Song In The Wrong Key

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Chapter 11

An hour seems like a lifetime when That’s how long there is to go before Spy Kids 8 finally fucking finishes. A morning waiting in for the washing machine repair man - between eight and one? yeah, right - has that whipped by a couple of lifetimes. And a week is a long time in politics, apparently. But it’s arguable that two days isn’t a terribly long time in the context of a new job intended to see you through to retirement. Give it time; That’s the old adage. And, mostly, That’s pretty sensible advice. But, and you have to trust me here, two days was ample. Let me explain. Jerry, my new boss, was - and I hesitate to use the expression because base insults often betray a slack, inarticulate mind - a monumental fucking wanker. If anything, I’m being generous. This was a man so bloated on self-regard, so arrogant, so dismissively condescending that, two days in (actually, an hour in was probably enough), I knew things weren’t going to get any better.

The first day in a new job is usually characterised by guarded politeness, tentative stabs at familiarisation, eagerness tempered with a desire to avoid obsequiousness. Even with Marcus, we’d observed these nervous little rituals, despite the lack of formality. And I’ve been on the other side as the employer, don’t forget, so I know how these things work.

But Jerry didn’t do first days.

I was early, keen to make a good impression. At 8.45 I knocked on Jerry’s door which wrought the instantly worrying response: ‘Wait!’

Fifteen minutes ticked by. I knocked again. Another curt order to wait. He knew it was me because he used the word ‘Michael’ after ‘wait’ this time. I checked the reception area for CCTV cameras which, at the time struck me as vaguely paranoiac but, in hindsight, was eminently justified. At 9.32, he emerged wearing his all-business face, shook my hand with regulation firmness - he knew what a firm grip said about a man - and led me into his office. He sat behind his desk and leaned back in his leather chair. There was no chair the other side. Jerry didn’t do meetings. Jerry did instructions.

’Don’t knock twice, Michael. If you’ve knocked once, I know you’re there.’

This was not promising.

’Sure,’ I said, eager not to cock things up this early.

Jerry’s suit was so sharp, he probably trimmed his goatee with it. His left wrist bore an ugly but expensive chronograph watch and I noticed a small silver stud glinting in his right ear. He looked at his monitor and started manoeuvring his mouse around a Glaziers liveried mat. ‘So, here’s what we’re going to do,’ he said without looking up. ‘I’ll give you the tour, show you your cubby-hole and then you’ll get to work, which means you doing the jobs I give you. That’s what I do, That’s what you do. It’s simple, it’s efficient. As long as we understand each other, we’ll get on just fine.’

I did understand him, but didn’t wholly concur with his conclusion. Still, it was all about goodwill at this early stage, despite my misgivings. ‘Ok. No problem.’

Jerry shot up out of his chair, strode past me in a blur of aftershave and marched out of his office. ‘C,mon, let’s move,’ he said as if chiding a recalcitrant poodle.

Jerry had evidently spent some of his quality time immersed in the box set of The West Wing; he’d mastered the walk and talk, fizzing with information and detail, yet still able to hurl rebukes at any staff member who’d earned his opprobrium. We stopped occasionally to marvel at the sheer ingenuity of ‘The System,’ his system, its brilliance extolled with cloying self-congratulation. He introduced me cursorily to various members of his team (was I supposed to remember forty names?) before depositing me at a pretty young secretary’s terminal which he ordered me to strip down to check out the motherboard. It felt like an IT GCSE.

In retrospect, I should have trusted the inkling I’d had about Jerry at the interview, an instinct that here was a man so up himself, so obnoxiously self-regarding, it would be impossible to tolerate him for any length of time. But he’d been faintly charming as well, and I allowed myself to believe it could work. I was desperate, after all. Only now did it occur to me that maybe he’d been on best behaviour because the Managing Partner was behind the introduction. And maybe I was only here because Chaz, whatever he’d said to the contrary, wanted it, not Jerry. So it was possible I was feeling the backlash. More likely, Jerry was just a serious prick who treated everyone like shit on a shoe.

My second morning was distinguished by Jerry’s snippy instruction to nip out and buy him a coffee. Not any old coffee, mind, but one whose precise composition was already a muddle long before he’d finished reciting it. The word ‘latte’ was definitely in there amongst the drivel, so I plumped for one of them with non-fat milk and a chocolate topping. The first sip told him I’d messed up and he insisted I write down the re-delivered instruction with a warning to make sure I didn’t cock it up again. Now, I don’t want to paint a one-dimensional picture of Jerry here because that would accord him one dimension too many. He was semi-dimensional at best. Aside from his obvious technical competence and steely efficiency, I discerned not a single redeeming personal attribute. I’d worked for and alongside people with scant regard for the niceties, whose man-management skills were virtually non-existent, but always, even if a hammer drill was required, I’d been able to winkle out a scintilla of people skills which, with time and patience, might be nurtured. An excavation beneath Jerry’s surface would reveal only the blackest void. I looked to my colleagues in the IT unit for some support, for any sign that they, too, were appalled by the man, but the next oldest member after me was twenty-nine. Perhaps being less old-school inured them to this posturing, macho professionalism. They found Jerry easier to tolerate or maybe take with a pinch of salt.

