The smell of minced beef and onions wafted up the stairs, under his door and disturbed his repose. It was always minced beef, no matter what time of the day, for the elderly man, who lived on the ground floor and generally referred to as ‘The Old Git’, had an incredibly limited culinary repertoire constrained even more by his fallible memory. The aroma was so familiar that it had become nauseating, and it forced Paul out of his bed and into the shower. It was a shame, for he had been enjoying an early morning vision of Cyndy Crawford, dressed in a pinafore and not a lot else, enquiring whether there was anything more she could do for him. His request involving the use of suspenders and a squeezy bottle of honey had been on the tip of his tongue when the stink of hot dripping and cheap meat cooking in an unwashed frying pan had assaulted his nostrils. The delectable Ms. Crawford had vanished with what he fondly imagined to be a look of sheer disappointment.
Once clean and dressed, he flicked on the kettle before braving the stairs, cold and pungent, to retrieve any mail that may have arrived. Though his flat was the highest to ascend to, it was hardly a penthouse, more of a renovated attic with a single sash window at the front and a smaller example at the rear. It was from the tail end that Paul preferred to practice his thousand-yard stare, silently wagering the elements, or a bird, to interrupt it.
He sipped his tea, balancing the mug on an old shoebox that doubled as a mini coffee table, before opening one of the two envelopes on his lap. After a mock show of surprise, as he digested the numbers and letters in front of him, he muttered the words ‘the cheeky bastard,’ whilst reaching for the second. This was a rather worn business affair with an impressive stamp in the shape of a portcullis on its left hand corner. Half expecting a surprise from the taxman, he unfolded the contents.
A frown creased his forehead as his eyes scanned from left to right. A Mr. St. John-Peters from the British Foreign Office had something to say to him. A Mr. Adam Harvey was also involved, but that came as no surprise. Nevertheless, however much he fancied ruminating over such a conundrum, it was a Friday and the struggle to his workplace still beckoned. He slid the now neatly folded letter into the internal pocket of his woollen suit and took up his Harvey Nick’s umbrella, in readiness for the moisture he was bound to venture into. After briefly checking his image in the ludicrously small hallway mirror, he clambered down the stairs that led to the building’s front door and out into the depression that blanketed London.
By British standards, the day was a muggy one, a temperate thirteen degrees. Through the Spring haze, the ornate Victorian facades that typified his district were being taunted and tantalised by the morning sun. The Plane trees that lined his street luxuriated in the damp atmosphere, and were so frondescent that competitors beneath them stood little chance of photosynthesis. The air had a faint charred aroma, as if someone had recently extinguished a bonfire.
“Shit,” Paul muttered, as he shuffled through the ever-present leaves that carpeted the pavement, fairly punting a hidden dog turd on to the side of someone’s shiny new Peugeot. Not that the mess on the car worried him, it just happened to be in the way. The state of his shoes and the slight splatter to his trouser leg did however, especially now that he would have to let it dry to pick off later. After cleaning up as best he could with a leaf, he walked on and could not resist a backward glance at his own motor, parked opposite his building - a similar 306 - but even with crap all over it, his neighbour’s still seemed superior. He narrowed the reason down to the wheels, and thought that the owner should be more security conscious, he could easily lose an alloy or two.
Paul had become accustomed to his morning car spotting sessions and was fast becoming a ‘show-me-an-indicator-and-I-will-tell-you-the-model’ bore, and it depressed him a little. Though every now and then, he would turn a corner and be confronted by the tail pipe view of an Aston Martin Vantage, bursting with svelte power and machismo. At other times it would be the lines of a majestic cat, or the prance of a dark horse, but whatever it happened to be, as long as it had a decent engine and an expensive price tag, he would appreciate it.
This peculiar habit entertained him for the duration of his journey, a keen forty minutes on a good day, but it normally took an hour to cover the six miles by bus and tube from Muswell Hill to the West End. Only marginally quicker than walking, though nobody bothered with the eco-friendly alternative, and Paul could hardly blame them. Not when he considered the perennial dog shit problem, the fumes, the weather, the chance of an IRA attack, or a collision with a double-decker bus that never happened. He often wondered how many of the tube and train suicides, of which there was at least one a week and normally on a Friday, were not suicides at all, but another risk he faced on his way to work. This was not the mood in which to toil in a busy office.
“You’re late, you owe me five pounds!”
“Go to hell, it’s eight thirty-five and that sort of shit went out with the eighties.”
“And very well those eighties treated me too.”
Jeremy was a freak, a highly educated, prattish Boer of a freak. His South African parents had engendered a dogmatic trait in their somewhat odious child, but neither could understand how two cultured, attractive Aryans could have produced something so wrong. Where were his strong features, his blond hair and athletic frame? Instead, there were uncontrollable mousy locks above a crooked and cavernous grin that spoke of a masochistic need for Coca-Cola and thousands of hours of dentistry gone drastically wrong. If his frame could have been scrutinised he would have failed on bone fatigue and classed structurally unsound. Due to his cringe-worthy appearance, the descendant of ruggedly handsome Voortrekkers had formed a personality barrier that to him seemed impregnable but in reality was paper-thin. He was the wind-up dummy of the office and he rarely disappointed the staff.
“Five pounds,” he continued. “Eight-thirty is the time you’re expected here, five pounds I expect in return.”
“Fuck off Jeremy. 9am is the contracted time, so I’m well within my rights. Jesus man, its 1996.”
Jeremy had recently been made a divisional manager, which unfortunately for Paul meant he ran his division. As long as Jeremy did not personally meet any of his clients, or any of his candidates, he could do very well as a Recruitment Consultant, and in recruitment, deals were all that mattered. The Jeremies of the world could practice their own form of despotism by becoming managers, earning small fortunes, and making sure everyone knew about it.
“Now Paul,” he said, rubbing his hands together à la Dickens’ Crump. “You know the rules, it is designed to instil a habit. A great many deals have been won before 9am. I want you to get those deals.”
“Jeremy, I know you find it difficult to believe, but your job, as far as I understand it, is to aid and assist the existing team and manage any junior team members. Now you can try those old money grabbing tricks if you like, but just don’t be surprised when everyone ignores them.”
“Pauly, Pauly, Pauly,” the diminutive manager sneered. “My job is to make as much money as possible. As long as I do that, I can do what the fuck I like. You should listen to me, you’re costing me money this second. How many interviews have you got on at the moment?”
“Enough …but can I ask one question?”
“Of course,” Jeremy was a little chuffed to think that someone as experienced as Paul was asking his advice.
“Where does it state in your job description that you have to be a twat?”