Curve BallbyThe Wanderer©
I thank my LadyCibelle and Techsan for their patience, proof reading, editing skills and of course encouragement. I'd also like to add that we don't always see eye to eye, so I take full responsibility for the content and any cock-ups in this story.
Life throws some strange curve balls at you sometimes. The first time I ever saw Della Steel as she was back then, we were set to be in competition with each other.
I'd applied for the position of area sales manager with a German company, which was just expanding into the UK market. I'd had my preliminary interview about three weeks previous and I had been asked to attend a group interview with all the other short listed candidates.
If you've ever been on one of these Group Interview gigs, you'll know the score. But, for those of you that haven't, the general idea is that the employer gets all the candidates together in a conference room and just lets them get on with it really. The idea is the candidate who knows what they are doing is going to finish up virtually running the show. Well, they will shine out amongst the others anyway.
As I entered that conference room, I looked around the other nine candidates and I knew whom my main rival for the job was going to be, the moment I clapped eyes on Della Steel. Phew, now there was one woman who stood out in a crowd. As the day went on it was obvious that she knew her onions as well. With what I can only describe as amazing virtuosity, she shot nearly everyone else in the room but me down, time and again. The two of us duelled with each other's verbal challenges all day long.
By the end of the day, I think we were even on points, but I knew Della was way ahead in other respects. Shit, with a figure like that, the bloody Jerrys would be mad not to hire her. Any red blooded male buyer was guaranteed to give Della an order; all she had to do was smile and she'd have the average guy in the palm of her hand. Of course that wouldn't work so well with female buyers though. Oh, I don't know though; when you exude sex appeal like Della does, just about anything's possible and it was nearly the twenty-first century.
Well, it came as no surprise to me that I didn't get the telephone call that evening offering me the post. Actually I'd been watching the German sales director's mouth watering for most of the bleeding day. It was as plain as the nose on his face, (or the bulge in his pants) who his chosen candidate was, and I figured Della would soon have him by the balls. Literally!
The following day I flew out to Spain to resume my summer holiday that I'd wasted my time interrupting to attend that bloody interview. Well, actually it wasn't my proper summer holiday; it was my prize for being top salesman on my company.
I didn't see or hear of Della Steel again for about eighteen months. I was making my pitch to a new client; I'd been cultivating this old bastard for about two months by then. I figured he was just about ready to sign on the doted line and swing all his company's business my way.
It was as I was pulling into his company car park that I saw her come out of the main entrance. In an instant I suspected all my hard work had just gone down the tubes. The big smile on Della's face told me that she had just hooked a good one and as I feared it turned out to be my prospective client.
The thing I couldn't understand was that she wasn't working for the German Company. "Something must have gone tits-up there!" I thought.
Well, that's how things turned out for the next couple of years. Della was nicking my accounts left, right, and centre and, in retaliation, I tackled some of her older accounts and stole the work from her company by undercutting her company's prices. Look, I wasn't green in the business; I'd been around for ten years. It was quite easy for me to run into the right directors, who had been the buyers when I'd started. I'd just let them know I'd beat Della's price whatever it was and I soon had the contract, whether the company buyer liked it or not.
I'm not joking; it became a kind of undeclared war between Della and I, a real personal thing. She'd steal a contract off of me and I'd take one back from her. I'm damn sure she had a worm in our office somewhere, the same way I had a worm in hers. Illegal? Well, maybe yes, but business is business and what is it they say? All's fair in love and war. And of course, no one asks too many questions of a winner.
Well, in the end the Inevitable happened. I'd just swung a nice contract from a company in Norwich. They'd signed on the dotted line that afternoon and, although I could have made it back home that night, I decided to stay over in the Holiday Inn.
Look, things were quite sticky in my marriage around then. Gwen, my wife at the time, liked to live it up a bit. The trouble was, with me on the road so much she'd got a bit antsy about me leaving her alone too much. Well, things were kind-a slowly going downhill and we both knew it. I think it was down to which one of us was going to be the first one to mention the D word.
