bulging side pockets, who brought them to our table. He uttered a series of odd syllables that made no sense to me, but seeing him pick up the orange juice I gestured towards Marie. The remaining three drinks were all pastis and he positioned them carefully on our place mats. As he was on his way back to the kitchen Peter destroyed any hopes that he had forgotten his earlier bad temper. He bellowed in a voice that echoed around the restaurant: ‘I hope that half-wit won’t be serving us our dinner.’
He was a quick judge of people, and had realised what my own mind had been groping towards, that Georges had limited mental abilities. Peter’s anger was to be mercilessly released on Madame and Georges.
In an instant she was at our table to ask if anything was wrong. Caroline and Marie stared at each other as though daring one another to speak, while I looked unflinchingly at Peter, unsuccessfully willing him to moderate his words. ‘Tell her,’ he instructed me in a determined tone, ‘that in the restaurant I expect to be served by a waiter or waitress, or failing that by Madame herself. I do not expect to be served by the village idiot.’
I squirmed. Her English was not good, but the word idiot is common to both languages; she must have understood it. I ought to have refused, but the vicious nature of the insult he wanted me to deliver shocked me, and fearful of making the situation even worse by infuriating him more, I lamely said to Madame in French, ‘Monsieur would prefer it if the young man who brought our drinks did not serve us our dinner.’
In a gentle voice that filled me with shame she replied, ‘Georges is my son, Monsieur, he often helps me in the restaurant; but if you prefer, of course I will serve you myself.’
‘Forgive us, Madame, thank you.’ When she had gone, my voice quavering, I said, ‘He’s her son.’ Caroline’s face remained expressionless, but Marie gulped mouthfuls of air and looked as though she was about to cry.
Peter tried to justify himself. ‘Being soft with her will do no good. What she has to learn is that the way to make a success of a business such as this, stuck out in the middle of nowhere, is to put the client first, second and third. Exposing customers to a mental defective is only going to put them off. That’s the harsh reality of her situation. Country inbreeding, I expect.’
Resolved, too late, to stand up to him I said, ‘She’s probably been running the place happily and profitably for decades. Why create a problem for her?’
‘Look around you,’ he said, waving an arm and glancing around the room. ‘There are three occupied tables; there would be two if it were not for the complete fluke of our being here. It speaks for itself.’ At times when he could not have his own way he had been condescending and rude to people in the office, but never as hateful as he was now.
After the main course I complimented Madame on the food, and said how neatly kept the vegetable patch behind the hotel was. She smiled, and with a brief sulky glare at Peter said that her son cultivated the plot entirely on his own, and that the green salad and tomatoes we had eaten had come from his garden. He might not, she said, be able to do everything that more successful men could, but he worked diligently and deserved respect for his efforts.
‘You and Madame seem to be getting along very well,’ Peter commented.
‘Polite conversation,’ I answered grimly, trapped in the hypocrisy of trying to appease Madame without being insubordinate to Peter. When Georges passed our table carrying some empty cartons through the restaurant, I caught his eye and gave him a reassuring smile.
The others went up to their rooms straight after the meal, but I lingered in the hotel lounge over a beer, scolding myself for my stupidity in not refusing Peter’s holiday invitation from the first. Putting up with him at work was one thing, but his cruel, pointless dismissal of Georges and the way he had used me in the process were despicable.
On the way up to my room I saw his victim methodically mopping the restaurant floor. Pausing to wish him goodnight, I decided to ask for a final beer. He smiled, did not speak but put down his mop and went into the kitchen to find Madame. She looked tired as she came towards me, but smiled and asked in a gentle, almost coy, voice: ‘Would you like your beer in the lounge, or in your room, Monsieur?’
‘Oh – in my room,’ I answered, taking her question to be a hint that she wanted to close up.
‘Yes, certainly. If you want to go up, Georges will bring it for you.’
I could perfectly well have waited the few moments it would take her to bring me a bottle and glass, but she evidently thought it polite to offer me this little service. I went upstairs and sat on down on my bed to wait. Five minutes later Georges knocked.
He stood in the corridor, bottle and opener in one hand, glass in the other. He had let down his hair so that it framed his features, transforming his face, making him much more attractive. I should have reached out to take the beer from him, but amazed by the change in his appearance I hung back. He stepped forwards into the room and put the bottle and glass down on the bedside table, holding out the bottle opener.
‘You want me to open it now?’
‘I suppose so.’
He prised off the bottle’s cap and poured a little beer into the glass, watching the collar of froth rise towards the rim. This effervescence seemed to fascinate him. ‘It’s good beer,’ he said, looking up.
‘Yes.’ What was going on in his mind to give rise to this odd ritual over opening a bottle of beer? Was he curious about me, like a child meeting a stranger? ‘I expect Madame will be waiting for you.’
‘No, she doesn’t wait. If you want I will go, or if not I can stay for a few minutes maybe. Maman knows everything I do.’
An inner voice was telling me to be sensible and get rid of him quickly, yet there he was, lingering in my room, saying he could stay for a few minutes. Was he attracted to me sexually? What had he meant by saying that his mother knew everything he did? If he was trying to tell me that he was available for sex, did I want to sleep with someone like him? Would not to do so be to act as a predatory male taking sexual advantage of someone vulnerable?
With his hair down, his warm brown eyes looking at me intently, he did seem very attractive. If we wanted each other, why should a difference in intelligence rule out our making love? If I told him to go because of that, would it not be another unfair rejection, as wrong as Peter’s barring him from serving us in the dining room? Twice I opened my mouth to speak but my thoughts were so muddled I could not formulate any words; when I tried a third time I said in a voice that seemed almost not to be mine, ‘Stay. Sit down.’
He sat on the bed and looked at me with a hunger that was unmistakable. I reached out to touch him, we embraced, began to discover each other physically, and made love. Afterwards for a little while we lay with our arms around each other, but when he sensed that he was in danger of falling asleep he got up. As he dressed I asked him, ‘What have you got in those pockets?’
He unbuttoned them and pulled out two plastic water bottles, the type that cyclists carry on long distance rides. ‘A cyclist was here, he gave me these. Every day I fill two up for him, this one with water, this one zumo de naranja.’
‘Zumo de naranja, orange juice, he was a Spanish man.’‘Oh I see, of course, Spanish. He was your friend, when he was here?’
‘Yes, he was very good friend to me.’ He folded his arms around himself and made kissing noises, rocking his shoulders. ‘Five nights.’
We smiled at each other, embraced briefly and said good night. Satisfaction and selfassurance had replaced the unhappiness and worry Peter had caused during the meal. I finished the remains of the beer and settled down to sleep, not sure whether the happiness over purging myself of collusion in Peter’s nastiness was justified, or whether I ought to feel guilty for having taken advantage of Georges.
The next day I went down for breakfast loathing the prospect of the week to come. An empty cup and crumpled serviette at the table where Peter and Caroline sat told me Marie had already eaten and returned to her room. Peter was on to me almost before I sat down: ‘Look as though you haven’t slept. Had a less than perfect night ourselves as it happens. Some bloody couple upstairs thrashing about half the night. You know what the bloody French are like.’
‘Bit of tummy trouble in my case,’ I lied, hoping to divert any suspicion that I might have been the cause of the noise.
‘Poor thing, nothing serious I hope?’ Caroline asked. She did not look in the slightest as though she was suffering from the effects of a sleepless night. She had delicately applied a little eye shadow and mascara, and donned a beautifully cut jacket with fine blue and white stripes.
As I shook my head Georges hurried from the kitchen to our table carrying a glass of orange juice. I prayed he was not about to give me away. ‘Zumo de naranja,’ he said, putting it in front of me and departing at speed back to the kitchen without another word.
‘Not that bloody half-wit with his nonsense language again,’ Peter said, this time thankfully in a voice not loud enough to be heard in Paris.
‘It’s not nonsense,’ Caroline said, ‘it’s Spanish for orange juice.’
‘Zumo de naranja. It’s Spanish for orange juice.’
He smiled. ‘How on earth could someone like him have picked that up?’ The idea seemed so ludicrous to him that he began to laugh. ‘Still having trouble with his own language, and they’re trying to teach him Spanish!’ Again he laughed, at first a little, then with abandon, his shoulders shaking and his eyes becoming moist.
While he was convulsed with amusement at his own joke Caroline said, very softly but distinctly, ‘Village idiot knows more Spanish than Peter does.’ She had spoken too quietly for him to make out most of her words, but he picked out his name.
‘What was that?’ he asked.
‘I said someone Spanish must have taught him, Peter dear.’
He looked at her quizzically. ‘Well, wouldn’t have been an Italian, would it?’ he said, and was seized by laughter again, shaking his shoulders and creasing up his face.
When the laughing fit subsided he said, ‘Better stroll over to the garage and find out what progress has been made. Won’t call on you for translation unless I have to, since you’re under the weather. Don’t worry about the bill. I’ll settle up with Madame for all of us.’
When he was out of earshot I leaned across towards Caroline. ‘I heard what you said.’
She turned to face me. ‘And I’ve noticed the way you look at attractive men. Wouldn’t dream of saying anything to anyone else about it of course.’ She gave me a smile so brittle and so forced that it made me cringe inwardly. ‘If you’ll excuse me,’ she said, getting up from the table.
Some hours later Peter rang me in my room to say the Porsche had been pronounced roadworthy. After checking a second time that everything was packed I picked up my bag and turned towards the door. I had been unable to think of a ruse that would enable me to say goodbye to Georges in privacy. The prospect of spending the rest of the week with Peter and Caroline was unbearable. Returning my bag to the luggage stand I went downstairs.
The three of them were looking at a map of the area on a wall near the entrance. ‘I’m afraid my stomach is still playing up. I think it would be a bit risky for me to try to drive very far at the moment. If you could take Marie on the back seat, perhaps it would be best for me to join you at the house a little later.’
They fussed over me for a minute or two, offering to fetch a doctor, get me something from the chemist, or take me to a hospital. I declined all offers of help, and assured them that the best thing was for them to go on without me. Marie did not look at all happy at the prospect of sharing the small back seat of the Porsche with several suitcases, and for her to have to endure some uncomfortable hours of travel was unfair, but for me to pretend to be friendly towards Peter and Caroline for five whole days after what had happened at the hotel was impossible. Giving up their protestations about abandoning me, they set off in the heavily laden Porsche.
Two days later I rang Peter to ask how things were at the house, claiming still to be ill but assuring him that the worst was over. ‘Come down anyway,’ he coaxed, ‘you can be ill perfectly well down here. Caroline and Marie will look after you.’
‘That’s very kind, but I don’t want to risk passing this on to you.’
‘Perhaps you’re right. Come down as soon as you feel up to the journey then.’
I stayed at the Hotel des Amis for a further two days, thrashing about, to use Peter’s phrase, in my room at night with Georges. He never remained with me until morning. Madame, he said, insisted he return to his room so she could get him up in time to start his day’s chores. As well as having his company for an hour or so at night, I spent quite a few hours on his vegetable plot where we picked French beans and weeded between the rows. Conversation was sparse, consisting mainly of him explaining to me how he tended his various crops, but we enjoyed looking at each other as we worked, and would pause to watch the comings and goings at the hotel and the garage. He even taught me a little French, the words for various garden tools, for pinching out the side growths of tomato plants, and that a vegetable garden was called a jardin potager.
Madame, as he had claimed, knew we were making love. She and I chatted together during the afternoons; her attitude was not at all disapproving. She had first learned that Georges was gay when he was found ‘touching’ another boy at school. At first she had been concerned, but he had listened when she lectured him about such things being done only in private, especially with someone of the same sex. He had never shown any interest in girls. Several other male guests at the hotel before me had taken him to their rooms. She wanted more than anything for him to be happy and lead as full a life as possible. At least, she said, she did not have to worry about girls claiming that he had made them pregnant. She wished he could meet someone who would stay with him long term, but accepted this was unlikely in a rural community.
In many small hotels in France the husband is a qualified chef, and he and his wife together undertake the running of the hotel and restaurant. Here, though, Madame ran the hotel alone, and the chef drove in every day from a nearby village. Despite Peter’s derogatory comments business seemed to be good. At lunch times the restaurant was packed, and other guests were always in evidence at breakfast time. Madame had a friendly smile for everyone, including me, except for one occasion when she told me off for buying Georges chocolate. ‘He makes a pig out of himself with chocolate, Monsieur. Will you be taking him to visit the dentist before you go?’
What I did do for him was to drive him into Poitiers to buy him a couple of good quality shirts and a smart pair of jeans as a present. While there I drew some money from a cash machine and when the time came to settle my bill I added a substantial tip. With that charming old-fashioned politeness that survives in France, Madame did not immediately put the money in the cash drawer but said, ‘Your friends already left a generous tip, Monsieur,’ and put the extra money on the counter between us, as though offering the notes back to me.
‘Oh, they did, did they?’
