|Vast: A Novel
Ch. VII: Emergency
by Nicolas Travers ©
Colin spends a restless night, lying in bed, stifling in the close summer heat, his mind burning and churning. But he can reach no conclusions, and finally he drifts away into dreamlessness, tossing and turning from time to time in his sleep, and hugging his pillow tightly.
He wakes early, and staggers out of bed into a world still twilit grey, thinks of facing Jane over his breakfast coffee, and tiptoes downstairs to make himself a quick slice of lonely toast. Commuter trains start early from Windsor, and he sets off briskly, reaching the station as the sun rises, anxious to be in London, and busy, and to subsume himself in work.
The train is virtually empty, swishing effortlessly through a landscape of fields and lakes and small housing estates wreathed in delicate grey ribbons of mist, and he is alone with a copy of the Financial Times and his dreams. But both dreams and mists swirl and drift, and he can focus on nothing but grey eyes, and a small tortoiseshell cat, and a soft butterfly caress on the side of his chin, and he travels in a fold in time, where minutes have no meaning, until he is climbing the stairs to RichQuick.
The Bat group offices are all but deserted, and a solitary Indian woman cleaner filling a bin liner with rubbish is the only sign of life. Colin waves a greeting, but she stares at him suspiciously and shuffles off, and he is left to his dreams and his fears.
However daydreaming advances nothing: he has work to do, he must frame his day and divert his thinking, he must anchor himself in reality. Colin powers up his screen and sorts through papers littering his desk, until slowly but surely the familiarity of routine starts to suffuse him, and a pile of company results draw him away into a matter-of-fact world of figures and facts and assessments, and he can cope again.
Wendy arrives just after nine, and is visibly impressed. She is in a good mood: a handsome and prosperous-looking stranger has made eyes at her on her train, and shown the temerity to follow her to the Bat Group's door, murmuring endearments all the while - whilst she, of course, has kept her nose high in the air - and closed off by promising to bring flowers at five.
She is a connoisseur of seductions, and has been much impressed, even though instantly judging the man to be a flash lover with a date nearby at five-thirty, hoping to squeeze in a quick shuffle on the side, for she can always recognise chance on the make in a world where push and drive are meat and drink to curvaceous editorial secretaries.
She also knows - of course - that she will stay primly at her desk at the allotted hunting hour. But she does wonder whether she might also try peeking, just for a second, out of Twister's window for a view of Queensway at street level, providing of course that Twister is not around, for securing a clear view involves hanging well out of his window, and she has no wish to have her backside scarred by Twister's pinching fingers.
"You must have come in with the dawn chorus." She smiles sympathetically as Colin leans back in his chair and rubs his eyes. "Shall I make coffee?"
Colin nods wearily and looks at his watch. He has already been working for the best part of three hours.
"It's married life." He yawns. "It drives you onto the streets."
Wendy is not impressed. "I'll stay at home, tucked up in bed." She speaks with determination. "Ray can bring home the bacon." Ray is Wendy's quantity surveyor, a shadowy figure with family ambitions, and she has long since decided who will labour, and who will enjoy the fruits of life.
She walks off to make coffee, making sure that her rear is neat and very correct, but Colin is too deeply engaged in a knotty feature promoting investment in unit trusts to leer, and barely hears her return, bearing a large steaming mug.
Then the scent of fresh coffee catches at his nostrils, and he sniffs appreciatively. "That's real." He is surprised: RichQuick has been living for so long on instant coffee that coffee beans are quite forgotten.
"Mr. Twister gave me a fiver for the kitty, after he spoke to Mr. Batten yesterday." Wendy lets the end of her sentence hang temptingly in mid-air.
They look at each other.
"Something's up." Colin feels his way judiciously.
"We were having a bad day before they talked." Wendy's assent is careful.
"We were." They eye each other - this is a match in shadow-boxing, with each trying to coax out a guess, and neither prepared to bid a starting hand. But Wendy has better staying power, and Colin yields.
"What do you think is going on?"
"Downstairs." Wendy pauses significantly: all the Bat Group secretaries share a special relationship, and a special conduit for gossip. "They reckon downstairs that some megarich Arab wants to buy a big stake in the group."
