Watching The Faces
"You know I always fancied early retirement."
"But not yet. And not like this."
"You know what really hurts?"
Cathy doesn't answer.
"Broughton didn't trust me to tell my own staff. Cath, he didn't fucking trust me." You shake your head. "Twenty-five years and I'm not allowed even that dignity."
Cathy squeezes your hand harder.
"What will Angela say?"
That's worrying you too.
"Probably fly off the handle, blame me."
Cathy nods, looks thoughtful, and you are suddenly reminded of the first time Giles Broughton visited the office. Cathy was impressed with his mix of energy, eloquence, and elegance. "He'll do for me," she'd said, her face alight.
Looking at her now, you think: Well Cath, he did that all right.
She's eyeing you curiously. "Penny for them."
"Oh, I was just . . ." But you can't remind her of that, not now. "It's nothing."
Cathy gives you a wry smile, shrugs, and goes out.
How can she possibly be fifty-six, you wonder.
Broughton's phone rings six times, then switches to his secretary's.
"Marie, is Giles there?"
There's silence, then a long sigh. "I'm sorry, Peter. He's in a meeting. He won't be free all day."
You sigh too. "It's all right Marie, you don't have to pretend." You put the phone down then groan as someone knocks on your door. An office junior comes in.
"It's Cathy, sir. She's in the Ladies', sobbing her heart out." She looks at you as if it's all your fault.
You take Cathy to a restaurant outside town. It's in an Elizabethan mansion, set amongst lush spring meadows. Frightfully expensive but what the hell. You order fresh mullet, their finest Chablis. Cathy's eyes are bright. She looks so elegant in navy blue. She smells of the perfume you bought her last Christmas and you think of the kisses you exchanged then. All very innocent until Angela walked in and misunderstood. Christmas seems a lifetime ago now.
You drink too much wine and later, in the lounge, order coffee. You sit in a quiet corner and you don't know how it started but this is more serious than Christmas. You're kissing like a couple of teenagers, exploring, devouring each other. But you know it's only the wine--the upset--that perfume.
Somehow you reach the office without being breathalysed.
Now you're faced with Cathy saying, "What are we going to do?"
"Not much we can do is there? Get another job I suppose."
"I meant about us."
You look at her dark eyes, mournful now whereas in the restaurant they glittered. You've dreamed of a moment like this but now it's here it doesn't seem so appealing. An image of Angela forms in your head. She is naked, but mocking and unreachable as you grovel, impotent, at her feet. The image fades; you look at Cathy, then at the door. You think about making a dash for it.
"We don't need to lose touch," you say. "There's the social club, the pensioners' lunches."
"I didn't mean the pensioners' bloody lunches."
And it happens. On the beige and mustard carpet tiles. It doesn't take long. Afterwards Cathy looks shocked and so, you expect, do you.
Giles Broughton is still unavailable. You have been shut out, already an outsider.
You think about how easily life tips over. Only two years before, Broughton was the redundant one, made surplus by a takeover. He needed a job, so he was given one, over your head, a job that never existed before. The fact that he and the Chairman happened to have been at Winchester together was of course entirely coincidental.
You busy yourself with meetings, counsel staff, arrange relocations. Their prospective managers drown you with platitudes but you know they'll favour their own people. You'd do the same in their position, so why does it grate so much?
Colleagues cross the street to avoid you. You want to shout out, "It's not contagious," but you know they're afraid it might be.
Cathy and you avoid each other too. Difficult when she is only feet away. You hear her closing filing cabinets, tapping her keyboard, talking over the phone. She no longer brings you coffee.
You try not to think about what happened.
It is a week before you tell Angela.
"They've sacked you?"
Her face is white, her knuckles tight.
"Not sacked," you say, far too quickly. "Early retirement." You tell her about lump sums, commutations.
Her eyes glaze over.
"Peter," she says. "Why, for Christ's sake?"
You wait for the tirade to start but suddenly her lips quiver. She looks vulnerable then and you remember why you fell in love with her. You want to confess about Cathy, tell her it didn't mean anything.