The work was reasonably challenging and, even after a couple of days, I’d added some new skills to my increasingly bitty CV. It got me up in the morning and procured a little respect from Lisa who was just about communicative. But the die had been cast. I knew the alternative was a return to the aimless, endless days in solitary, staring vacantly at my computer monitor, a misery compounded by Lisa’s profound disgust, but even that struck me as attractive by comparison. Two days, then, is all it took for me to decide to leave. Two days. An interminably long time as a serf in Jerry’s kingdom.

On my first and only Friday, Chaz popped his head round my door. I say door. More an opening in the partitioned sliver of floor space I’d been allocated, which afforded me insufficient room to reverse my chair to get my legs out from under my desk without cracking a knee on something hard. I like to think Chaz was a little shocked and possibly embarrassed by the sight of his old friend cooped up in a space which would have had the animal rights lunatics throwing petrol bombs if the same indignity were visited on a dog. If he was, though, he hid it well.

’Jerry likes you,’ said Chaz, swallowing a chunk of lamb so tender, so heavenly, it merely caressed the teeth on its way through.

We were in the executive dining room. It’s who you know.

’Jerry doesn’t like anybody.’

’He thinks you’re up to it, on your early showing.’

’Up to what? Fetching his newspaper? Popping his suit into the dry cleaner?’

’He is a bit of a character,’ chuckled Chaz.

’No. He’s a bit of a cunt.’

I don’t use that word, I really don’t.

’You’ll get used to him,’ said Chaz who was clearly finding this all highly amusing.

’You see,’ I said as a hunk of steak slid, butter-like, down my gullet, ‘people like Jerry have no humanity. They simply exist. He’s a fucking android, Chaz. He can’t relate.’

’We like him. Not personally, obviously - That’s not possible. I know he doesn’t exactly exude warmth, but he does a bloody good job. The system he’s built is the best there is and he maintains it brilliantly, so we never have to worry. Anyway, you don’t have to like the people you work with. No-one likes me. Do I give a fuck? Do they? No, we just get on with it. As long as we’re all making money.’

’I don’t work with him. I work for him. That’s different, isn’t it?’

’Ok, but once he believes in you, once he trusts you, you’ll get along fine. Honestly. Give it time.’

I shook my head. I couldn’t look him in the eye: ‘Chaz. Mate. Listen. This isn’t going to work.’

’Course it is.’

’No. You’re not listening. I’m really sorry.’

Chaz placed his knife and fork on his plate in a perfectly geometric ‘V’ - bloody accountants. His supercilious smirk had V for vanished. He was about to come over all portentous. ‘Michael,’ he said with managing partner gravity. I’d never heard him utter my full name before. What happened to Mikeyyyy!? ‘I put my head on the block for you. We wouldn’t normally even look at a bloke your age…’

’Well That’s illegal for a start.’

’Listen!’ This was a whole new tone. You think you know someone. ‘I had to persuade my partners you could do this. That wasn’t easy. They prefer eager, young hot-shots in that department, not middle-aged...’ Thank God he didn’t finish that sentence. ‘Jerry could’ve brought in any number of twenty-three year olds instead of you. I told him he had to do this as a personal favour to me.’

You got it on your merits.

’So I lied,’ he said without looking remotely sheepish. ‘Look, you asked me to help. I didn’t come to you.’

’Fuck, Chaz. Listen to yourself.’

’And you’re here now, so don’t be so fucking ungrateful. Stop living in your head, Mike. You’ve got to look at the bigger picture.’

’Did you just say ‘bigger picture?’ Shit. There’s no hope.’

’Pack it in, Mike. Stop being such a feckless, selfish tit. Take responsibility for once. It’s not just about you. Other people are affected, I’m affected. God, no wonder Lisa’s sick of you.’

There are staggered silences, there’s stupefaction behind which only a yawning vacuum can exist and then there was this.

’Shit, I’m sorry Mike. Mike?’

Chaz reached across the table and touched my forearm. I was too numb to withdraw it. I stared hollow-eyed at a couple of sauce-soaked potatoes on my plate which, a minute ago, had looked irresistible.

’That was completely out of order,’ said Chaz. ‘And it wasn’t true.’

I gulped in some air like I’d been under water for three minutes. ‘Yes it fucking was.’

’She never said that.’

’Didn’t she?’

’She just said, in passing, that she was worried about you, that...she wanted you to make a go of this, not mess it up, so that things would be...better for both of you.’

’She said all of that…to you?’

’At the gig. It was just, you know, old friends talking.’

’About our relationship?’

’In passing.’

’She’s sick of me.’

’She. Did. Not. Say. That,’ said Chaz so pointedly, the words must have speared his tongue.

’Thanks for lunch,’ I said, placing my hands on the table and standing with a theatrical flourish. My kicked-back chair slid away and toppled over, clattering into the table behind me. The conversational buzz faded to nothing and all eyes focused on me. If I hadn’t been feeling so utterly undermined, I might have enjoyed the attention. I strode out without looking back.

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