‘Yes, I was surprised. I thought they were not very pleased with the hotel, but when Georges went to tidy the room he found some money left out on a bedside table. I think perhaps it was the lady who left it, not her husband.’
‘My friend was angry because his car broke down. He made us all suffer because of it. That money was from him and his wife, this is from me.’ How surprising that Caroline, in the mood that produced her barbed comment to me at breakfast, had left a substantial tip. Possibly she saw it as a way to compensate for Peter’s dreadful behaviour towards Georges and had not told him about it.
‘Thank you, Monsieur, and thank you for keeping Georges company. He will miss you, certainly, it can be lonely for him here at the hotel. He is not too unhappy in his life, but he will be sorry to see you go.’
She called him out so that we could say goodbye. We shook hands, then hugged each other; as we parted he looked at me with the same expression of hunger he had shown on that first night when he brought the beer up to my room. Regrettably there was no real prospect of us ever meeting again. As I turned the Vauxhall onto the road they stood at the hotel entrance smiling and waving goodbye, and that hungry look of his stayed with me, unsettling my thoughts during the drive down to the river Lot and, from time to time, returning to haunt me for months afterwards.
I arrived at the house in mid-afternoon on the last full day before Caroline, Peter and Marie began their return. They were already preparing to leave. Their welcome was less than enthusiastic, and when they decided to have cold drinks on the patio they seemed to have forgotten about me until, almost as an afterthought, as Caroline was about to sit down she offhandedly told me to fetch myself a glass of whatever I wanted from the kitchen.
Later Peter asked me to help hack back some brambles in the garden, and while we were chopping and thwacking he said, ‘Lucky your stomach bug cleared up in time for the drive home. I’d begun to think you might be stranded for weeks in that grubby little hotel.’
The Hotel des Amis had not been at all grubby, but the true target of the jibe was not Madame or Georges but me. Except for that one remark of his, my feigned illness was not mentioned again. Caroline and Peter adopted a policy of speaking to me only when necessary. Marie confided that they had been hoping my fluent French would help them settle a dispute with the farmer who had sold them the house about vehicle access to the rear.
The next day she and I followed the Porsche on the unexceptional journey back to England. The nearer we came to home the more I worried about the damage that my holiday escapade with Georges might have done to my career, and the more dubious my own motives and behaviour in ingratiating myself with Peter seemed.CHAPTER 2
After the holiday Peter did not invite me into his office or walk across the floor to my workspace to greet me. During the first week I saw him once in the distance heading for the lifts, looking straight ahead; if my existence did register on the edge of his field of vision he ignored me. Evidently he had decided to freeze me out. For several days I sat ever more uneasily at my desk, afraid whenever the telephone rang or an e-mail message arrived that retribution for my pretended illness in France was imminent.
The familiarity of the files, forms, manuals and directories on the shelves above my desk and in the drawers of my cabinet was reassuring in a way, but they represented a world of low profile routine tasks, not likely to bring me to the notice of those with influence over my career. As though to reinforce my descent from grace, no correspondence or messages of any importance awaited me, no crisis had occurred that needed my particular talents, whilst a plague of tedious minutiae had accumulated, irritating queries, petty niggles, and circulars that were barely worth reading.
Even a routine small order for a software package that should have been placed during my absence was back on my desk, not sent off on the feeble excuse that the supplier was keen to send a sales representative to visit. Anyone in my little team ought to have known that hearing another lot of sales patter would be about as welcome as the computer going down during a demonstration. We were supposed to be software and network engineers, not excuse engineers.
There was to be no swimming session the first week of my return because of the partners’ quarterly meeting. The following Thursday would be the first significant test of whether Peter was sufficiently annoyed to bar me from attending. If he really wanted to embarrass me he might even make the arrangements without letting me know, leaving me to learn from his secretary that she had issued the invitations but been told not to inform me.
On Tuesday, half expecting a rebuttal, I sent her an e-mail asking if the session was to go ahead. The return message contained a rebuke the seriousness of which was difficult to judge: Peter says yes, meet 12.30 at reception, if you’re absolutely sure your health is up to it !!?!! Presumably he had asked her to use those precise words, but were they a jibe not ruling out the possibility of forgiveness, or a warning that a death sentence was imminent? At least for now I was not completely banished from his presence, and as normal I contacted the other swimming partners, all of whom confirmed they would attend.
Downstairs at reception Peter nodded to me grudgingly without smiling or speaking. As we walked to the baths he talked intently all the way to one of the senior partners, trying to persuade him of some accountancy issue he thought should be raised with the Institute of Accountants. My attempts to make conversation with a couple of the old codgers failed to evoke more than minimal and patronising responses. Whatever Peter’s faults his outlook was much broader. He did not discriminate in his treatment of the accountants and the support staff; he was confrontational and rude to both. Crucially he realised that the latest office technology was essential if the firm was to compete with its less staid rivals.
Did I really want to reinstate my previous working relationship with him after his behaviour in France towards Georges? I wanted to get on. Partly for the money, but too because more responsibility and more demanding work were stimulating. After being in the same job for a year or so, the daily routines always came to seem like a trap. Ambition drove me on, and I learned more and more to mimic the ways of the senior people around me, I suppose hoping to be accepted as one of them. Peter had been the key to my progress so far, and whatever his behaviour in France, to advance further meant regaining his favour.
A certain level of discomfort in the working environment at Lindler & Haliburton was something to which I was resigned. The firm’s impressive office building, the staff in their expensive suits, the luxury cars and the business lunches had impressed me at first, until awareness of the snobbery and greed that lay behind the image spoiled the illusion of just rewards for exceptional ability. Facade was what really counted. Anyone who came into work wearing casual clothes and talking about being at a disco the night before would be judged a maverick, irrespective of ability; instead of creating an ambience of wealth, dependability and propriety he or she would be seen as belonging to a different, less privileged world. If I was to make progress my private life would have to stay private.
I suppressed my anger towards Peter over events at the Hotel des Amis and followed those around me in thinking of him as strongly motivated and showing leadership. There was a good side to him that emerged sometimes when he was not competing with his peers and not upset because his authority was being challenged. He often used his extensive commercial knowledge and range of contacts to help people, even if there was no obvious business reason for doing so, and a stranger’s good opinion was the only likely reward. He was considerate to his secretary, who had school-age children, and had asked me to set up a workstation for her at home so she could be with them when they were ill without having to take time off. Other partners with staff in a similar situation had refused permission for them to do the same, despite a circular from Personnel encouraging flexibility. Peter’s secretary spoke of him admiringly, almost reverentially, as though the Peter she knew was completely different from the abrasive character who confronted everyone else.
For three weeks my punishment continued, although at the next Thursday swim he did greet me verbally. If he was softening it might have been a good time for me to go to his office to grovel before him. The danger was that if he detected that my apologies were not sincere, the effect could be to worsen the rift. My dishonesty in France had not, in my opinion, been a serious deceit. Fibs about being ill were a small fault compared to his despicable attitude to Georges, and it was the cruelty of his behaviour that had made the prospect of spending the whole week at his house in France unbearable. Why should I have to apologise?
Also, if he decided to question me about my time at the Hotel des Amis, what would I say? Admit something very close to the truth, or tell him a pack of lies? Either option was fraught with danger. Better to hope that another route back to favour would offer itself soon.
The first step towards my rehabilitation came about because of a large indoor plant at reception, actually a small tree, which had dropped all its leaves. On my way to the lifts one day I heard Peter raise his voice to the uniformed man at the security desk: ‘I asked for that corpse to be removed days ago. Why is it still there?’
The tree’s condition justified his choice of the word ‘corpse’. The bare withered branches were like a warning message to visitors, suggestive of neglect or pollution, a contradiction of the desire to give those privileged to enter the premises an impression of longstanding success and propriety. The security man was flustered by Peter’s anger and began to waffle, ‘None of us in security has done anything to it sir, we keep an eye on it, much as we can. Trouble is everyone in the building goes through this way, anyone might have harmed it, we don’t know what could have been done to it while our backs were turned.’‘Oh bloody hell!’ Peter said in exasperation.
The office manager would normally have been called upon to sort out this minor irritation, but she was off sick. The problem was nothing to do with the information technology unit, but I stepped forward, grasping the opportunity to help.‘Office Services are having a few problems at the moment.’
He looked at me sharply. ‘No need for you to concern yourself. You’re being paid to cope with rather more demanding things than this.’
The same might have been said of him. ‘Yes, but if it would help... a couple of ’phone calls...’
The security man, hoping my offer would excuse him from further responsibility, backed away.
‘Hmph. I’ll give Office Services a few problems if they’re not careful. If you think you can do something to get them moving...’
‘I’ll certainly try.’
The contractors, a firm called Ferns and Foliage, were easily traced on the firm’s database. Elaborating the truth a little I told Office Services that Peter was so annoyed about the dead tree he had asked me to deal with the issue personally. Then I rang Ferns and Foliage, who, being told that one of the senior partners had complained that the plant was making a bad impression on important clients, said they would supply a replacement the next day.
When their man arrived I was called down to sign for it. He was attractive, very much my type, a strong thirty year old with dark curly hair. We had seen each other before, when he had been tending the firm’s plants and had caught me looking at him. He had been standing on a small portable step ladder, leaning forward above a big container to clip excess growth from the top of some climbing plants. Suddenly he had turned his head and looked straight at me, as though he sensed my gaze. Blushing, I had tried to pretend to be searching for some papers in a side drawer.
I walked diffidently up to reception where he stood holding a clipboard. ‘You need a signature?’
‘One replacement tree,’ he said, holding the clipboard out towards me without any hint of recognition.
I signed a docket with the words One Ficus benjamina (large) scrawled on it and asked, ‘I wonder what finished off the old one?’
‘Someone’s probably tipped the dregs of tea or coffee or the remains of a carton of milk into the pot. Milk will kill any plant, it sours the soil. That one all right for you, gov?’ he said, looking towards the replacement.
I disliked him using the term ‘gov’, but his deep, warm, working-class voice excited me. To extend the conversation with the security guard looking on and passers by on their way in and out of the building was impossible; lots of straight men wore well fitting jeans, and there was nothing about him to suggest that he was gay. ‘Thanks, it’s fine,’ I said, risking a smile of appreciation. Grasping the main stem of the dead plant in his right hand he lifted it up as though it weighed almost nothing and strode out into the street. We had met. If I saw him again I would definitely say hello.
We bumped into each other a few weeks later. He was doing his rounds with a watering can, and had stopped to refill it in the little staff refreshment room on my floor. I decided to take a tea break and followed him in. ‘You’re here again.’
‘I’m helping out. Your usual man is away this week.’
‘But you have been in to tend the plants before?’
‘Yes, I’ve been in a couple of times.’ He smiled, lifted the watering can from the sink and stood looking at me, not sure what to say.
‘How do you find us?’
‘To be honest with you this is not a very friendly place. I expect most people here are pretty high up, too much on their minds. No offence like.’
I could not resist flouting office etiquette by offering him a cup of tea or coffee. Surprised, he became charmingly coy and looked down. ‘You don’t need to do that for me, gov.’
‘I’m getting myself one, so it’s no trouble to get one for you. At least it will prove we’re not all unfriendly.’ While the tea was brewing I asked, ‘Do you have other calls in this part of London?’
‘My firm does a few contracts around here, a bank and a couple of other companies. The main problem is parking, and finding somewhere decent for lunch.’
‘There are a couple of sandwich bars, and a pub across the road. They’re not bad.’
‘Sandwich bars, might try one of them next time I’m up this way.’ He paused and bit his lip. ‘There’s a good pub, the Beckford Arms, near the garden centre where I’m based.’
Although I was unfamiliar with that part of London, the Beckford Arms was well known and listed in the gay papers and magazines. ‘I’ve heard of it. Never been there, it’s not my area.’
‘It’s friendly, more somewhere people go to talk and have a quiet drink, not a place where they’ve all got one thing on their minds. More like a local pub. Friday evenings is good, lively but not too crowded. It’s a good evening out if you’ve got a few mates with you.’
‘Next time I’m down that way I’ll have to look in. I’m Mark, by the way.’
‘Tom. I go most weekends. Saturdays it gets crowded quite early, Fridays are easier if you want to talk, until the last hour or so when everyone comes in.’
My weekend was free apart from the weekly shopping and cleaning the flat. The effort of trying to pick someone up, deciding where to go, getting myself ready, all the awkward tentative manoeuvres that looking for a partner for the night requires, had seemed too daunting since my return from France, and all my nights had been solitary. Frustration would drive me to end this period of celibacy somehow or other before much longer, and the vague invitation to the Beckford Arms spurred me to act. Even if nothing developed with Tom the pub was worth investigating. Other men there might be of interest, if only to chat to, and if necessary more familiar territory in the West End was only an Underground ride away.
On Saturday evening, showered and meticulously groomed, I arrived at the Beckford Arms at about nine-thirty. While ordering my drink at the bar I spotted him through the throng, sitting at a corner table with an older white-haired man. I took a roundabout route towards them so that he would see me approach, prepared to flee instantly if his reaction was not welcoming.