"Downsizing," you say. "Lose billions developing shopping centres nobody wants, cut your losses by shedding staff. In this case, the perceived remedy is to close the out-of-town head office. Ergo, one surplus executive director."
"And his secretary."
You wince inside, don't need reminding. "And his secretary."
Angela says, "Cathy's too damned attractive for my liking."
Cathy gets a job with her husband's firm. "Just till Frank retires."
You have to ask. "Does he know?"
She looks you straight in the eyes. "Nothing happened, Peter."
When she leaves, you walk her down to the street. Frank is waiting.
You and Cathy hug each other. "I'll miss you."
Cathy's crying as she gets into the car. Frank stares at you for a while, man to man, then nods and drives away.
You catch the next London train.
"Peter!" Broughton's secretary looks alarmed.
"It's all right, Marie, I won't kill him. Not yet."
She grins then. "He's on his own." She nods towards the inner door.
"Giles," you say, unable to keep the flutter from your voice. "It's time you stopped ignoring me."
Broughton is remarkably calm. You suppose it's the Winchester education. "Ah, Peter, there you are," he says, as if he'd mislaid you for a moment. "Nice to see you. Sit down, please." He rings for tea.
Marie puts the tray down, winks at you as she leaves. Broughton pours two cups, milk second. You tell him you can't face an empty desk for six months. That you want out right now. Garden leave.
"Perfectly understandable, Peter. I've been there myself, remember."
He is so nice. His enunciation, manners, clothes, aftershave are exquisite. He listens patiently, agrees to everything, and shakes your hand firmly as you leave.
In the lift, you realise that you've just done exactly what Broughton wanted. After going through the swivel doors you spin them hard, watch until they stop. Then you spin them again.
You can keep the Jaguar. Angela is relieved. She doesn't want the neighbours to know you're redundant. She gives a little shiver as she says "redundant."
"Why should that matter? Christ, Angela, we'll hardly be on the breadline. For the first time in our lives we can do whatever we want. We could buy a cottage, move to the country."
Angela flares up. "If you think I'm living in pigshit." And things go from bad to worse.
She has her coffee mornings, she says, her afternoon golf. "People come here. I don't want you cluttering up the house."
You sign up with an agency, fill in forms. Twenty-year-old consultants ask about your "skill set." Each morning Angela kisses you a public goodbye before you drive the company's car to nowhere. Each night she says, "I'm tired" and you're downsized again.
You spend hours travelling--smart shirt, best suit, polished shoes--try to impress people half your age. The agency always says, "Yes, the client likes you," but somehow this never translates into a job. You tell them to remove you from their list.
The Jaguar crouches in the garage, never springing out. Angela cancels her coffee mornings and makes her golf last all day. You slump in a chair, watch Oprah and Neighbours.
Each night your dream is the same: you drive to work but Security won't lift the barriers and let you in. You blast your horn, insist that you're the boss and finally they relent, but when you get inside the building and reach your floor, you see your office being pulled down.
You are cold, shivering, and the faces are staring at you, pointing. You realise that you are wearing only a pajama jacket, no trousers. Office girls snigger and you wake suddenly. Your hair, pillows, sheets, nightclothes are soaked with sweat. Far away across the bed, Angela moans in her sleep.
Soon you only shave twice a week. You live in frayed shirts, ancient Levis, dilapidated Nikes. Angela tells the neighbours you are on sick leave, then tries to make you see a doctor.
You begin to take a drink, lunchtimes at first, then stretching into the afternoon, and finally the whole of one black day when you brood on a barstool about the symbols that once proclaimed who you were--the best Jag, the office with the view of the girls sunbathing topless below, first-class everything wherever you went. You think how, when people meet for the first time, they always ask each other, "What do you do?" as if a job is all that defines anyone. Well, what exactly defines you now?
"Fuck-all," you say and start to laugh. The barman looks at you as if you're one of the winos on the bench outside.
"Downsized, squire," you tell him. "I'm--terminally--fucking--downsized."
You almost make it home. Your next-door neighbour finds you sprawled on the pavement at the corner of your road. You try to explain that you're downsized and he says you mustn't worry. He lets you use his shoulder as a crutch.