Damn, it was so bloody stupid. If my Gwen went out with some of her friends now and again, I wouldn't have minded. Jesus, I wouldn't really object if she found herself a playmate. At least I could get on my high horse and throw her out if she ran around behind my back. But no, she'd sit at home and sulk when I was on the road, then when I walked through the door. Bloody hell, just about everything got thrown at me. And when I say thrown I mean it literally. Damn, I think the woman had a standing order for crockery at the local departmental store.
Anyway I chose to stay in Norwich rather than arrive home too late to take the wife out. It was just a matter of self-preservation. The next evening I'd be standing at the door waiting for her when Gwen got home from work and I'd take her out for a nice meal. Show her the bonus I'd earned on the trip, then she'd take me home and shag the living daylights out of me. Yeah, you got it, strange marriage. You see, I loved Gwen and I knew she loved me; the silly bitch just couldn't control her temper. All right, I'm pretty good at losing mine as well!
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah, the Holiday Inn, just outside Norwich. I'd checked in and having dumped my bag in my room, I made my way to the restaurant for a meal. I'd call Gwen later and tell her I'd just closed the deal. She was used to me calling late by then.
I was still perusing the menu when, without a by or leave, Della plonked herself down in the seat opposite me.
"What's the big idea, Martin? You stole the Parkinson contract from me just when I had them ready to sign on the dotted line," Della demanded.
"Parkinsons. Jesus, Della that was bloody weeks ago and I didn't even know you were tendering for it." Strangely the truth, but I knew there was no way that Della was going to believe me.
"Bullshit, you've been filching my clients all year."
"Now hold on there Della, you started pinching my clients first and don't you try to deny it."
I'm not going to go any further describing the altercation that went on between us; you can guess how it went, we each accusing the other of stealing contracts.
I suppose we must have gotten quite loud, because the next thing I think either of us was aware of was a guy in a dinner suite standing beside our table.
"Sir, madam, I must ask you to lower your voices, please. Otherwise I'll be forced to have to ask you to leave the restaurant."
I think both Della and I looked at him with shocked expressions on our faces. Neither of us had intended to make a scene.
"I'm sorry," I said to him, "Miss Steel and I are in competition in our professions. I'm afraid we get a little too involved in our work sometimes. We'll try to keep our emotions under control."
"Anger isn't normally the emotion we have trouble with here, sir. Would you like to order now?"
I looked at Della, only to find she had resorted to hiding behind a menu. "Have you decided what you're going to eat yet, Della?"
"Are you paying?"
Damn the bitch had some front. Fancy me having her dinner on my company expense account. Oh, well, they never checked my expense account anyway. Well, I hoped they didn't!
"Sure, why not. We can put it down as a peace offering."
"Ah, do we have a truce for the evening?" the manager said.
"It looks like it," Della replied with that bloody winning smile of hers on her face. "Can you ask the waiter to give us a few minutes?"
"Certainly, madam," the manager said as he backed away from the table.
When he'd left us alone and still with that smile on her face, Della held her hand out to me. "Pax for this evening and no talk about our companies or clients."
"Pax!" I replied, shaking the offered hand.
The waiter came and we ordered our meals. Surprisingly Della didn't order the most expensive things on the menu. I'm not sure I would have done the same thing in her position.
I'm not really sure what we talked about at dinner, but we were jousting with words and only just staying within the spirit of our truce. God, it was fun. You know, its not often you get to spar with your greatest rival in the industry under a flag of truce.
There were innuendoes flying around all the time and hints at the contracts that we'd stolen from each other. It was really fun trying to think of a way to drop a company's name in the conversation, without actually mentioning it.
Della and I weren't friends, but we weren't exactly enemies either. We were business rivals, both at the top of our profession. Neither of us could let the other get the upper hand; we both needed to come out on top.