He saw me, grinned and stood up. ‘Hello, Mark, isn’t it? Great to see you. This is Andrew, he’s my boss.’
‘I don’t want to barge in.’
He found a chair for me while the older man and I shook hands. ‘Good thing you turned up. Tom’s been pestering me about his holidays. We’ve exhausted the subject now, haven’t we?’
‘No we ain’t. It’s nearly a year since I had any time off. To ask about a holiday now is not unreasonable.’
‘Tom, if you have a holiday you’ll be bored stiff after a couple of days. You’re like me. I haven’t had a holiday for yonks. All my time is taken up with business. My advice to you is to forget about holidays. What’s the point in them? We’re too busy. We don’t have time.’ He took a sip from his glass and looked at me. ‘What about you?’
His question was so vague almost anything would have done in reply. ‘I had a week in France a couple of months ago.’
‘Went to France, ages ago. Pyrenees. Crossed over into Spain. Beautiful, love to do it again one day, when I retire maybe. I bet things are different for you, let me guess, a salaried position with a big employer. Tom and I are not so fortunate. Ferns and Foliage is a little shop I run selling a few gardening bits and pieces. I scrape around for business here and there to keep a couple of people who work for me busy, looking after the pot plants in office buildings, that sort of thing.’ He spoke softly in humorous self-deprecation.
Tom immediately contradicted him, his voice quiet but clearly audible. ‘It’s not a small shop, you must have about twenty people working for you. You ain’t fobbing me off this time, Andrew. I bet everyone else, except me, knows how much holiday they’re allowed. I bet every one of them has a contract saying what his holidays are, like people are supposed to have.’
‘Now you mention it, what does your contract of employment say?’
‘You never gave me one.’
‘I must have done.’
‘You don’t want to be the same as everyone else.’ He turned from Tom to me. ‘Mark, let me give you a piece of advice. Never have staff.’ He took another gulp from his glass. ‘Tell me, what is it you do in the company? Accountancy, isn’t it?’
So, Tom must have spoken to him about me, and the mention must have been favourable; my hopes for the evening grew. ‘Lindler & Haliburton is a firm of accountants, yes, but I’m one of the support staff, in the information technology unit.’
‘Good... an important job, good money I’ll bet, even if you’re not one of the accountants. Perks?’
‘Company car. A Vauxhall, nothing special.’
‘Special enough compared to one of my old vans.’ He went on to ask me lots of questions about the job; there was a rhythm to his speech that was mildly hypnotic. Normally people change the subject if I mention computers and accountancy, but he was keen to hear about the office computer network, my past promotions, and somehow he got me to tell him about Peter and the swimming sessions with some of the senior partners. At the mention of swimming he raised a finger and looked at Tom, ‘That’s something you’re keen on, isn’t it?’
‘I go to the baths most weeks, a couple of times if I can, like to keep fit.’
‘You certainly look fit,’ I said, glad to say something to him after answering Andrew’s questions and wanting to make clear to him that he attracted me. I bought a round of drinks, and having returned was about to ask Tom if he had anywhere in mind for his holiday when Andrew resumed his interrogation. He asked about my personal life, where I lived, what I did in my spare time, and about my family background. Somehow everything came out, that my parents were killed in a car crash, that my sister and I saw each other once or twice a year, that the money inherited from my parents had paid for my flat in Chiswick, that I had a degree in computer science, was definitely gay, not bisexual or undecided, and did not currently have a boyfriend.
‘You make me envious,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘You’ve plenty going for you, nobody could deny that.’ He sat back, rubbed his chin, and seemed to have run out of questions.
Tom, who had sat silent again since the interrogation resumed, asked: ‘Have you finished asking him for his life story?’
‘Almost. Only a couple more things. So what about future plans? Hoping for a relationship? Anything else?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Oh, come on. Promotion? Bigger flat? Better car?’
‘Sometimes I think it would be nice to get together enough money to leave the firm and go into something completely different.’
‘Ever thought of starting your own business?’
‘There are lots of self-employed consultant types in computer services. Or I could become a financial adviser, making use of some of the knowledge of investment I’ve picked up at the firm. Maybe that’s not all that much of a change though.’
‘Aha! A gay financial services company? Perhaps... others seem to have done well out of it.’
‘A gay business of some kind might not be a bad idea. Or just a job with other gay men.’
‘What else is there? Running a pub or a club might be hard going if you’ve no experience. There seem to be more and more estate agencies about, how about one specializing in places for gays?’
‘Isn’t there one already? Anyway, not sure if it’s me. Not that I’m ruling anything out. For a long time to come Lindler & Haliburton, or somewhere very similar, is likely to be my lot.’
‘Well maybe. But you’re right to think about making a change. When to leap and which way... a difficult judgement. One final thing before I go, the very last question. This chap Peter you mentioned, the partner. Is there any chance of meeting him sometime? There’s an exhibition coming up at Olympia in a few weeks. I’m sharing a stand with a furniture supplier, not the domestic market, business requirements – offices, hotels, restaurants, anything commercial. It’s their exhibition stand really, but I’m providing them with flowers and a few house plants, and helping to man it. If I send you a few complimentary tickets, do you think you could get him to pay us a visit?’
‘He’s not responsible for office services or the plants or anything, to be honest I think it’s a bit unlikely.’
‘Business contacts, especially a senior man, are always useful. If you get the chance, you could simply say a couple of free tickets had turned up in the post. I’m not going to pester him, don’t be concerned about that, well maybe as far as to say hello, shake hands, and exchange business cards. I’ll send you a few tickets; if you want to come along with Peter or bring someone else with you, or come on your own, make use of them. If not throw them in the bin.’
He had so far prevented me from exchanging more than a few words with the man who was my reason for being in the Beckford Arms. At last Tom broke into the conversation again. ‘You’ve been talking business and asking him questions all evening, Andrew. Mark’s come in for a quiet drink, he doesn’t want to hear about no trade exhibition.’
‘You’re right. Forget I mentioned it. Let me get the next round.’ He bought drinks for Tom and me but none for himself, and shortly after excused himself saying he had an early start in the morning. When he had gone Tom said, ‘I’m sorry about all that. I though he was never going to shut up.’
‘Doesn’t matter. He was a bit pushy about that exhibition. Is he always like that?’
‘He must have taken to you. He doesn’t normally show a lot of interest in people, but when he likes someone he likes them, you know what I mean? There’s no harm in him.’
‘What about your holiday?’
‘It slipped his mind, that’s all. He’ll see me all right. He’s been good to me, has Andrew.’ ‘Well, you know all about me,’ I said, looking at him expectantly.
He cast his eyes down and shook his head. ‘There ain’t a lot to tell. The gardening is just an occasional thing, when people are away. I am a qualified electrician, but I do building maintenance mostly, bits of plumbing, house wiring, repairs, decorating. Nothing special. Prefer that kind of thing to gardening. Don’t really have, what’s it called... green fingers.’
He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. Simply looking at him excited me. Did he have any idea how attractive I found him?
‘Is Andrew’s shop near here?’
‘Yes, not far. I live in a flat above it. You go left from here, straight on, left further down, five or ten minutes walk, that’s all. He used to live there himself years ago, when he started out, not the same flat, he’s had all sorts of work done on the place since then. He’s got himself a nice place in Biddulph Mansions now.’
‘You sharing with anyone?’
‘No, I ain’t sharing. I’ve got family not far away, but I don’t see much of them.’
‘Do they know you drink in here?’
‘Let’s say they ain’t expecting me to get married. You know how it is.’
‘Families are difficult. My sister sort of accepts that I’m gay, but we don’t see much of each other.’ The pub was filling up and we had to raise our voices above the hubbub. When our glasses were almost empty he offered to buy another round.
‘Thanks but I don’t really feel like another. Don’t let me stop you.’
‘No, already had enough for tonight. It’s not far to the flat if you felt like a stroll.’
A stroll! If his hopes were similar to mine the invitation was brilliantly understated. Controlling my voice so as not to sound too keen I said, ‘A stroll would be nice.’
Back at his flat he went through the ritual of making coffee. When he returned from the kitchen he did not join me on the sofa but sat in what was probably his usual chair. He seemed calm and relaxed, whereas my eagerness was becoming harder to hide by the minute. Surely the evening was not going to fizzle out over cups of coffee?
Earlier, when Andrew had left us, we had talked naturally and easily in the bustle of the pub, but now neither of us could find anything to say. All attempts to restart the conversation foundered, and we lapsed into two minutes of excruciating silence. At last he said, ‘Hope this isn’t the wrong thing to say but... do you want to see the bedroom?’
Relieved that the deadlock was broken I nodded. ‘Yes, please.’
He got up, reached out and took my arm to lead me through, closing the door behind us. We stood holding each other and he began to kiss me, brief cautious kisses on my lips, my cheek bones, my earlobes, my eyelids. I remained passive, surprised and delighted by this unexpected gentle foreplay. He steered me to the bed and we lay together, his kisses gradually becoming firmer, moving from my face to my torso as we undressed. This was no ordinary casual encounter between two gay men. His lips touched me again and again, now on my hands, moving up my arms, now on my chest, then back to my face. His fingers and lips moved over me, touching where he kissed, and kissing where he touched, each contact making me more hungry for the next.
How long these numerous kisses took I cannot recall, but right from the first we found we had an extraordinary degree of physical compatibility, and as caress answered caress we explored each other sexually, overwhelming each other with pleasure.
The next morning I woke up alone in Tom’s bed. A faint smell of fresh paint was discernible, so faint that it had not been noticeable among the flood of powerful sensations of the previous night. When I drew back the curtains bright daylight illuminated an assortment of secondhand furniture. In the kitchen a note written on an old envelope told me he had gone off to work. He asked me to help myself to breakfast, to use anything of his I needed in the bathroom, and to call him on his mobile ’phone.
The door bell rang when I was half way through a bowl of breakfast cereal. Andrew stood outside, smiling cheerfully. ‘Hello, bet you’re surprised to see me,’ he said, evidently himself not at all surprised at seeing me.‘Tom isn’t here.’
‘I know, he’s off doing some job or other. Fitting a kitchen or bathroom for one of the local spinsters.’
‘You don’t know which? He works for you, doesn’t he?’
‘Oh, that’s an arrangement we came to, saves him having to keep a set of accounts. He’ll do jobs for me when the need arises. He prefers building maintenance: plumbing, electrics, decorating, that kind of thing. I don’t have enough call for a handyman to keep him going full time, but he’ll help me out at Ferns and Foliage whenever I’m stuck, otherwise he finds his own work. He probably thinks gardening isn’t manly enough for him. That’s one of the reasons giving him an employment contract is difficult. You must have had a poor impression of me as businessman last night, but my arrangement with Tom is a rather unusual one. He finds work for himself, his earnings are paid in with the Ferns and Foliage takings, tax and National Insurance are deducted, and he gets back what’s left. Anyway, you’re the one I’ve come to see.’
‘Me? I’m not shaved or anything... You’ve caught me eating... You knew I’d be here?’
‘Tom uses one of my vans. He said he’d left you asleep when he came to collect it. You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here. There’s a house nearby I was interested in buying, but it proved too expensive... a promising investment for someone with the capital. I was going to have another look at it this morning, hoping for last minute inspiration before giving up on the idea. You probably have other things to do, but if you happen to have an hour or so to spare...’
The prudent thing would have been to refuse, leave Tom a note with my telephone number, and allow a day or two for my mind to settle after the elation of the previous night. We could talk again by ’phone when my customary routines at home and at Lindler & Haliburton had brought me back to the real world, and arrange to meet again or decide calmly and sensibly that one night’s love had been enough. However the euphoria had not worn off, and the prospect of learning a little more about Tom was tempting. I vacillated. ‘I ought to be on my way. You invest in property as well as running Ferns and Foliage?’
‘I keep my eye on the local property market, and this particular Victorian house has possibilities. Of course you’ve other things planned, probably the last thing you want is to go looking at houses. I shouldn’t have bothered you. Let me get someone from the shop to give you a lift to the underground station, or all the way back to Chiswick if you like.’
Since I had nothing arranged, why not pass a couple of hours with him? He accepted the offer of a cup of Tom’s coffee while I washed and got ready to leave, and followed me around the flat talking about how he had started with one small shop, slowly built up Ferns and Foliage to its present size, and in ones and twos had bought flats in the area to let out until he had more than a dozen. Having interrogated me so thoroughly the previous night perhaps he thought it was his turn to tell me his life story, but my mind kept wandering back to Tom and I did not take in a lot of what he said.
One of Andrew’s staff drove us to the estate agent’s office to collect the keys, then on to the house, although the whole journey was less than half a mile and we could easily have walked. It was one of a pair of large semi-detached Victorian villas overlooking a junction of five roads. The one on the right had a beautifully kept garden and gleaming fresh paintwork, while the one for sale was dilapidated. The exterior paintwork had largely flaked away, a maze of cracks had spread over the bare rendering beneath, and the garden was overgrown and strewn with litter. In a patch of nettles was the wreckage of an old car.
