|Vast: A Novel
Ch. X: Karim
by Nicolas Travers ©
Sunday morning starts with a setback. Colin wakes to hear water drumming hard at his bedroom window, and turns over sleepily to inspect his bedside alarm clock. It is just after six, and the heatwave has broken: the sky is a leaden grey, sheeting down diagonally against the window panes. He yawns, and thinks of dozing off again: he still has another hour to sleep. But excitement, edged with a tinge of anxiety, has already set his adrenalin running and he closes his eyes in vain - his presentation plans lie neatly printed and stacked in his study a few feet away, and call in siren voices for a final inspection and approval, even though he has already inspected and approved them several times over.
But nothing should ever be left to chance. So he swings his legs out of bed and sits rubbing his eyes for a moment, before getting up to clean his teeth and shower and shave in a precisely planned attack on an important day, and he shaves without nicking himself, which is an excellent omen, and his spirits start to climb. The rain dies away, but the sky stays grey, so he selects a dark blue shirt and pale blue slacks to confront gloom, and his best black shoes to pass the most demanding inspections. He also dresses quite noisily, hoping that Jane will wake and mobilise wifely breakfast support and provide a lift to the station. But Jane grunts querulously as she raises herself on one arm to inspect him sleepily, evidently decides that it is still far too early to come to life, and burrows back into her duvet.
Colin is forced to brew his own coffee and make his own toast. But he profits from being on his own to set out his plans on the kitchen table, well clear of possible butter and marmalade stains, so that he can scan them rapidly as he munches, and feels progressively more and more pleased with himself as he reads. The plans are good: bright, concise, and dynamic, and he knows that they are winners. He has done a fine job: he can feel success already flowing in his blood, and - please heaven - he will merit great praise.
Another cup of coffee, a final approving glance, and he is ready for the fray. The omens continue to brighten progressively as he clears the kitchen table: blue skies are now chasing away a few shreds of remaining clouds, and the air is crisp and clear for the first time in weeks - fine weather for walking. He can leave Jane safely in bed: no need for transport, no need to wrangle her out of her slumber. He glances around the kitchen to make sure that he has cleared everything away, and that all is ship-shape and neat, checks his briefcase, slips on a lightweight black bomber jacket, and heads for the front door. A distant call echoes briefly down the stairs as he steps out into the street, but he ignores it. Jane or Sarah may want coffee and toast in bed, but he is a busy man, with important work to do, and he must be on his way.
Windsor is still asleep, with only a solitary milkfloat bumbling past the castle, and the station is equally bare: Colin picks up a Sunday Times and a Mail on Sunday, and has all the space in the world to spread them out as he boards a waiting train and commandeers a window seat.
He starts with the Sunday comics, some brightness to kick off a working day, browses through a couple of colour supplements, and then dips purposefully into more serious events, to polish up his view of the world and coat him with a serious gloss.
A trickle of fellow passengers trails past his window along the platform, each seeking unpopulated spaces, and he eyes them - fierce looks to keep men at bay, hopeful glances at women - but all the women are either accompanied or move purposefully on missions of their own, and none offers hope nor promise, with their clothes all equally bereft of appeal.
Colin's psyche drops into a sulk. It is unfair, he feels good, his presentation plans are perfect, and he has time to spare. He deserves to enjoy himself. He decides to indulge in just a fragment of sexual fantasy, and conjures up his black-haired temptress in her shiny mac, watching her sway temptingly to lure him, before trailing her in his mind along a rain-soaked street towards an invitingly open doorway, as white as his basement memory, his lubricity mounting.
The woman pauses, and turns, and looks at him, and shock stops him dead in his tracks. She has the face of a girl, and her hair is no longer black but blonde, and she is Dorothy, a complicit Dorothy with tigerish eyes, and he must follow her through the open doorway, but he cannot.
Colin's vision shatters. He is somewhere between Staines and Richmond, and the fragmentation in his mind is a knife-blow of pain. He attempts to confront his dream, and reshape it. But he cannot, and he is compelled by fear to hurry himself back to reality, and force himself to read his plans again with a sour sharpness gathering in his mouth, because this vision is bad omen, and saps at his self-confidence.