Angela bawls at you. "You're a useless, drunken sod. I hate you. Christ, it'll be all over the close by now."
She throws a Doulton shepherdess her mother bought, then weeps as it lies in pieces on the floor. Then she beats her fists angrily against your chest. Her face looks wild and you suddenly grab hold of her wrists, force them to be still. As you pull her towards you, a strange excitement arrives in her eyes. You feel so hard it's frightening and you make love for the first time in months.
Afterwards you promise. No drinking. Yes, I'll phone another agency. You kiss Angela's soft, chestnut hair and tell her that you love her. She is soft and warm and inviting. You wonder why you ever thought she was any different.
You fill in new forms, another CV. Someone called Sophie phones you at home.
"We've arranged an interview. I'm sorry that it's such short notice."
You don't even have time to iron a shirt.
A young woman greets you. She is fair-haired, neat, nice smile. She says she is Sarah from HR. She is good. She makes it seem like conversation but all the time she is making notes, quizzing you. She finally leaves you alone with a plastic cup of coffee and comes back with a tall man. He is young, about twenty-eight.
"I'm Werner," he says. There is just the trace of an accent.
He has few questions, mostly stares at your CV. You probe, but Werner is vague. It is a new company, to do with acquisitions, he says. He doesn't explain further and soon you are tired of asking. As you stand up to leave, there is a knock on the door. A girl comes in.
"Have you lost something, Werner?" She has a man's jacket over her arm.
Werner checks the label on the one he is wearing.
He looks bemused. "This isn't mine," he says.
"Thought not," says the girl. She hands him the jacket.
Werner searches the pockets, takes out a cellphone. "I wondered where that was," he says.
You wonder why you came at all.
Angela has dinner ready, poached beef in St Emilion. She hands you a glass of the wine.
"I have a good feeling about this job," she says.
You wish you had such confidence but with the help of the wine you soon approach euphoria; Angela is radiant and you fall in love with her all over again.
"If things turn out well maybe we could buy that cottage," she says. "Just for weekends you understand."
As you uncork a second bottle, the phone rings. "It's Sophie from the agency," Angela says and shows you that she has her fingers crossed.
You expect the familiar run-around, but this time it is different. You put the phone down, grab Angela and dance her around the room.
"They've offered me the bloody job," you say.
Much later you remember that you don't know what it is.
When you do find out, you realise that you still have principles. Loyalty weighs itself against the desire for revenge.
The company is the UK subsidiary of a huge Swiss concern. Werner is the son of its president. He was truthful when he mentioned acquisitions--number one on his list is your ex-employer and you realise that it isn't you they want, but your insider's knowledge.
Angela says, "Where's your problem, Peter? They shit on you remember."
You mumble something about professional ethics.
She says, "Bollocks. You didn't think about that when you were getting pissed out of your skull."
Or when I was screwing my secretary, you think, as you avoid Angela's stare. Then you think of the people still employed there. Some you've known for twenty-five years. You find yourself caring about their hopes, their families. Werner assured you their jobs would be safe. "Provided they add value," he said.
In your head, it begins to make sense. Your old firm is a minor player in a sector it once dominated. The investment from Werner's company would shunt it back towards the top. Without that stimulus the jobs might be lost anyway.
The best half of a bottle of Glenfiddich later, you allow yourself to dream. You enjoy the expression on Broughton's face as you tell him to clear his desk. Werner hinted you might do that.
Ecce loyalty and revenge, mutually compatible. You smile at the thought, then remember the interview with Werner. How the hell can you trust a man who doesn't know whose clothes he is wearing?
Angela has disappeared upstairs and you think about what she said about moving to the country. Only for weekends, but that could change. Somewhere with land--you could keep chickens, grow trees. There's just the little problem of persuading her about not taking the job.
She comes into the room. "It's late," she says. She's wearing the nightdress, the smile you remember from years ago. You put the cork back into the bottle.
"Have you decided?"
"You'll accept the job?"
"I'll phone Werner in the morning."
You hope your eyes didn't flicker.
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