I'm not sure which of us came up with the idea. But after our meal we went to a nightspot in Norwich. Nothing to rave about but somewhere to go. I'd stopped to give Gwen a quick call from the hotel's lobby and she'd ripped me another new arsehole for not making it home, but that was normal. I'm not sure whether Della heard Gwen shouting at me down the phone, but I'd be surprised if anyone in that lobby didn't.
At the nightclub, we positioned ourselves at the bar. The place wasn't too crowded as it was a weeknight, but all the tables were taken. We danced together a couple of times; well, quite a few times when I come to think about it. But everything was very platonic, so don't go getting any other ideas.
It was whilst we were sitting out a couple of numbers at the bar that I finally got around to asking Della, "Tell me, what was the story with that kraut job? I thought you had it in the bag?"
"Don't ask! I told them to stick it up their arse. Fritz thought I came with benefits! Why didn't you take it?"
"Sorry, they offered it to you, didn't they?"
"Yes but that randy bloody sales manager thought I was going to jump in the sack with him. When they offered me the job he invited me out to dinner that evening. I thought they were all going to be there, but it turned out him to be only him. I flattened the bugger in the restaurant when he said we'd discuss the rest of my terms and conditions over breakfast. What did the bugger think I was, a bloody pro or something? Anyway why didn't you take the job? You were second on the list."
"They didn't offer it to me.... Oh, shit, I flew out to Spain the following morning, so if they called, I wasn't at home."
"Bad move. I think that could have been a real earner and it was yours for the taking."
"Well, I didn't know you were going to beat the sales manager up. Mind you, you had the old bastard's mouth watering all day. I'm surprised he was that forward though."
"Well, he went backwards pretty quickly in that restaurant. That's the problem with having my looks. I've got to admit I've used sex appeal to get where I am. Why shouldn't I? I've got the looks. I can't see why I shouldn't take advantage of them. It's just that some guys seem to think they can touch as well as look."
For the rest of the evening, Della and I danced together and drunk far more than we should have, then we took a taxi back to the Holiday Inn. When we got out of the cab, Della took my arm and I escorted her back to her room.
This is where you expect me to tell you how we climbed into bed together and shagged each other silly all night long. Well, hard bloody cheese, you're out of luck. I was a spoken for man and I respected my marriage vows. And to be honest, when it comes down to brass tacks, I don't think Della and I really liked one another. Oh, we respected each other's talents when it came to winning contracts. But like each other in the sense you're thinking of, I don't think so.
Remember we were in cut throat competition with each other almost every day of our working lives. We'd just had a truce for one evening and got to know our enemy. Who was it who said, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer"? Anyway that's the game Della and I had played that evening; we both slept alone. Well, I did and unless Della shagged the night porter, I assume she did as well.
The next morning Della had just finished her breakfast as I entered the dining room. She stopped as she walked passed me and said, "Good morning. Is our truce still in effect?"
"Until after I've had my breakfast, Della," I replied, smiling at her.
"Oh, well, in that case." Della lent forward and kissed me on the cheek. "I meant to do that last night to thank you for a lovely evening. It's so nice to spend some time with a guy and not have him think he's going to get into my pants."
"My pleasure, Della. Perhaps we can do it again sometime."
"Only after your company goes broke because I've taken all their contracts. Perhaps we'll take your firm over and I'll be your boss."
"No, Della, you've got that the wrong way around. When we buy your company out, I'll be your boss."
"Pigs might fly! Thanks again for a lovely evening and its pistols at dawn from now on."
We exchanged a couple more pleasantries about the previous evening then Della left the restaurant, still with that winning smile on her face.
Well, I didn't see Della to speak to for a year or so after that. We often clapped eyes on each other at trade shows and things. But besides acknowledging the other's presence by politely nodding or saying good morning as we passed each other, we didn't actually talk.
The war between us was back on with a vengeance. To be honest, looking back it didn't really do either of our companies much good really, as we would cut everything back to the bone to be able to quote the lowest price and win the contract.