Fortunately a fresh look at his plans soothes him quickly, and soon he is purring again at his own brilliance. His draft is snappy and dynamic, sketching a steady progression through Whitehall, the City and the business world to build status on vanity, before casting a net further afield to add impressive international stature, and cash in by selling advertising space on a grand scale. It is a programme for making money, the work of a rising star, and he is proud.
However he still cannot push Dorothy's face out of his mind. He tries his very best, but best is not good enough, and after a brief struggle he abandons his plans, and leans back in his seat, closing his eyes, and allows her to smile at him again for a brief moment of self-indulgence. But his vision disturbs him too much, because now he knows that he desires Dorothy, and is seeking to build her into an icon of lust, and he is overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and shame, and drives her from his mind. Dorothy is pretty, and appealing, and has chosen him as a friend. But she is also just a teenager, sixteen or seventeen perhaps, young enough to be his daughter, and desire could well be the first step on a nightmare path to scandal. She is also a friend, and his lust is a betrayal.
So he forces himself to focus on his Sunday Times, and be serious, and fortunately the only other passengers in his open-plan carriage are men, so temptation stays at bay, whilst the underground from Waterloo to Queensway seems to run almost solely for his exclusive benefit, and he has nothing to do but rehearse.
Twister is already in his office as Colin reaches Rickquick, and the air is fragrant with the scent of fresh coffee.
"Morning, Colin!" Twister's voice booms jovially through his open doorway. He has been doing homework of his own, and his problems are all melting away: the Sultan augurs very good news indeed.
"Come in, come, pour yourself some coffee, grab a pew." He beams as he spies two neatly typed sheets of paper in Colin's hand, and his joy is a great satisfaction. Colin Vast really is a most dependable man, the salt of the earth - and Twister feels proud to have hired him.
He listens approvingly as Colin runs through his plans, nodding happily at regular intervals, and then holds out a grateful hand. "Excellent, excellent. I'll make sure they go down well."
Colin stiffens in his seat. He is alarmed: Twister sounds intent on taking his plans over. He edges back defensively, clutching them close, and tries to look fierce.
"What about me?" His voice quivers with fear, but his plans are a part of himself, and he is prepared to stand his ground.
Twister, already starting to build them into his own presentation, looks up at this unseemly interruption, and frowns. But he also understands Colin's anxiety - for no good writer can tolerate poaching. He gestures airily, waving away any thought of such evil. "That's all right dear boy, you'll come in over my back."
Colin looks less than convinced, and Twister sighs.
"Look, dear boy, we're going to do it on two levels." He speaks with a touch of impatience, for the Sultan's man may arrive at any moment, and briefing a slave runs against the grain. But this is also a key day, and he must keep his troops loyal. "Nat and I are going to talk to the man first, paint the general picture, then we're going to call you all in, one by one, to promote yourselves, before we take him on a tour of the building."
He smiles to himself as he speaks, for he knows real credit will accrue at the top. But nothing motivates underlings like ambition, and motivation must mobilise enthusiasm.
Colin nods reluctantly as he listens, though he is still not wholly convinced. But Twister has made a placatory gesture, and there is not much he can say, so he retreats to his desk to read Mail on Sunday scandals.
Wendy arrives about half an hour later, looking a little grumpy. Her morning has started badly: her fiance, a quantity surveyor in Lewisham, is keen on staying in bed on Sunday mornings, to sample pleasures more rightly kept for wedded bliss, and suspects that other men - including Wendy's boss - may have similar priorities. He has accused her of rising early to stray, and the two have exchanged hard words. Wendy has been compelled to show some of the determination she planned to keep concealed until after their wedding, and confrontation has led to broken crockery, and very nearly to blows, in a burst of totally unsuspected male violence.
A man has also tried to grope her in the Queensway station lift, and she is still suffering from the humiliation.
However she still manages to squeeze out a reluctant smile for Twister, in acknowledgement of their special relationship, before pushing her cup imperiously under Colin's nose. Somebody must suffer, and Mr. Wimp is the nearest and most suitable victim.
Colin goes off to prepare a fresh cafetiere. But Twister's telephone rings as he is filling three cups, and a moment later RichQuick's editor hurtles out of his office at speed, clutching a fistful of papers in one hand and flapping the other excitedly.