Colin stares at her, suddenly slack-jawed. "We might be saved?"
"They say." Another significant pause. "They say we're all going to be all right." Wendy looks mysterious, as though she knows a great deal more, but is much too trustworthy to tell.
Colin wants more precision. "Just all right?"
She leans closer, and he can see her blouse rise and fall with her breathing, and he understands totally why Twister is so besotted, and he allows his hand to creep of its own will towards her along the edge of his desk.
"Megarich, really megarich." Wendy steps back quickly, just as Colin's hand is poised to pounce, and flutters her eyelashes provokingly: she can rip financial magazine writers apart with her eyes shut. "Perhaps we'll even hire some real experts."
It is a savage thrust, and Colin glares at her. But the coffee is good, and they are just really playing, so he returns to his unit trusts, and he feels manfully uplifted.
Twister comes in just after ten. He is trying to look bright, but it is hard, for he is suffering painfully from a bad hangover contracted from drinking far too much Spanish brandy. Colin works on, but keeps a weather eye fixed firmly on Twister's door, and waits for an opportunity to hustle a fifty pound advance on expenses. Wendy makes more coffee, and smiles encouragingly as she places a cup in front of Twister, for she is agog to learn whether all the office rumours have any foundation.
However Twister is in no mood for confidences. He can barely focus on his cup, let alone her curves, and it is a great effort for him to fulfill any kind of leadership role, let alone leer with the only eye he can keep open.
Wendy notes his pain, and is all sympathy as she holds out a list of early callers. "Poor Mr. Twister." Her voice is a soft dove coo: an echo of a sweet and sweaty encounter just two days since.
Twister barely hears her. Nat Batten's name heads the list, and a sudden jab of fear stabs at him. Perhaps the Sultan is reneging, and disaster is back on the agenda. He reaches for his telephone, and his movement racks him with pain, and he winces. Perhaps it is an omen. He looks up at Wendy for support.
"How did Nat sound? Was he cheerful?"
Wendy has the gentleness of a dove. But Twister has failed to respond, and she is also still smarting a little from being waved out of his office the previous afternoon.
She smiles very sweetly indeed. "Who, Mr. Batten?"
Twister nods impatiently, wincing again as the movement triggers black waves of agony in his skull. "Yes, yes, Nat."
"Oh, I don't know." Wendy draws out her words seductively. She has the sharpest ear in the building for inflections of speech, nuances, and notations, and she knows that this fish is hooked. She decides to make him writhe for a moment. "He sounded as if he was in a strange mood."
Twister gulps, but Wendy can also be merciful.
"Yes." She murmurs the word, she might be speaking to herself. "I think he sounded pretty chuffed."
Twister glares at her, and punches Nat's number, contorting his face into a fierce scowl as Wendy sticks out the tip of a small pink tongue and beats a retreat.
Batten answers immediately. "Tim?" He sounds ebullient. "I've been waiting, you bastard."
Twister begins to mumble an excuse, but Batten steamrollers on.
"No need to explain. My girl saw you come in, said you looked dreadful." Batten laughs harshly.
Twister swallows. Hangover plus scolding, coupled with gossip on the lower deck are more than any man with a bad head should ever face.
The harsh voice continues. "The Sultan's man is coming in early on Sunday."
"Here?" Twister's voice fills with alarm. His weekends are sacrosanct, and he has plans for Sunday.
"Here." Batten starts to speak in short machinegun bursts. "He's coming straight from Heathrow, wants us to lay on a presentation. We'll show him the building, present our people, run through the numbers. We'll have to be peppy, and polished."
"On Sunday?" Twister's daughter is competing in a gymkhana, and neighbours are coming to lunch. "How are you going to get everybody to come in?"
"We'll bribe them, massively if we have to." Batten has an action plan, and is determined to ram it through. "I'm calling a group management meeting for four this afternoon, I want everyone down in the boardroom: journalists, sales, admin, the lot. We'll give them the truth, tell them they come in on Sunday if they want to save their jobs."
Twister is appalled, but at the same time strangely exhilarated. The Bat Group has been creaking for weeks, possibly months, in its gentle but inexorable slide towards disaster. Now something is happening. He is a news man, and Batten is presenting him with a story. He buries his happy family weekend instantly.