We walked past the iron posts where the front gate once hung. ‘It saddens me to see one of these places let go like this. These grand old houses in this Victorian London suburb are part of local history. Any little patch of a garden in such a built-up area ought to be regarded as precious, and look at the state of it.’
The front garden may have looked like a small rubbish tip, but years ago the house itself clearly must have been impressive. At the end of the path steps rose between a pair of classical columns into the porch. On either side of the door were slender windows with coloured glass panels, and the words ‘Goodmans Villa’ were painted in black letters on the grimy fanlight. The hall floor was of old fashioned black and white tiles set in a diamond pattern, and the staircase had substantial banisters of cast iron. The door frames to the principal ground floor rooms were carved with an unusually delicate, sinuous, floral pattern. Partitions installed when the house was converted into flats spoiled what must originally have been the imposing overall effect of the entrance.
Andrew led me into a pitch dark room on the ground floor and flicked the light switch without result. ‘Damn! There is electricity, the two attic rooms are still occupied.’ He found his way to the window and struggled with the shutter fastenings until one of them creaked open, the sound echoing around the room. Bright daylight revealed faded flock wallpaper and a deep bay window. He stepped into the middle and looked around approvingly. ‘Imagine sitting down to have your dinner in a room like this!’ He shook his head at damage caused to the ornate plaster mouldings of the ceiling where a couple of central heating pipes had been hammered through, and could not resist looking inside a big fitted cupboard in one corner, which was of course empty.
‘You really would have liked to buy this place, wouldn’t you?’
‘I am looking for something, another little business expansion. Actually the size and layout of the rooms here is awkward for splitting the house up into flats, as you can see from the way the existing partitions have created inconvenient cramped little corners. One of the ideas I had was to strip them out and refurbish the building as a hotel. Gay hotels in London seem to do well generally speaking. There’s no reason why one in this area shouldn’t succeed.’
‘Do you have experience of hotels?’
‘Only from staying in them. But we’re not talking about a large scale place like the Savoy or the Dorchester, perhaps I should have said guest house or bed and breakfast rather than hotel. There are plenty of places to eat locally, you wouldn’t need to provide a restaurant. Anyway, I wasn’t thinking of managing it myself, I’d have to have someone to run it for me. That was one of the reasons for involving myself in the Hotel and Catering Exhibition, you remember I was going to send you some tickets? If someone with a bit of money to put in wanted to share the investment with me the project could still go ahead. As things stand a developer has been buying up houses in the area, restoring the facades and pulling down what lies behind to build modern flats. That’s probably what will happen here.’
If he was hoping to interest me in putting up money for the project he was about to be disappointed. ‘You might find a backer. I don’t think anyone from my firm would be likely to help finance a gay hotel, though more than likely someone will have had experience of auditing hotel accounts; I could ask around, they wouldn’t have to know it was for a gay hotel.’
‘Oh, the accounts would be fairly straightforward. Anyway, for me being open with people is one of the essentials of doing business. If someone doesn’t like gays, I’d prefer to look elsewhere for advice or custom.’
‘Is everyone who works for you gay?’
‘Yes. There’s nothing like being with your own kind, is there? How is it in your high pressure City job? Everyone gay-friendly and open minded?’
‘The subject is never mentioned. Not by me, not by anyone. They see a thirty-ish single man, no girlfriend... They’re a sharp bunch, they’ll have drawn their own conclusions.’
‘You must know some of them reasonably well... not to confide in anyone at all... But everyone compartmentalises their lives to an extent: work, home, love life, social activities... And a good thing that we do, problems in one compartment need not prevent us enjoying ourselves in the others.’
However mildly put, this was clearly a rebuke for not having come out at work. Despite all his questions in the Beckford Arms he knew little of my circumstances and the criticism irritated me. ‘Why should I feel obliged to tell people I work with about my sex life? My being gay doesn’t affect them. They should judge me on the work I do.’
‘Can’t argue with you there, but gay men working in a “straight” environment are like sunloving plants struggling to survive in the deep shade of trees, we can never develop properly and reach our true potential. Wouldn’t you be happier with a firm where you could be more... straightforward with your colleagues?’
‘Without a reliable crystal ball that sort of question is unanswerable. How can anyone know for certain they will be happier in a different job? Will you get on with your new boss? Will the work be interesting? Will you have good career prospects? They’re the things that count, and you can only really find the answers after you’ve moved. Lindler & Haliburton is a very traditional stuffy kind of firm. My moving on won’t make them any more gay friendly, but if I’m a success there, in time, who knows?’
‘You’re right, all of those things are important. Let’s move on.’
From the ground floor we groped our way down to the musty basement, where the smell suggested a severe damp problem. We had already seen the main rooms of the house, and not wanting to linger there I said there was more to smell than there was to see and returned to the stairs.
He followed me up, but in the hall hurried past me and continued up towards the first floor, preventing me from saying that I had had enough of the place and wanted to go. By the time we reached the landing he was badly out of breath and very red in the face. He fumbled with the keys until he found the one to the door of the first floor flat, where he opened a casement window out onto a balcony at the side of the house. We sat on the balustrade looking out at the street, enjoying the fresh air and allowing him time to recover.
‘There would be plenty of work for Tom here.’
‘Too much, I’m afraid. He’s capable, but he works on his own. Never had much chance to develop management skills, and he lacks confidence. He’s not doing badly for himself now, with a bit of luck perhaps he’ll do even better.’
‘Luck, and your help?’
‘To an extent. He’s been a big help to me, always giving my work priority. Sometimes I worry that he may be... too easily led.’
‘Are you saying that I’m leading him on?’
‘That’s not what I meant. Some well educated gay men develop a taste for...’
‘Ghastly phrase. For a bit of a dalliance with someone down to earth.’
‘And these well educated men, do they know from the very start that they’re leading someone on? And how this “bit of a dalliance” will end? All that is immediately obvious to them is it, being well educated?’
‘Aah... you’ve caught me again! No, as you already said, without a crystal ball... Look, however illogical the question may be, let me ask you this, please don’t be offended. Should things between you two develop, and a time comes when you have to drop him, do it as considerately as you can.’
‘All we’ve done is to spend one night together. Anyway, Tom and I are about the same age. Why should it be me who is taking advantage of him? Was that why you went to all the trouble of bringing me here, so you could say that to me?’
‘No, of course not. Tom was... so full of happiness when he came into the shop this morning. I was tempted by the idea of nipping up the stairs to the flat to see you, to say good morning, it was an impulse. Asking you to come and look at this house gave me an excuse. There was no more in my mind than that. Perhaps I am a little over protective towards him. You feel I’m interfering, wasting your time.’
‘No, no... the house is well worth seeing, it has atmosphere, character. You’re right, someone ought to rescue it. Thanks for bringing me, but we’ve seen it now.’
‘Good. I appreciate your company.’ For a minute or so we surveyed the street, with its Victorian terraces and London plane trees, then made our way indoors and back to the stairs, locking up behind us. ‘Look, if you’re free, why don’t you and Tom come to have dinner with me on Sunday?’
‘We don’t know what his plans are.’
‘Oh he’ll come... Are you free?... Good.’ He pulled a ’phone from his pocket, spoke to Tom, and without giving me time to reflect made the arrangements. Having more or less accused me of taking advantage of Tom, how odd that he should suddenly decide to bring us together the next day. We went downstairs, and refusing a lift to the underground station I left him in the porch waiting for one of his vans to collect him.
Since Andrew had prevented me from allowing normality to return over a few days before speaking to Tom again, abandoning all caution I rang him shortly after arriving home and asked him to meet me in Chiswick that evening. From that weekend the part of my life not on hire to Lindler & Haliburton underwent a complete change. Tom and Andrew took joint first place in my social life, and earlier friends, haunts and habits became marginal. As before the two ‘compartments’ of my world, that of Lindler & Haliburton and my life outside work, remained largely separate. I found them reasonably manageable like that.
At work on Monday my new happiness survived the morning’s onslaught of telephone enquiries and e-mail messages, and in the afternoon Peter’s antagonism at long last ended. His secretary rang to say that he wanted to see me immediately in his office. He had successfully enticed a major high street retailer away from a rival accountancy firm, and asked me to assess urgently what work would be needed on our computer network to enable us to take on their accounts. The volume of overseas transactions made special software for handling currency conversions and foreign tax regimes essential.
Of the five people in the information technology unit who might have been called on to share the burden, one was on holiday, another on a training course and a third off sick. For the rest of the week half of my time was spent in Peter’s office working through sheaves of documents with long tables of figures sent over by the new client. Fortunately Peter’s experience with a US oil company before joining Lindler & Haliburton made him very knowledgeable about overseas trading. We drew up a list of issues for discussion with the new client’s representatives, worked through lunch hours and stayed on late, determined to be well prepared at a crucial meeting with senior men who had the final say over the new arrangements.
Our conversation was entirely about business until on Friday evening he asked me to go with him for a drink to a local pub. This invitation was not to be refused, a sure sign of my return to favour. To my relief he did not mention what had happened during the trip to France, but talked mostly about Caroline, saying how the company she worked for was having problems recruiting and retaining information technology staff and being forced to rely more and more on self-employed consultants from agencies. Lindler & Haliburton had so far largely avoided trouble by increasing pay in line with rates elsewhere, but he wanted to know if I thought the trend was going to prove irresistible. I did not give him any hint that freelance work might be a future possibility for me and gave a vague response.
On Monday the tickets from Andrew to the exhibition at Olympia arrived. I rang to thank him and promised to mention them to Peter, but warned that he was particularly busy because of the new client. Persistent as always Andrew said that if Peter could find time to go he would ensure there was enough to interest him to make the visit worthwhile.
Andrew’s dedication to his businesses increasingly aroused my admiration. He seemed to work every day, often late into the evening, taking off only Sunday afternoons. As he had claimed, everyone he employed was gay. Whenever ‘straights’ were mentioned in conversation he would slip in a derogatory remark about them, saying that you never really knew where you were with heterosexuals, or that the most primitive animals had a very strong urge to breed. These jibes may have been a sort of tit for tat for all the horrible things that ‘straights’ say about gays, but if it had been possible for him to live with no contact with ‘straights’ whatsoever he would probably have done so.
Arriving at work on the following Thursday morning after spending the night with Tom, I was on my way into the lift when Peter strode jauntily towards me. ‘You look like you’ve been up late.’
‘Met some friends last night,’ I said defensively.
‘Thanks for all your work with the new client. I’m seeing them next week... be nice if we could have something to show, offer them some sort of demonstration or presentation. Any chance?’
‘We could develop some screens to show how our system will look when they connect up, ask them to try a few options to see what screen layouts for sending data will suit them. Be another month or two before we can show them real data being processed by the system.’
‘Some demonstration screens would be fine. Any idea how long?’
‘Give me a few days... There was something else, probably not worth mentioning, you’ve got more important things on your mind. Some complimentary tickets have turned up for the Hotel and Catering Exhibition at Olympia. Expect you probably get dozens of that sort of thing.’
‘Not as many as you get to computer exhibitions, they seem to be on every other week. Hotel and Catering at Olympia, you said?’
‘Wouldn’t take long to get there, could do with a bit of relief from the office grind. Give my secretary a ring. If I’ve a couple of hours free, why not? How did you come by the tickets?’
The lift arrived at our floor and we stepped out. ‘Ferns and Foliage, the company that looks after our plants sent them.’
To my complete surprise he said, ‘Ah, you got on all right with the gay gardeners then?’ He looked at me with a friendly quizzical smile. I was terrified. My mouth felt dry, as though it was lined with fur, and my heart was thumping.
‘If you don’t know you’re the only one who doesn’t. They don’t exactly make a secret of it.’
That he could be putting on a pretence of tolerance so as to trap me seemed implausible. Realising that there would never be a better opportunity to tell him the truth I took a large breath and said, ‘Yes, I had noticed. I’m gay myself actually.’
Quietly and unemotionally, as though I had told him whether I preferred tea or coffee, he said, ‘Caroline said she thought you might be. You know she’s in personnel, doesn’t miss much. Can be too quick sometimes... you know. Speaking for myself, perfectly happy to accept we all have our different ways... but some of the senior men in a long established City firm like this... you have to be careful what you say to them whatever the topic. Speak to my secretary about that exhibition.’
Welcome though his apparent tolerance was, he had not made personal relationships with anyone else at Lindler & Haliburton easier. The unplanned ‘coming out’ to him was enough of a risk to my hard-won career progress for the time being, and other pressures demanded priority. A long series of queries, notes and memos to do with the new client needed my attention. For a month after Peter had won the business the pace of work remained hectic. A document drawn up to specify exactly how the link between our system and theirs was to operate contained thirty pages of detail about data formats, technical protocols, timetables for completing activities, safeguards against unauthorised access and other security measures. Some of these were readily agreed between the two companies, but others were revised again and again until an acceptable compromise between our differing working practices was found.