"No time, dear, boy, no time." Twister can barely control himself as he pauses in mid flight. "The Sultan's man has arrived, stand by!" His voice is a call to arms, and he rushes off, and is gone, galloping across the open plan office floor and down the stairs, impatient to play his rightful part in welcoming such an important visitor.
Twister is rather less thrilled when he arrives in the Bat Group boardroom. Nat Batten is already deep in conversation with a small dark man, dapper in a cream linen suit, head crowned by an embroidered black forage cap, and the two men are also standing a little too close to each other for Twister's comfort, and talking with an intimacy that smacks just a little much of an established rapport. Twister is also a little miffed by Nat's introduction: Batten greets him with a condescending beckoning gesture, much as one might summon a senior servant, and sketches a smile that Twister considers just a touch too much de haut en bas.
He therefore pauses momentarily in the boardroom doorway to mobilise his dignity and underline his equality, and saunters in with a suitably proprietorial air.
The dapper man has sharp little black eyes, and a smile filled with gold teeth that gleam like stars. He assesses Twister in a glance, and bounds forward to shake his hand effusively. "Mr. Twister, how lucky I am to meet you."
It is a cry of joy. Twister is immediately mollified, and for a moment the three men are suffused in beams, with the dapper man continuing to clasp Twister's hand, and Nat Batten looking his most avuncular.
Then Batten decides it is time to regain the initiative. "I've been giving Karim, er, Mr. Al-Pergau, a rapid sketch of our operations."
The dapper man beams afresh. "Karim, please, I am Karim to all my friends."
This interruption distracts Batten, and Twister profits by taking Karim deftly by the elbow and propelling him gently towards Nat's favourite boardroom chair. Batten scowls, and Twister smiles beatifically as he takes over.
"We've asked our staff to come in for a couple of hours, to show you our sense of commitment." Twister positively purrs his words. "My editors will come down and explain our publishing plans, and then Nat's marketing teams can follow them in to explain their strategy for converting editorial coverage into hard advertising cash."
Batten and Karim both look a little taken aback.
"I'm sure Karim would prefer to watch us at work." Batten's tone is impatient. Bat Group marketing boasts a number of flouncy and impressionable salesgirls, and he has been counting on taking the Sultan's man on a guided tour.
Karim nods vigorously. "Yes, yes. I think walking is the right thing." He rolls his eyes as Nat's secretary brings in a tray with coffee and biscuits, and it is plain that he wishes to develop the warmest possible links with Bat Group personnel.
So the three men agree to walk, with Twister and Batten leading the way, whilst Karim flashes toothily gleaming smiles in all directions, but particularly at nubile Bat Group female employees, and once at a rather pretty young messenger boy as well.
He gleams even more golden as they reach Valerie Sweetdreams' office. Valerie is the belle of the Bat Group and edits the group's Life Beautiful monthly. She is coolly elegant for this special Sunday, luscious in a brown silk shirtdress that flatters her blonde hair and sets off a tan recently acquired on a sunny beach somewhere south of Bombay, and she has been practising her own very special way of looking at men over the rims of her large round glasses in a manner that she knows is quite guaranteed to fire up roaming hearts. She smiles brilliantly at Karim, and his admiration is plain.
Unfortunately this happy opening fades a little as Karim moves his chair to sit very close to her, just as she is setting out her plans to move Life Beautiful smartly up market. She is just building her plans to a peak when she feels his hand rest lightly on her arm, and his fingers move in what feels suspiciously like a caressing rhythm.
Valerie pauses in mid-delivery to flash an anguished look at Twister and Batten. But both seem lost in thought, and she suddenly suspects that both expect her to bleat encouragingly as sacrificial lamb to Karim's wolf.
This thought irritates her intensely, and she breaks off from her presentation to slash a well-honed fingernail at an imaginary itch, coincidentally catching Karim sharply across his caressing knuckles.
The Sultan's man yelps in pain, and is patently taken aback. Twister and Batten watch anxiously as he retreats to a safe distance and nurses his injured hand, and Valerie realises that her audience has suddenly lost interest in Life Beautiful's prospects.