Life at home went from questionable to impossible. I know that Gwen never ran around on me behind my back, because I know she loved me. You know, sometimes I wished she had done; I think it might have made it easier for me to accept the inevitable ending to our marriage that I knew had to come sometime.
Things culminated one evening when during one of her tirades about me being on the road all the time, Gwen stabbed me with a kitchen knife. I know she didn't really mean to do it; poor Gwen just had little or no control over her emotions. When she was in a loving mood, she damn near killed me with sex. But when she lost her temper anything could happen and in the end it did.
Divorce was the only answer we had. Unless you've been forced to do it, you can never know how hard it is to walk away from someone you love. Because I really did love Gwen, but I loved living as well and I just didn't want to finish up in the ground before my time.
The police wanted me to press charges against Gwen for assault, but I flatly refused. They threatened to have me forced to attend as a witness. But I told them I was pretty sure that I couldn't be forced to give evidence against my wife and even if they could force me into court. I'd refuse to answer questions on the grounds that I might incriminate myself.
"That wouldn't make any sense," a police officer said. "You haven't done anything!"
"I know that and so do you. But it would definitely confuse a jury; they wouldn't know what to make of it. And, as they have to bring in a verdict that is beyond reasonable doubt, I think I'd have put plenty of doubt into their minds as to exactly what did happen that night. Give it up. You've got no chance of a conviction."
The prosecution service dropped the charges and then Gwen and I divorced amicably. Hey, we even went out for a meal together the evening the decree became final. All right and we did spend the night in a hotel room together for old time's sake. But after that night we didn't see much of each other if we could help it. Look, I told you we loved each other but sometimes life throws you some real curve balls.
Work took over even more of my life for the next year or so. Of course my main interest was still bushwhacking Della whenever I could get the chance and she appeared to be playing the same game with me. Taking every thing into account I think on average we were even on points.
One evening after a trade show we had both been attending, we discovered that by chance our companies had booked both sales teams into the same hotel. In the hotel bar that evening, what can only be described as an all out war broke out between the two groups of sales staff.
As the evening went on, everybody drank far more than was prudent and loud comments and insults were bandied about. I know that two guys came to blows in the gents. Well, it could be there was only a little pushing and shoving, but these stories tend to take on a life of their own, don't they?
The upshot was that the hotel complained to our respective companies and banned all of us from staying there again. Yeah, we were all dragged over the carpet when we got back to head office, but I believe it was all with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. To my knowledge there were no long-term repercussions that I was aware of. Well, in my company anyway.
I think everybody realised that we'd behaved very childishly that evening, but that's how things go sometimes when you drink too much.
Things returned to normal for a while. I'd started dating again, not that my job made it easy to build or hold down a regular relationship. I started having a few one-night-stands whilst I was on the road. But to be honest, whilst being fun on the evening in question, they weren't really my cup of tea.
I first got a clue that serious changes were about to happen about a year or so after the war in the hotel. My company had three main competitors. There was the one Della worked for, then there was a little firm called Morechants from down the West Country somewhere. They weren't really in competition with anyone, as their products were of extremely high quality and very expensive. They had an established customer base, who were apparently happy to pay a premium price for their products. Not our target base at all.
And then there was Permons from up north, I think their factory was in Glasgow and their offices in Edinburgh, but I'm not sure. Over the years they'd stuck to selling in the north and left Della and my company to fight things out in the south of the UK. I think we all had about equal share of the market, with little swings in market share between Della's and mine. We'd mostly left Permons to their own devices in the north, because delivery costs pushed the prices up too much and cut into what little profit margin there was. Permons had stayed out of the south, most possibly for the same reason.
But Permons were suddenly taken over by a multinational and it was a surprise to everyone when their salesmen started moving south, with a vengeance. Not only that, but the prices they were quoting, were really too low to be believed. As they took more and more of the market share, we were soon feeling the pinch.
Exactly who called the Office of Fair Trading in and accused Permons of selling below cost, I don't know. But Permons somehow convinced OFT that they weren't doing so.