Meanwhile the demands of other day-to-day work continued as before. Some tasks could be delegated to my staff, but with limited authority to pay for extra hours not very many. My immediate boss, the head of the information technology unit, refused additional overtime for my team, probably resentful because Peter had not consulted him before asking me to take on the extra work. To complain to Peter and ask him to overrule the decision against overtime would risk worsening the antagonism, and to cope with the workload I put in far more than my contractual hours. Peter commented several times in the weeks that followed that I looked tired, but neither he nor Andrew ever moaned about having too much to do, and nor would I.
Leaving work unfinished to go to the exhibition seemed irresponsible, but as we boarded the taxi taking us to Olympia Peter reassured me by saying, ‘Been quite looking forward to this. About time we let up after all the hours we’ve put in lately.’
On arrival I suggested we go straight to the furniture supplier’s stand, where we found Andrew in conversation with a woman sitting behind what looked like a hotel reception desk. I introduced Peter, and, as though we really were at a hotel reception, Andrew asked her, ‘Is there a room available for us?’
Handing him a small plastic card, the ‘key’ to the room, she said, ‘I hope you’ll enjoy your stay.’ He inserted it into the lock of a panelled door at the back of the stand and led us into what looked like a large twin-bedded hotel room.
Peter was impressed. ‘Marvellous! Looks really convincing. You could believe you had stepped out of the exhibition straight into a hotel!’ In one ‘wall’ was an imitation window with a picture of a country landscape cleverly lit from behind to look realistic. Opposite this, behind mirrored doors, were the fitted wardrobe and the en suite facilities. The furnishings included a television, and picking up a remote control unit Andrew turned it on and muted the sound. He pressed another button to bring up a diagram of the room. As he moved an arrow around the screen little menus appeared, and selecting options from these he made the curtains at the imitation window close automatically, dimmed the lights, and boosted the air conditioning. Next he replaced the room diagram with a closed circuit TV picture of the woman at the desk in front of the stand, and holding the remote control nearer his mouth spoke a few words to her.
He flipped open the back of the unit to reveal a miniature q-w-e-r-t-y keyboard. ‘This little thing doubles as the room’s telephone, and can be used to access the internet. Here,’ he said, handing it to Peter, ‘would you like to give it a try? I have to pop out for a minute.’
We played with the gadget and sent an e-mail message to Peter’s secretary. About ten minutes later Andrew returned with another man he introduced as the furniture supplier’s director of finance. He touched my arm and led me out of the room, leaving Peter and the new man together. ‘Let me show you our free gifts, assuming we have some left.’
The receptionist opened a drawer and gave Andrew a white cardboard box about three inches square. He took out a clock with a novel feature: every half minute the background colour of the face changed from light grey to dark grey, then back to light again. ‘All done with Polaroid, I’m told.’
‘It’s unusual. Are you offering me one?’
‘Yes, I was going to offer one to you and one to your boss. They’re only trinkets. Perhaps he’d be offended.’
‘ No, why should he be? The worst he can say is “no thanks”.’
When Peter came out to join us he seemed delighted with the gift. We went on to roam the aisles of the exhibition looking at the stands, mingling with the hundreds of other visitors, accepting the business cards, advertising leaflets, trade brochures, sweets, trinkets and carrier bags that were being handed out as we went along. In return Peter occasionally gave one of his business cards saying: ‘Lindler & Haliburton, accountants. I’m Peter Haliburton, by the way. Very pleased to have met you.’
At first the eye-catching displays of the more impressive stands and the bustle of the huge hall were stimulating, but not wanting to buy any of the spotlessly clean restaurant kitchen equipment, or to place a bulk order for wine, or to have a swimming pool installed, after an hour or so we had had enough. Having walked at least once down every aisle and looked at least cursorily at every stand he said, ‘All these free samples and advertising gimmicks, does anyone ever actually use any of them? Is there anything you particularly want to see again?’
‘No. Nothing in particular. Was it worth coming?’
‘Yes, very much so. Enjoyed it. Let’s go up to that café on the balcony for a drink.’ He bought me fruit juice and a Danish pastry, and we sat where we could look out over the exhibition floor. ‘You should have said something.’
Not knowing what he was referring to, I said, ‘What, about the clocks... ?’
‘I’m not talking about clocks. I mean about that furniture company looking to change its accountants.’
Andrew had given me no hint about this. ‘Your chat with the finance director was interesting then?’
‘Yes. Seems they’ve had a lot of changes in personnel at their current firm. Worst thing you can do to a client, makes them think there’s no continuity, nobody who is close to their business. Every time they ring up they feel they have to start from scratch. They’re not a major league company, but not a bad little contract, if we get it. Might be worth you keeping in touch with your friend Andrew. Could be useful for us to have some sort of presence here ourselves next year; there may be more clients to be won.’
Below us new arrivals were entering the exhibition hall, collecting their identification badges and floor plans, and setting off along the already crowded aisles. Great cast iron arches above us supported the glass roof, similar to the roofs of the big Victorian railway stations. Not wanting to tell him that a boyfriend was the real reason I would be keeping in touch with Andrew I smiled and nodded.
‘Seeing all the people to-ing and fro-ing down there reminds me of when I was in the States. The corporation I worked for had a staff restaurant overlooking a shopping mall.’
‘Were you over there for long?’
‘When I left university the last thing I wanted to do was to join my father in the firm. I changed jobs a couple of times, then joined a US oil company based in Houston. I put in eight or nine years, living most of the time in the States. If you think I throw my weight around at work you should have seen what went on over there. My boss once fired someone during a meeting in front of about fifteen people, all over an error in a set of figures. Lindler & Haliburton, whatever its faults, doesn’t do that kind of thing.’
‘I suppose the US has a more aggressive culture?’
‘In some ways perhaps, yes, but I didn’t mind that. They knew how to get things done, they had drive.’
‘Anyway you came back.’
‘In a lot of ways life over there suited me. The corporation fixed me up with a very good apartment. I travelled a lot, the States, Central America and the Middle East. Worked on some substantial deals. My ambition was to reach director level, but two colleagues with family connections moved up the ladder ahead of me.
I put pressure on my boss who made some excuse about maybe US citizens having a bit of an advantage. I spoke to Personnel, but they either knew nothing or were not going to give me any hint of what the pecking order was. The US sells itself as the land of freedom and opportunity. They don’t tell you that being a second cousin to the founding family or an inlaw of one of the major shareholders is the key to getting on. Anyway my prospects became less good. The corporation was hit by economic recession, oil prices fell, and they had to cut back. By this time my father had retired, but he still had influence in the family firm, so, finally he got his way, I did what he had always wanted me to.’ He held up his cup and swigged the last of his coffee. ‘So here we are.’
Rather cheekily I said, ‘Your father retired? Partners do go eventually, then.’
‘Hmph. You’re right though, some of the old codgers hang on long after they’ve ceased to be any use to the firm. The place is in need of a damn good shake-up. Not my father though, he had more strength of character. Anyway, enough of my history. How about you? Happy in your work at the moment?’
‘Not quite the same as being happy, is it? Something may be coming up, if you felt like a change. There’s a little team I’ve set up. Might be a role for someone with an information technology background. You’d have to leave your current unit and involve yourself in some general management and accountancy issues for – I don’t know – six months, maybe longer. Interested?’
‘Like to hear more, yes.’
‘Nothing’s settled, a preliminary report has gone to a few of the senior partners, most have yet to see it. You’ll keep all this strictly to yourself?’
‘Approval to go beyond the feasibility study will take another three or four weeks. Let’s talk about it again then.’
Joining Peter’s secret team meant taking risks that could not be quantified. The aim was to bring about a merger with another slightly smaller accountancy firm, and the desirability of this objective was questionable. A few similar marriages between City accounting partnerships had taken place during the past year, but if a union proved to be a mistake the problems were hardly likely to be made public.
The team’s preliminary report recommended a detailed assessment of all the implications of the proposed merger. Peter gave me a copy, warning that if anyone else became aware of the project a severe penalty would follow, not only for me for leaking the report, but for him because he would have shown dangerously poor judgement in trusting me with it.
Every page was headed ‘Protected Confidential Information’. The first chapter compared the bigger City accountancy firms by volume of business and market sector, the next two described the organisation and business of the two firms, and the conclusion speculated on the potential benefits of bringing together a long established City firm with one that was younger and more attuned to growing new technology businesses. Graphs and diagrams showed the more balanced spread of work which would result, how the new firm would rank in size among its rivals, and suggested that it would have greatly improved potential to attract new clients.
The next stage was to examine the organisational changes which would result from the merger, develop detailed plans, and analyse costs. If the project came to nothing after six months, all of the team’s work would end up being archived until it had gathered enough dust to be thrown out. Irrespective of the quality and extent of my efforts, my career would suffer because of my association with a failure.
Peter did not try to deny the risk, but promised to make sure whatever the outcome I would be able return to my old job. My immediate boss was in awe of the partners and quickly agreed to hire a stand-in from an agency so as to keep my place open for me. However a lot can happen in six months; any reorganisation during my absence might leave me with a ragbag of tasks that nobody else wanted, and stand-ins can sometimes entwine themselves into the workplace in ways that make them very difficult to dislodge.
Weighing against all the potential disadvantages was the prospect, if the merger succeeded, of becoming one of a small number of people with advanced knowledge of all that would be entailed. As everyone struggled to grasp how the changes would affect them, my knowledge and advice would be in high demand. A generous bonus could be expected, and perhaps a pay rise and even another promotion. After going over the arguments for and against in my mind time and again, and discussing the implications of joining the team with Andrew and others, I gambled that the potential benefits of success outweighed the possible consequences of failure.
Until I joined, the team consisted of three accountants. From our firm there was a partner of Peter’s age and a junior who had recently qualified. Representing the smaller firm was a female partner; the news that a woman had been entrusted with such an important role had yet to be broken to the old codgers. Peter was very selective about what he told them, releasing morsels of information bit by bit in bland terms, avoiding anything that might seem new or unusual, so that the merger came to be perceived as a familiar old theme developing at a gradual pace, not as something radical or revolutionary.
To keep us apart from other members of staff we were put in a room on a floor of the building mostly occupied by another company. Our title, ‘Business Strategy Unit’, gave no clue as to our real purpose. Even to meet old colleagues from the IT Unit for lunch was risky; my evasiveness about my new job increased their curiosity. Of the team members only the female partner was friendly towards me, the Lindler & Haliburton men evidently believing themselves to be on too high a plane to have much to do with a technical IT specialist.
At my first team meeting they made it clear they wanted me to keep to IT issues. In a way this suited me, allowing me to organize my own time and to visit the smaller firm’s IT Unit. To maintain secrecy, Peter arranged for me to be introduced there as a consultant brought in to review system security, giving me a plausible reason to ask about all aspects of their systems and procedures.
The atmosphere at the smaller company was much less formal than at Lindler & Haliburton. Everyone used first names, and during breaks people talked about windsurfing and mountain biking rather than playing golf and attending Rotary Club dinners. When the head of the IT Unit tentatively asked if I was married, telling him that I was gay seemed easy and natural. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you’ll have to let me introduce you to a couple of the accountants here, they deal with quite a few gay run businesses. It’s a growing sector.’
By comparison the two Lindler & Haliburton men seemed even more old-fashioned, often discussing cricket scores and visits to relatives at weekends. On my first Friday with the project, after the morning meeting to discuss the week’s progress, they invited me to go for a lunchtime drink. This was the first time they had shown any interest in me, and not wanting to be unfriendly I accepted. We walked briskly past several pubs we could have entered, eventually heading down a narrow side street to a seedy little place, gloomy inside with a raised platform in one corner.
Paunchy middle aged men, their faces oddly alert and expectant, crowded the open area between the bar and the platform. Neither of my two colleagues had bothered to tell me they habitually went there at lunch time on Fridays for the free strip show. With pints of beer and packets of crisps in our hands we watched a woman in her thirties undress under meagre spotlights to raunchy music. ‘Does it do anything for you?’ the senior of my colleagues asked, probably expecting me to thank him for bringing me to this extravaganza.‘Not my kind of thing.’
He shrugged his shoulders and turned away. The younger one seemed too absorbed in the performance to notice me. Should I have declared my sexual orientation to them? Certainly not there, among those sweaty straight men enjoying their weekly titillation. My hasty goodbye and exit from the pub before a second performer began her routine told them as much as they needed to know.
Seeing me return alone early, the female on the team partner asked, ‘Not too keen on theatricals then?’
‘Do you know where they took me?’
‘I overheard them talking about it. I know what they go to see. What made you come back?’
‘Oh, pity,’ she said, giving me a wistful look. ‘Why did you go with them?’ ‘They gave me the impression it was a Friday lunchtime drink, you know, male bonding.’ ‘“Male bonding,” is that why you thought they left me out?’
‘Sorry. Still trying to conform to their way of seeing things. I should have said team bonding.’