But Karim appreciates spirit as well as beauty, and Valerie's attack has only whetted his admiration. He beams at her forgivingly, after a moment's pause for recuperation, waving her on after a moment with his undamaged fingers, and nods approvingly as she flourishes a handful of layouts for a new format.
"Very good, very good." He starts to edge his chair towards her again, remembers the sharpness of pain, and edges back. "We must back you up to the hilt." A small pink tongue darts hopefully across his lips on his closing word, and it is plain that he envisages a thrust more fleshy than metal.
Valerie glowers, and Twister levers himself rapidly to his feet. He proposes a move on to RichQuick - Valerie has a noted temper, and he fears that this kind of provocative badinage may grow a single fingernail into a whole handful of claws.
Fortunately Wendy is now much more sociable. Karim gleams again as they reach RichQuick's offices, and neatly positions his chair in Twister's office to secure a better view of Wendy's legs, his mind evidently focussing on better things.
Wendy is plainly flattered, and gleams a little herself, and Twister feels his hackles start to rise. He notes that Karim's attention is straying, and that sizzling glances are passing him by, and he is forced to dispatch his secretary on a made-up mission to protect his peace of mind.
Wendy departs demurely, though she wonders, for a stray moment before she goes, whether she should scribble her telephone extension number on a card, and drop it conveniently close to the visitor's expensively shod foot. But then she remembers that he may well soon rank as an major force in Bat Group politics, and decides she may best profit by biding her time, and play jealousy as an endgame.
Twister now beckons to Colin. Karim beams effusively as they shake hands, and listens closely as Colin plots out pathways targeting Whitehall, the City and big business. It soon becomes plain that Colin is mapping out matters that interest him greatly, and that the Sultan is likely to count power, and connections, and influence, rather higher than beautiful living, and very possibly higher than the rest of the Bat Group combined.
Twister's office is silent for a moment as Colin closes, and then Karim seizes his hand. "This is magnificent, truly magnificent." He speaks in a kind of hushed awe, clasping Colin's hand between his own, and his smile gleams golden bright.
"The Sultan will want to meet this man very soon." He holds on to Colin's hand and pats it fondly, beaming in all directions. "He is most interested in mobilising support here in London, and this man sounds like just the chap to do it." A fresh series of pats, and he pauses. "But is it so easy? Can you get in to see these people just like that?"
Colin is cool and very much in command. "Some of them are already in the bag." He retrieves his hand and starts to count off names on his fingers, beginning with Liscio and the Home Secretary. "Everyone likes flattery."
Karim stares at him fixedly, for all the world as though he is casting a spell. Twister and Batten both fidget in their chairs - Colin appears to have said something dramatic, but neither can make out what it may be, and they watch Karim anxiously.
The Malaysian is silent for a long moment, and then suddenly claps his hands together like a child. "Well, well, you really are a brilliant man, Colin." Now his voice carries real praise. "You have chosen just the right man to start off with - Niccolo and the Sultan are very good friends, and your plan could prove very rewarding. I think the Bat Group should value you most highly."
He glances at Twister and Batten to make sure they appreciate his satisfaction, and both conjure up rather forced smiles, for both Twister and Batten firmly believe that vassals are vassals and should never be given too much encouragement.
Batten is quick to create a diversion.
"I think it's lunchtime." He steps forward to edge Colin out of the way, enfolding Karim and Twister with two encircling arms that clearly limit the privileges of leadership. "We have some rather good restaurants along Queensway, I think it's time to take a rest."
However Karim ducks under his arm and grabs Colin's hand again. "No, no." He is all beams, but his voice also has a determined edge. "I think our good friend Colin here should come along as well."
Twister and Batten both stare at him with expressions not far short of horror.
"Yes, yes." He holds on to Colin as Twister and Batten both try to edge him out of the way. "I have a car outside, and I have made a little plan. We will go to the Belvedere, in Holland Park, it is quite my favourite restaurant in London, and the car will hold us all." He pauses for breath, and smiles winsomely. "I think we should also take some of your beautiful ladies with us as well. They will add a touch of charm, and we Malays are great connoisseurs of beauty."
To Be Continued...
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