"How much can we afford?"
"Promise them the earth." Batten throws caution to the winds. "Tell key people they'll get a month's pay as a bonus if the deal goes through. Promise the others an extra week - we'll screw the cost out of the Sultan."
"With a show of hands at the end of the meeting?"
Batten laughs harshly, and Twister's telephone clicks, and the line is dead. Twister feels drained, and massages his forehead with his fingertips. He looks up, to see Colin hovering outside his door, and offers a silent prayer of thanks for this instant practice target.
"Colin, dear boy, come in, come in." He speaks jovially.
Colin enters nervously, rehearsing his reasons for seeking a hefty petty cash advance.
"How would you like an extra month's money?"
Colin stares at him, open-mouthed.
"We've got a problem." Twister waves at a chair, a gesture to Colin to make himself comfortable. "The Group's in a mess, we're trying to put a rescue together. A man wants to come in on Sunday, to take a view."
"Sunday?" Colin looks alarmed, and then remembers that he is committed to spending Sunday at Beaconsfield, and rejoices.
Twister notes his enthusiasm, and begins to think that heaven is smiling. "No need to dress up. We'll make it informal, trot him round, lots of smiles, then all push off home, and everyone cops a bonus."
Colin listens, and for a moment his excitement makes him forget his mission. But he comes back to earth at speed. "Can I have some of it up front?"
Twister narrows his eyes. Promising cash is one thing. Paying cash is a different matter.
"I only need fifty quid." Colin senses Twister's reserve and hurries on. "I'm skint, and I promised to send Sarah on a school trip. I've got to pay next week."
Twister listens, and understands, because he is also a father. He beams in truly avuncular fashion. "I'll sign a petty cash chit, dear boy."
Then he remembers his responsibilities, and returns to business. "Meanwhile, I want you to cook up a winter schedule, something impressive. Our man's a big, big guy in the Far East. We must give him a direct line to the great and the good."
Colin beams back. "Ministers and captains of industry?" He is free from care now, and can sense his creative spirit rising.
Twister catches his enthusiasm. "As high as you can fly, dear boy."
"I'll jot down a list of names, make some calls." Colin is scribbling busily. "Members of the cabinet and chairmen of companies turning over more than a billion a year, building up to Downing Street?"
"Taxis wherever you go, dear boy."
"Plus the big banks and some continental giants?"
"Flying business class and staying at good hotels."
"We could create some special supplements stuffed with full colour ads."
"Make them fat supplements and we might give you a company car."
This stops Twister dead in his tracks. RichQuick's editor is a great believer in enthusiasm. But people can sometimes get carried away.
"We'll see." He picks some papers up from his desk, and it is a dismissal. "Make out a petty cash chit, and ask Wendy to come in. Nat wants to brief everyone at four o'clock this afternoon, and then have a vote, to decide it all democratically. We've got to mobilise."
Colin spends his next few hours glued to a telephone. His enthusiasm generates a wave of approbation: PROs everywhere promise support for sympathetic ministerial and corporate profiles coupled with flattering photographic treatments, and his bandwagon starts rolling with a definite date to interview Niccolo Liscio, Euromagnate chairman of Glotech, one of Britain's fastest growing industrial empires, plus a provisional acceptance from Victoria Smuggleigh, bright-eyed new Home Secretary.
Twister does equally well. Bat Group editorial staff have become so despondent about employment prospects, and jobs are so scarce out on the street, that the promise of future security, coupled with an extra week - and sometimes an extra month - in hand, creates a climate of positive commitment. A couple of editorial secretaries have holiday plans, but Twister blithely accepts some skeleton staffing at non-essential levels. One not-so-young journalist mutters grimly about the sanctity of the Sabbath, and has thoughts of invoking union protection, but Twister stresses the general unanimity of Bat workforce approval, makes some pointed remarks about betrayal, and speculates thoughtfully about making dissidents walk the plank.
Batten sails home equally easily with Bat Group advertising and administration staff, and the four o'clock staff meeting blows through on a breeze. Excitement rules, and hope, and Bat Group employees travel home with their heads held high.
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