‘Not to worry. I’ve disqualified myself from that sort of thing.’ In the early days of the team she had infuriated the Lindler & Haliburton men by contacting the Institute of Accountants to ask discreetly about its attitude to the recent trend of takeovers and mergers among accountancy partnerships. This was a sensible act, but they resented her having had the initiative to consult the prestigious Institute when neither of them had thought of doing so. One of the old codgers was a member of the Institute’s General Committee, and any dealings with the organisation were considered a great privilege.
In revenge for her having, as they saw it, robbed them of a prize, they had allocated as many tedious tasks to her as they could, including the job of listing all the small contracts the two firms had in place with office equipment and other suppliers. We became allies, sharing information and documents, discussing ideas and backing each other up during team meetings.
She and I had another means, outside the team, of making sure our views were heard. I reported back to Peter privately, and she likewise reported to one of her firm’s most senior partners. We collaborated in suggesting that some significant problems were being underrated, arguing for instance that decision-making would be more cumbersome in a bigger organisation. Some ideas that had been ruled out by the Lindler & Haliburton men on the team we also put to Peter and his counterpart from the other firm who raised them at project meetings. This may have made hostility and suspicion within the team worse, but it helped the project develop in a more thorough and realistic way.
About halfway through our work Lizetta Williams from Personnel came to join us for one day a week to assess staffing implications. We had met briefly a couple of times in the past; she was in her mid-thirties, pleasant and lively, and after her first team meeting came over to me wanting to chat. Later we went to a sandwich bar for lunch where she ordered soup and a roll, saying that she was dieting. I chose a large sandwich of French bread with mixed seafood and salad which, enviously, she said was disgusting.
‘How do you find the team?’ I asked when we sat down at a tiny metal table.
‘All right-ish. How long have you been there?’
‘Nearly three months now.’
‘Poor thing. The two men are a supercilious pair.’
‘Friday lunch times they go to watch a free pub strip show. They took me with them once.’
‘Tell-tale. You only went once? Excitement too much for you?’
‘No, I’m gay. You’re with us to work on the staff savings, I assume. Don’t suppose you’ll be recommending any cuts in the number of accountants, though. The other staff will be the ones who get the chop.’
‘I’m “other staff” too. Don’t worry, I don’t think we’ll be sacking anyone. The losses will be covered by suspending recruitment. People will leave at the usual rate for the usual reasons; a few early retirements may be needed to help see us through. Of course some managers may see this as an opportunity to settle old scores. Anyway you’ve got nothing to worry about, you’re Peter’s man, aren’t you?’
‘I’m not sure I’m his man, exactly.’
‘I know him and his wife socially. She and I used to work together, ages ago. I am right aren’t I? You’re the one who did a disappearing act during their trip to France?’
Surprise at her question made me swallow suddenly. ‘You know about that?’
‘Friends do talk to each other about their holidays. You probably did the right thing, making yourself scarce. You know Caroline was worried about you getting your hooks into Peter?’
‘She guessed you were gay and thought you were trying to get Peter into your clutches.’
‘Oh my god!’
‘Not your type?’
‘Is he anyone’s type?’
‘Caroline liked him enough to marry him.’
Was that the reason Caroline had been so unpleasant to me that first morning at breakfast in the Hotel des Amis? I moved the slice of chocolate cake I had bought so that it was between us in the middle of the little table, watching Lizetta’s eyes drawn away from my face towards it. ‘Would you like some?’
‘Oh go on,’ I said, cutting it in half. ‘Is he attractive – to women, I mean?’
‘Yes, to some women he is. He’s strong-minded, intelligent, decisive. He may not be the easiest person to get on with, but life will never be dull while he’s around. Think of the old codgers, or those two tailor’s dummies you’re working with, who would you prefer? And like Peter, Caroline is ambitious; she would never settle for years of child rearing or the Women’s Institute.’
‘We should have got to know each other before. We’ve said hello once or twice.’
‘Yes, we could have gossiped about all sorts of things. For instance, that woman on your team, is she really a partner?’
‘Yes. She might liven up the old codgers’ Thursday swimming sessions if she tagged along. A female partner in a swimsuit, it would be like their world coming to an end.’
‘You know about the partners’ swimming sessions do you?’
‘I am allowed to go. They need someone to e-mail reminders to them so they won’t forget.’
‘You are privileged. A gay man getting into the same pool as the old codgers. That sounds like their world coming to an end.’
‘Peter is the only one at senior level who knows about me, as far as I know.’
‘You might be surprised. You don’t hide it all that well.’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘You look at men you pass in the street. You were doing it while we walked here. Fortunately I’m not one for tittle-tattle.’ She pursed her lips. ‘Well, not all of the time.’
Since my return to favour Peter and I had not discussed my ‘disappearing act’ in France, and if what Lizetta had said was true we were never likely to. Her comments raised too many awkward questions: for instance if Caroline had considered me a rival for Peter, was there something in his behaviour towards me or in his past that caused her suspicions? Whatever might have been in her mind or his was best forgotten. When I mentioned to him that Lizetta had joined the ‘team’ he confirmed she was a family friend: ‘She’s a good chum to Caroline. Both working in personnel they always have plenty to talk about. By the way your plan for combining the two computer networks has gone down well. How would you feel about giving a little presentation to a joint meeting of partners from both firms?’
This was my chance to project an image of myself as more than a backroom technical specialist. Ten days later, to an audience of nearly forty, aided by a projector and screen showing charts and diagrams, I described my plan for merging the two IT systems. My voice wavered slightly over the first few words but then steadied; the projector did not fail, and no accidents or collisions befell me in the semi-darkness of the boardroom. During the subsequent discussion one or two partners said, doubtfully, that they were surprised at the comparatively low cost of my plan given the price of software and high salaries earned by IT specialists, but Peter had anticipated the criticism and had my figures checked and agreed with an independent consultancy. Reassured, the partners’ questions and comments became friendly and approving.
Another favourable sign came during one of the Thursday trips to the baths when the most senior of the swimming old codgers, a man who had hardly said a word to me until then, walked beside me as we returned to the office telling me about how his grandchildren used personal computers and mobile ’phones to send each other e-mail. As we neared the office he said, ‘Of course my secretary looks after all that kind of thing for me. Peter’s been talking me through some of the figures you’ve produced. Won’t claim to have understood all the intricacies, but you seem to have grasped the critical issues. Good work.’
The team’s final report was a hefty document with eight chapters, appendices crammed with facts and figures, and a management summary written by Peter which in five pages covered all the important issues and concluded that a merger would result in savings in costs and be attractive to new clients. Copies were sent to all the partners, and having completed its task the team disbanded. The promise to hold my old job for me had been kept, and the stand-in departed on the Friday before my return to the IT Unit.
Two months later news that the merger was to take place flashed around the building by email. Little groups of excited staff gathered on every floor, speculating about their futures and what was meant by the words at the end of the message: Creation of a new combined organisation will require some staff re-allocations; these will be staged over a period of time.
My boss called me in to talk about the effect on the IT Unit. After half an hour with him I called together the four people who worked for me and took them into a quiet corner with comfortable chairs to discuss the news and confess my part in it. They looked at me with curiosity and suspicion, listening carefully to my explanations, trying to assess what impact the merger would have on them personally. I assured them that after the reorganisation they should be no worse off, but nevertheless two were clearly worried.
Elsewhere the news was not so good. Office Services was expected to be reduced in size by a third. Other than the partners, everyone was uneasy about their future. Uncertainty caused many staff to ask themselves whether they might do better elsewhere, and during breaks people could be seen studying the job adverts in ‘Computer Weekly’ or ‘Accountancy Age’, surreptitiously turning to a different page if anyone with influence walked by.
Lizetta and I continued to meet at least once a week for lunch. She believed that several partners were trying to use the reorganisation as an opportunity to get rid of staff they thought of as troublesome or not capable. She was fighting for a couple of people she thought were being unfairly treated. ‘You’ll be all right,’ she said to me accusingly, ‘you’ll do very nicely out of all this chaos.’
‘I’m back at my old desk, that’s all.’
‘Have you heard anything lately from the IT Unit you are about to merge with?’
‘No. There’s been no reason for me to contact them recently.’
‘Their top man has found another job. He’s moving on.’
The head of the new combined unit was to be called ‘Director of Information Technology Services’, and was to have a deputy. My assumption was that my boss would become ‘Director’, and his counterpart in the other firm his deputy. Lizetta’s news meant the post of deputy might be within my grasp.
From Peter I learned that both jobs were to be advertised in ‘Computer Weekly’, and my hopes faded. Dozens of applications could be expected from people in senior positions in other companies. When the advert appeared my immediate boss, the head of the IT Unit, called me in, held up the newspaper and said, ‘You’ve been keeping an eye out for this, I assume?’
‘Which job do you intend to apply for?’
‘What would you say my chances were of getting Deputy Director?’
‘Why don’t you put in for both?’
‘I assume you’ll be Director, they’ve had to advertise because of personnel policy, but you’re bound to be appointed.’
‘They’ve offered me early retirement. I’ve spent enough of my life trying to satisfy all the old fusspots in this organisation. Sixteen years of dealing with them is plenty. Put in for Director. If you want it, you’re welcome to it. God knows you’re ambitious enough. You’ve been wily, the way you’ve cultivated your contacts among the partners. I have to admire the way you’ve done it. Myself, I never managed to overcome the instinct to tug my forelock to them; they’ve always thought of me as one of the servants. You can still put in for deputy. Make it a two-way bet.’
Peter and Lizetta endorsed his advice to aim high. They also gave me the names of the four partners who were to make the appointment. One of them I knew from the Thursday swimming sessions; the others I discreetly found opportunities to talk to, saying warm, mildly optimistic words about the firm’s prospects after the merger.
Three outside applicants and I were invited for interview. I was nervous, but my voice did not waver and my hands did not shake. My rivals were at a disadvantage because they were known only from their curricula vitae and references. However impressive these might be, and however well they performed at interview, how could the panel be as confident about these strangers as they were about me?
Three days later I was working quietly at my desk when Lizetta rang to tell me the Director’s job was mine. The announcement would not be made official for several days, and was not to take effect until my boss retired in three months time. When I told him the news he shook my hand warmly and we went out for a drink. His recommendation must have been very positive for me to have been successful. When I tried to thank him he said he was looking forward to passing me all the pressures and problems, and that since I was so keen there would be no need to wait three months, he would begin handing them over tomorrow. The knowledge that he was shortly to leave seemed to have reinvigorated him and rekindled his sense of humour, and we agreed on a combined party to celebrate his retirement and my promotion.
Lizetta contacted me again a few weeks later to ask if I had thought about requesting a new company car. I said that my preference, if any rewards were due, was for money. ‘Motor cars are what I’ve rung you about, not money. I’m trying discreetly to hint that if you act quickly you stand to benefit, that is if you don’t mind driving something that one of the old codgers has had his hands on.’
‘Exactly what sort of benefit are we talking about?’
‘I can’t tell you the details. Can’t you just put in a simple memo when someone asks you to?’
One of the old codgers, a man of at least sixty-five with pale wrinkled features, had for the past year been driving a Mercedes convertible. He looked out of place in it, like an old nail in a jewelry case. He had decided to trade up, at the firm’s expense, to a more appropriate Mercedes saloon, and the one year old convertible was offered to me. The car was in beautiful condition, the white leather curves of the interior flawlessly sculpted into an outer shell of gleaming blue bodywork. I would never have chosen something as showy myself, but since such a generous symbol of my new standing in the firm was being offered, why refuse?
Misgivings that I might be thought to have accepted a cast off faded completely when those around me gasped in envy. One day Peter saw me getting out of it in the car park and said: ‘You look as though you’re doing better than some of the accountants. I’d watch my back if I were you.’
On the first Friday evening that the trophy was in my possession, without saying anything to Andrew or Tom I drove down to the garden centre. Instead of going as usual straight to the Beckford Arms I went up to Tom’s flat, interrupting him eating. I waited while he finished his meal and showered, resisting the urge to join him, sitting instead by the window and smiling over the prospect of showing him the Mercedes.
On our way downstairs to the street I said off-handedly: ‘I came over in the car this evening for a change. We may as well drive to the pub.’ He shrugged his indifference. We walked past half a dozen standard, ordinary vehicles parked at the roadside, the usual jumble of popular makes of car in assorted colours, until we reached my magnificent Mercedes. I sauntered around to the driver’s door, opened it, got in and flung open the passenger door, looking up at Tom’s bemused face with a casual smile.
‘How d’you get this?’
‘It’s my new company car.’
He climbed in. ‘What are you – chief exec or something now?’
‘I told you, I got another promotion.’ He inspected the dashboard and fingered the lever
that controls the indicator lights. The firm’s leasing agreement for cars had a clause that restricted driving them to staff, but he was an experienced and careful driver and I asked if he would like to take the wheel.
We completed a circuit of the neighbouring streets. Passers-by must, we felt sure, be turning their heads to look at us, but of course we kept our eyes straight ahead. At a junction where an elderly couple were waiting to cross we stopped and magnanimously waved them forward. We were the most terrible show-offs.
We wove our way around the streets for a quarter of an hour or so then headed for the Beckford Arms. Street parking was always difficult there, but Tom spotted a tight parking space a couple of hundred yards from the pub, and edging the car back and forth half a dozen times brought it tidily into the kerb. Not until after he had put the hand brake on did he think of the risk. ‘We probably shouldn’t leave it here. Might get nicked.’‘Having it stolen from outside a pub might not go down too well at work.’
‘You’re right. Be safer to put it in the garage at the back of the garden centre. You don’t want it being crated for the Costa.’
‘Don’t want it being what?’
His mood changed suddenly. He must have thought I was making fun of him. ‘You know what I mean. Do you have to make something of it every time I use a common expression?’
‘That wasn’t how I meant it. “Crated for the Costa”, it’s the first time I’ve heard the term, that’s all. Shipped to a villain in Spain... it’s a good way of putting it.’ Anything I said now would make his mood worse. There had been other instances when he had sulked over a chance remark or some trivial mishap, and hours might pass before his good humour returned. He seemed to become gripped by some deep internal insecurity. Perhaps the difference in our incomes made him feel inferior. To me it hardly mattered; we could enjoy ourselves perfectly well together without needing to squander large amounts of money. His abilities were no less valuable than mine. He could, as if by magic, install an electric light fitting without visible wires in the middle of an internal wall, or cure burst pipes that were damaging people’s homes and causing real distress and anxiety. Business executives in the City might be better paid, but their high salaries were more likely to be won through greed and forcefulness than by talent and hard work.
We drove back to the garden centre in silence, both miserable. He moved one of the vans out of the garage to the street to make room for the car, and when it was safely locked inside I put my hand on his arm and said plaintively, ‘Oh Tom.’
He turned to look at me, and to my relief his expression lightened. He put his arms around me and hugged me. ‘We’ll go and see Andrew. Have a quiet drink in the pub together. Don’t take no notice of me.’
In the pub Andrew talked so enthusiastically about his latest venture that he made us forget our tiff. He had bought a part share in a horticultural nursery in Buckinghamshire. Discussions and negotiations through solicitors had taken months, but at last the contract had been signed and he had spent the whole day looking over the greenhouses, talking to the staff, and updating himself on sales figures.
While Tom was at the bar I told him about the Mercedes left in his garage at the garden centre and our misunderstanding. ‘Just another of his moods. He’s had his share of problems, but he always comes round. Congratulations on the Mercedes, puts the Ferns and Foliage vans to shame. You’re becoming too important for us, Mark.’
Later, lying beside Tom trying to sleep after making love, all the other occasions when he had sunk into a dismal mood for no or little reason passed through my mind. Any slight mishap or misunderstanding might set him off. Once he had over-cooked a casserole, not ruinously but badly enough to carbonise a few bits of meat and turn some chunks of vegetable into rather odd goo. It was still edible, and the chips and cauliflower he had cooked separately were fine, but he over-reacted and apologised again and again for hours afterwards. Nothing I said could take his mind off it. On another occasion in a restaurant a knife slipped out of his fingers and dropped onto the tiled floor with a clatter. He hardly spoke through the rest of the meal except to apologise: ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you, I’m sorry,’ or ‘I can’t help it, I’m clumsy I know I am, I’m sorry.’ In fact he was anything but clumsy, but for the whole evening every time he picked something up he did so with extreme caution, as though the wine glass was about to shatter in his fingers or his coffee cup break away from its handle. Reassuring words or attempts at humour did nothing to bring him out of these fits of selfdenigration.
The next morning, following our misunderstanding in the Mercedes, he was the one who was in the more cheerful mood. After breakfast to my surprise he was keen to take the wheel again, and we showed my prize off along the King’s Road and went on to Regents Park. We took photographs of each other in the driving seat, and asked someone from the garden centre to take one of us sitting together in the car, and standing, arms around each other’s shoulders, beside it.
That evening in the Beckford Arms Tom asked everyone we knew if they had seen my new car, boasting about how it looked and handled on the road. Among the ‘Wow!’, ‘Really!’ and ‘Fantastic!’ responses were a couple of sour comments: ‘more money than sense’ and ‘public transport’s best, causes less pollution.’ What was important was that, despite the misunderstanding of the night before, he was now happy with the Mercedes. Whether others liked it, loathed it, or were envious mattered not at all.
Expensive cars ought to come with a warning: possession of this engineering showpiece may make you feel like a millionaire, but imagine how dreadful you will feel if you crash it. At the end of summer on the Friday morning of a stressful week, about four months after the Mercedes had come into my possession, breakfast cereal and orange juice failed to help prepare me for the drive to work. Instead a twinge of queasiness in my innards, not severe enough to call a stomach ache, made me wonder if the previous evening’s take-away meal had been as wholesome as it looked.
Had half a dozen staff not been booked for a demonstration of some newly set up IT system facilities at ten o’clock I would have gone in late, or even for the first time in years taken a day off sick. The rain that morning was relentless, and before leaving the garage I put the top up over the Mercedes. The streets around my flat in Chiswick had a faint odour of decay, probably caused by the sticky mess that washes off lime trees in late summer. After a mile and a half the line of traffic in front of me slowed to a crawl, then halted, red stop lights shining brilliantly in the gloomy grey of the road ahead. We inched forward, stopping and starting in a fug of exhaust fumes.
A brief surge took us forward perhaps forty yards, and in a disastrous muddle of normal reflex actions instead of releasing the accelerator and putting my foot on the brake I did the opposite, shooting the car forwards and hitting the two-door Peugeot in front of me. At low speed the crash did not cause injury, but there was the inevitable crunch of plastic as the lights shattered. Putting the lights that were still working into hazard mode I got out to inspect the damage. The impact had crumpled a patch of metal around the Mercedes’ front bumper and badly dented the rear of the Peugeot.
Mercifully the other driver was calm. I shook my head, ignoring an impatient horn sounding a hundred yards back. ‘I can’t explain it, I don’t know how I came to do it. I’m really sorry. I can’t believe it.’
He looked at me with restrained disgust. ‘The insurance on those things must cost a fortune. Glad it’s not going to be me losing my no claims bonus over this. Probably a company car though. Is it?’
That was none of his business. ‘All my fault, no question. Are you all right?’ The rain discouraged us from talking more than was absolutely necessary. We exchanged details and he drove off, chancing that he would be safe with one rear light working. The Mercedes was not so battered that it could not be driven, but rather than take the scarred vehicle into the office car park where the ugly effects of the impact would be seen and everyone would gossip, I skulked into a side road, parked and walked to the nearest Underground station. I was in danger of being late for the demonstration and had to make getting to work my priority; calling a breakdown service would have to wait.
After escaping the Underground the queasiness left me and my head cleared. I reached work about five minutes before the demonstration was due to start and, not having time to go to my office first, went instead to the toilets to comb my hair and straighten my tie before facing the audience waiting in the training room.
In the front row, smiling encouragingly, was Lizetta Williams. The partners were holding their quarterly meeting that day, and having them out of everyone’s way in the board room made this a good time to bring together all the senior support staff. Two earlier demonstrations of the new software had been straightforward, but this time the moment I touched the keyboard an exclamation mark inside a bright yellow hexagon appeared on the screen. Beside it was the intimidating message in vivid red: Fatal Error! System Protocols Violated or Network Parameters Exceeded!
Some work on maintaining the system was regularly carried out after users had gone home, and the likely cause was that last night someone had interfered with the way the training room system was set up. Highly embarrassed I faced my audience: ‘We seem to be having trouble with the network. I’m not sure how long it will take to put right. Would it be a good idea to have coffee now and, hopefully, resume when things are sorted out?’
Lizetta helped me out by organising coffee while I went off to find the two members of my staff who understood the training room system best. They put aside what they were doing immediately to investigate the problem, but could not agree on its cause. Half an hour later they were still arguing about where the fault lay. Everyone had booked the morning’s session in their diary weeks ago, but there was no option other than to abandon it.
To try to salvage a little credibility I called them all together again and proposed giving a summary of the new system facilities with the aid of marker pens and a large whiteboard. They watched attentively as I reached into a cardboard box of about twenty pens, picked one up, and accidentally flicked the edge of the box as I lifted it out; the contents spilled out onto the floor and rolled everywhere, several pens coming to rest at Lizetta’s feet. She helped me pick them up while the others looked on, their expressions varying from exasperation to suppressed amusement.
When we had gathered in the last of the pens she said gently: ‘If I were you I’d call it a day and go home. Relax over the weekend and make a fresh start on Monday.’
My confidence had gone. Burning with embarrassment I turned to the others. ‘Sorry everyone, I still don’t know how long it will take to sort out the system. I’m not the superstitious type but — is it best to give up now before anything worse happens? I’ll contact you about another demo when we’ve sorted ourselves out. Sorry again, I hope I’ve not wasted too much of your time.’
I returned to my desk physically shaking. My own terminal was unaffected by the failure in the training room, and from habit I logged on to look at my e-mail. Among a dozen routine messages was an urgent one from Peter asking me to produce a paper on the latest system enhancements for the afternoon session of the partners’ quarterly meeting.
His secretary could not give me a reason for this sudden request. Peter himself could not be consulted as he was at the meeting, but she promised to tell him that I needed to talk to him about exactly what he wanted as soon as he came out.
As I put down myphone I noticed a message asking me to ring Tom immediately. I tried his home number and his mobile ’phone several times without success, and was annoyed that he had left an urgent message but was not waiting to take the call when I rang back.
Curious as to why the partners were to discuss the latest system enhancements that afternoon I began hunting through earlier papers and memos, looking for positive statements about the benefits, guessing at the sort of thing he might want. Three-quarters of an hour later he came hurtling towards me. ‘You’ve made a start?’
He looked quickly at what I had prepared. ‘What I want to do is to argue for using what you’ve developed as a standard for accountancy systems nationally. There’s no technical reason why other accountancy partnerships should not take on the developments is there?’
‘No, but they may have other—’
‘My idea is this. If we can convince the Institute of Accountants it should act as the national authority for setting standards for accountancy systems, better deals could be negotiated with suppliers, inter-working between companies would be easier, and the profession would be saved a lot of reinventing the wheel. In the long term we should have better systems at lower cost, the copyright on software owned by the Institute rather than individual suppliers. You see what I mean?’
His thinking had taken a giant leap from an upgrade to our internal system to the adoption of national systems and standards. ‘Ideally yes, but would the Institute be willing to involve itself? They’ve always kept aloof from information technology. All their Systems Subcommittee does is to produce a newsletter about things that have already been implemented, they don’t take a lead in anything. Competition among accountancy software suppliers is tough. Trying to take over control and get them to co-operate and let the Institute hold copyrights...’
‘I know about all that. Accountancy and computers are so intertwined now the Institute ought to play more of a role, not leave it to the suppliers to make all the running. They are the independent body, they are supposed to look after the interests of the profession, and that is precisely what I am suggesting they start to do. Let me have what you can put together in the next hour. Then, will you be able to come into the partners’ meeting this afternoon? I want to convince them we have to stop the Institute dragging its feet.’
‘Yes, but... I’m not sure what use I’ll be. The partners won’t be interested in anything too technical.’
‘You’re right about that, no techno-babble, keep everything in layman’s terms. My secretary will ring you when the item comes up for discussion. Should be between three and threethirty to judge from where it is on the agenda, but be on standby from two-thirty. Keep the whole afternoon free if you can. Is that likely to be a problem?’
‘No, no, I’ll be waiting for the call.’
‘Excellent.’ He rushed off again, leaving me bewildered. Even if there were good arguments for what he was suggesting – and I myself was not convinced – an hour was not long enough for me to write a coherent well argued case. What I gave to his secretary was a hotchpotch. The thought of him putting his proposals to the partners without a lot more work, and thoroughly softening them up beforehand, appalled me.
Worried about making a fool of myself in the afternoon for the third time that day I rang Lizetta to ask if she had any idea why he had suddenly become so interested in engaging the Institute on computer system standards.
‘There are rumours flying around that the knives are out for Peter. A lot of it is probably exaggerated, but let’s meet for lunch and I’ll tell you what I know.’
We went to our usual sandwich bar where she ordered her soup and roll. Preoccupied with the misfortunes of the day, although my appetite had recovered after the morning’s nausea I ordered the same. We sat at one of the little chrome tables, eating with our elbows tucked in so as not to jab people nearby. My soup and roll lasted about five minutes, whilst Lizetta, busy telling me what she had heard, made hers last a full half hour.
‘This is rumour, you understand, and I’m putting together bits from different sources, some of it from Caroline, some from elsewhere. You’ve probably heard most of it already.’
‘No, I’ve heard nothing. You may not have thought so this morning, but setting up the new software has kept me extremely busy. Outside the information technology unit I’ve not talked to anyone much for the past few months.’
‘You should always make time for gossip. Let me bring you up to date. After the merger the support staff were reorganised very quickly, but the accountants themselves carried on much as before, keeping the same clients they had been dealing with over the years. The plan in that report of yours, remember, was that they should reallocate their work according to a new classification of business sectors, and a few months ago they all went off to a hotel in the country to battle over who should take over what.’
‘I remember churning out masses of statistics for them. All that’s been worked out now, hasn’t it, the reorganisation is under way?’
‘Yes, but Peter has a problem. There was a scramble for the sectors with the most prestigious clients. Peter’s success in steering through the merger must have gone to his head. Rather than join the fray he set out to take over the firm’s seat on the Institute of Accountants’ General Committee. For as long as anyone can remember that privilege has been shared by the three most senior partners, each taking a year in turn. Why he thought they could be induced to make him the Committee member I can’t imagine. He couldn’t have picked on anything more likely to make him unpopular. You could probably steal the clothes off the old codgers’ backs more easily than deprive them of their stuffy meetings at the Institute. You’d stand a better chance of persuading them to give up their pensions.’
‘Peter must be aware of that, surely.’
‘You would think so, but somehow he has convinced himself that he is so valuable to the firm they ought to give him whatever he wants. Caroline thinks he’s been led on to some extent by people who are out to get him. As well as infuriating the three current partners who take turns on the Committee, all those who were waiting in the queue for the current triumvirate to retire are also upset. Some accused Peter to his face of trying to ruin their chances.’
‘So what is going to happen at this afternoon’s meeting?’
‘While he has been wasting all his energy demanding the impossible, all the main industry sectors have been allocated to other partners. There are two jobs left. One is dealing with an assortment of small clients; the other is to go on loan to the firm we have links with in New York for one to two years. Guess who everyone thinks would benefit from a couple of years’ experience in the States?’
‘Peter... but he gave up a job in the US before joining the firm.’
‘Exactly. He is now desperately trying to find a way out. Maybe he’s accepted that the three senior partners will not give up the Committee, and is hoping he can persuade them to put him forward to the Institute in some sort of computer supremo role.’
‘What will happen to Caroline if they send him to the States?’
‘She will probably go with him. There are plenty of multi-national firms based in New York that would be glad to take on someone with her personnel experience in the UK and Europe. She’s fine, by the way. She asks after you, you know. We’ll have to fix up to have a meal together. You’ll find her good company now.’
No matter how good the paper that Peter intended to present that afternoon, it was unlikely to be well received. In the partners’ eyes the Institute was sacred. To convince them to put such a novel proposal forward would require months of persuasion. To try to push the idea at the quarterly meeting without doing the preparatory work was hopeless.
I had a dozen routine tasks to get through that afternoon, but dread of the summons to the meeting made it difficult to focus my mind on any of them. After half a dozen attempts I gave up trying to contact Tom. Increasing hunger was making me irritable. Why had I not had something more substantial at lunch with Lizetta? I dared not go out again in case Peter sent for me; one or two people who might have been asked to go out to the sandwich bar for me as a favour were engaged on tasks that could not easily be set aside. I would have to starve.
Suddenly I remembered the car. It had been in the side street for hours and might easily have been stolen or vandalised. The breakdown service was engaged twice when I tried to ring, but I got through the third time and hurriedly explained the problem, no doubt sounding like a complete buffoon. They repeated back the details of where to find it and, with understandable annoyance, promised to make collecting it a priority, ‘since all your appointments have prevented you from letting us know about the accident before now, sir.’ Reporting the crash to the office manager would have to wait until Monday; by then her disapproval might be easier to bear.
The call to the quarterly meeting did not come until four o’clock. I was as nervous as I had been at my first ever job interview. In the board room there was one free chair, more or less opposite Peter. The chairman waved me towards it, thanked me for coming to help with what he called Peter’s ‘submission’, and asked him to begin.
Copies of the paper refined from my hurried drafts were passed around the table. Peter could have had little more than an hour to work on it, but had turned my rag-bag of extracts into a three-page well ordered document. He spoke for ten minutes, rehearsing the main arguments in the paper, sounding more and more enthusiastic as he went along, expanding on the benefits that would flow when the Institute became the leading influence on new computer technology throughout the profession.
He said that recent progress with the firm’s own systems put it in a unique position to help the Institute take on the key role of helping the whole profession obtain better value from computer suppliers.
Listening to him I almost began to think that he might win the partners over. The old codgers’ faces expressed nothing, but that was normal. On the table, too far away for me to reach, was a plateful of biscuits. No coffee had been offered me, and it would have been impertinent to ask, but the chocolate bourbons and jam creams looked mouth-watering. After finishing his peroration Peter turned to me and said, ‘Have I given a reasonably accurate summary, Mark? Anything you’d like to add?’
He had put the case so comprehensively there was little for me to say. ‘I think you’ve effectively covered the ground. I might mention one specific thing, the improved level of security now available for high speed transmission of data over telephone networks. This does extend the scope for co-operation with other organisations. I could provide more detailed information on any of the topics mentioned if you,’ I looked at the expressionless faces around me, ‘have any questions.’ I wished a couple of strong new arguments had come to me; what I said was better than speechless embarrassment, but not much.
The chairman, concealing the nastiness of what he was about to do behind a smooth civilised tone, said, ‘Forgive me if I show ignorance of computer science, but this latest software that you’re implementing – am I using the right technical terms?’
‘This new software, I am sure it is a wonderful advance, but how big a difference will it make to our firm, or to the other firms which Peter believes might benefit from it? Will there be, for instance, major cost savings, or some great attraction to our clients? Should we look forward to it bringing us substantial new business?’
‘I can’t say that, no. Some things will take less time to do under the new system, so there will be some savings...’
‘But not major savings?’
‘The main advantages are qualitative: some things can be done in a more straightforward way, there are additional facilities, presentation is better. The broad sweep of what Peter is saying does not depend on these particular enhancements, they would be a sort of starting point...’
‘Thank you, Mark, that’s been extremely helpful. I think I can speak for us all when I say that we have come to expect no less from you. Would you all agree with me there?’ He was evidently deriving pleasure from making me look small. He looked around the table, raising his eyebrows to encourage nods and smiles of agreement. ‘I hope we haven’t kept you away for too long from your other pressing duties.’
‘No, not at all.’ I stood up, took a last longing glance at the plate of biscuits, and left Peter on his own, defenceless. Hearing the chairman’s patronising dismissal of me he must have realised that none of the old codgers, or even the younger more progressive partners, was in the least interested in his new initiative. He was sure now to be forced into ‘submission’, to use the word with which the chairman had so contemptuously described his proposals.
At half past five, after the meeting disbanded, he walked into my office. ‘Couldn’t make them see sense, the old fools. I thought we put up a nigh on irrefutable case. Didn’t succeed, but we can’t be accused of not trying. Thanks for your support.’
‘Maybe if we’d had more time. The chairman completely threw me with that question. I’m sorry, I was struggling.’
‘No, no. You put up a good show. Wasn’t your fault their ears are stuffed with cotton wool. Cotton wool in their heads too, most of them. We may have lost today, but the issue won’t go away; what I was saying makes sense, we both know that.’
‘Is it going to make a big difference? In terms of what happens here, I mean.’
‘To me personally it will. Hard as it is to believe, the old codgers have somehow managed to run rings around me. What annoys me is that clients were drifting elsewhere before I joined the firm and shook things up! If they think that they’ve got away with today’s little exercise in crushing my ideas they’re in for a few surprises. What I could do with now is a pint. Expect you could too. You deserve one.’
Severely battered by the events of the day, what I wanted to do was to go home for a simple meal, and go on to meet Tom as usual on a Friday night. Given the extent of the disaster which had befallen Peter, his request was impossible to refuse.
We met at reception at six-thirty and walked out into one of those powerful winds that sends papers and food packaging flying up into the air between tall City buildings. He marched me past three pubs, doubtless wanting to be far enough away from the office to reduce the risk of bumping into anyone we knew.
Eventually we headed for the run-down dingy little pub where I had been taken ages ago to see the female stripper. A handwritten notice told us this form of entertainment continued, but fortunately it had finished at three o’clock. There were perhaps half a dozen people in the bar, drinking and talking quietly in the half-light. He bought the first round and we sat at a small square table against a wall, squinting at each other past yellow wall lights set too low down.
‘Fancy the old codgers getting the better of me like that. A couple of them encouraged me, probably leading me on for their own devious reasons. That merger has done some good, but evidently it wasn’t enough to shake most of them out of their usual do nothing attitude.’ ‘They stuck together, when the crucial moment came.’
‘Damn right they did. Nothing to be done about it now. Bloody firm. Whenever you try to achieve something there are always a dozen buggers trying to hold you back. Easiest thing is to let them all go to ruin in their own chosen way. Not only have they thrown out my ideas for the Institute but they’re trying to ship me off to the States. You know I had a spell there some time ago?’
‘Yes, you told me about it. How long would it be for?’
‘At least a year. Have to get used to the idea, I suppose, try to see it as an opportunity. Right now it seems more like a punishment. They’re an ungrateful lot of bastards. I don’t suppose any of them has a clue how much effort and sheer determination were needed to pull off that merger. I gave everything I’d got to achieve that. Honestly thought I’d begun to make a difference. They won’t get the best of me that easily. Time is on my side, they can’t cling to their lackadaisical old ways forever.’
Drinking so early in the evening on an almost empty stomach began to affect my head. Peter’s need to unburden himself was understandable, but he showed no concern for my situation. Friendship with him was always friendship on his terms. In this ritual commiseration over pints of beer it fell to me to buy the next round whether I wanted another drink or not. Up at the bar I asked for a packet of crisps and a packet of peanuts, hoping that food would prevent my head from becoming worse.
‘We’re out of stock.’
‘Do you have any food at all?’
‘None. We’re having trouble with our supplier. I should have some in on Monday or Tuesday.’
‘I’m starving,’ I said, paying for the beers.
Peter overheard this exchange. ‘People like that make me sick,’ he said when I returned to the table. ‘They don’t deserve to be in business. They could easily go to a supermarket and buy half a dozen packets of nuts and crisps, how much initiative does that take?’
We consumed our second pints at a much more comfortable pace, while he speculated about the effect of his new job on Caroline, saying that she ought to have a good chance of finding work in New York. I listened and nodded, encouraging him to do most of the talking. After about an hour he was less agitated, and my hopes of escape rose when he seemed to be running out of things to say.
‘What a way to start the weekend! That’s enough of my troubles. What about you? What’s happening to you these days?’
‘Oh, nothing much.’
‘Still living in Chiswick, on your own?’
‘Yes, I’m still on my own.’
‘Anyone special at the moment?’
What would he think of my relationship with Tom, so utterly different from his socially approved marital status? ‘There is someone, a boyfriend. We’re doing all right.’ If he knew what Tom did for a living he was bound to sneer. Instead I talked about Andrew, how he was building up his business in Ferns and Foliage, about the nursery in Buckinghamshire and how he was hoping to expand onto land adjoining the site.
‘I admire his type. They’re resourceful and energetic. What he does is small scale, they’re living above the shop types of business, but he has the satisfaction of being his own man. Nobody is going to be able to pack him off to the States when he doesn’t want to go.’
All this time I was watching the level of beer in Peter’s glass, matching my speed of drinking to his, hoping that soon we would finish our drinks and I would be able to go home. When his glass was empty, before I could stop him he was on his feet and at the bar ordering refills. On his return he said he was awfully sorry but he would have to go soon and we would have to make these the last beers, as though our being there had been at my instigation, not his.
Finally we left, a stomach too full of beer doing nothing to ease my hunger. The rush hour was over, but my train was full and I had to stand all the way back to Chiswick. My mind churned over all the events of the day, the alcohol jumbling everything up. Peter’s support had helped my progress in the firm so much, his rapid downfall made me wonder about my own future. I had climbed to a level from which it would be difficult to go higher. Should I start looking for a better paid job elsewhere? Had the time come for me to make a complete change to something where I would no longer be vulnerable to humiliation by elderly accountants who considered themselves my superiors?
Having left the flat that morning feeling nauseous, I returned to it with a headache. If Tom and I went as usual to the Beckford Arms I would have to avoid drinking more alcohol. In the hope of mitigating the effects of the beer I made myself two thick slices of toast, liberally spread them with jam and washed this inadequate meal down with instant coffee.
A shower made me feel much better, and refreshed I noticed for the first time that there were two messages on the answering machine. Both were from Tom, the first asking me to call him back, the second saying: ‘Hello Mark, been trying to reach you. Expect you’ve been out wining and dining in expensive restaurants all day as usual. I’ve got bad news: Andrew’s been taken ill, he’s had a blackout. It’s quite serious, they’ve taken him into hospital. I went in to see him but they only let me stay a few minutes. About to get myself something to eat. See you in the Beckford Arms later. Bye.’