Pomeroy was in first thing, banging at his laptop with two fingers. He didn’t wait for me to sit down. He slapped a report on my desk and said ‘Four o’ clock.’ I nodded. ‘And that means four o’ clock.’ He leaned on the desk, palms down, breath like sour milk. I knew better than to moan so Pomeroy looked for other victims, prowling the office, slamming drawers, shouting at Sophie, asking why his train ticket wasn’t sorted. He gulped cold coffee from his World’s Best Dad mug and cursed when it speckled his powder blue tie. I thought he was going to ask for my tie. He was looking at it, unblinking, sizing it up. I wouldn’t put it past Pomeroy to commandeer a tie.
‘He’s got a cold,’ Sophie mouthed.
When I frowned – I was always terrible at lip-reading – she mimed sneezing. Pomeroy was a martyr to sickness. When he got a cold he interviewed us in turn to see if we’d brought the infection into the office. Did we have any relations feeling under the weather? Hadn’t he heard us sneezing just yesterday afternoon? This morning his shiny grey suit was missing. He’d swapped the jacket for a fisherman’s sweater with a high neck. The wool was irritating his chin. Pomeroy cursed and rummaged through his desk drawers and cabinet, spilling a box of biros across the carpet. He was tearing a cold cure sachet, looking for something to stir with, when he glanced at his watch and jumped from his chair. He stood over me and jabbed the report with his finger.
‘Four means four,’ he said.
He grabbed his coat, shrugging it onto his shoulders, and was gone. The slap of his tasseled brogues echoed in the corridor.
‘I hope the steps have been well polished,’ I said.
‘He’s left his laptop,’ Sophie said, with a sigh.
‘So who’s going to tell him?’
Sophie shrugged. Graeme was staring at a spreadsheet, gnawing his thumb.
‘Well, I’m not office manager,’ I said.
A look passed between Graeme and Sophie. Maria quit months ago and her post had never been filled. I was doing twice the work as it was, so I wasn’t playing nursemaid to Nigel ‘Four means four’ Pomeroy. I peered through the venetian blinds in time to see our leader jump into a black cab. The belt of his expensive raincoat had been shut in the door. It dangled in an oily puddle while the cab chugged at a set of lights. When the cab had swung out into the traffic I sat at Pomeroy’s desk, tapping a rhythm on the laptop’s touchpad. The screen lit up.
‘What are you doing?’ Sophie said.
‘Well, not that it’s any of your business, but it’s Big Splash today, in case you’ve forgotten.’
Sophie and Graeme were ambitious for pay and rank, you see, but they didn’t want the decision-making or responsibility that went with it. Pomeroy had to present to an audience of 200 this afternoon. He’d forgotten his laptop and his memory stick was on his desk. His presentation ‘Squaring the Circle’ – his way of revealing cuts and more cuts – was on that memory stick.
‘You’re going to email his presentation to him?’ Sophie guessed.
‘Got it in one,’ I said.
Sooner or later Pomeroy would phone up shouting and demanding so I might as well pre-empt that.
I began flicking through the windows Pomeroy had left open. He’d been checking Moto GP results, browsing Christmas stuff on Amazon and reading an article on genealogy. Knowing Nasty Nigel he probably thought he was descended from royalty. There was nothing too interesting, but Pomeroy wasn’t stupid enough to surf dodgy sites at work. There two unopened emails. I glanced at them halfheartedly. One was an enquiry from our PR agency. When I opened the second email I blinked and had to re-read it.
‘Are you alright?’ Sophie said.
I managed to nod. There was a roaring in my ears, a throbbing behind my eyes.
‘Only you don’t look well.’
I swallowed, pressed print and snapped the laptop shut. I snatched the paper from the printer. Sophie muttered something about Big Splash, but I wasn’t listening. I stood in the toilets, palms against the cold porcelain, staring at my reflection.
I would’ve been here sixteen years next Friday. Yes, I’ve spent sixteen precious years I’ll never get back doing the same things. Each morning I eat corn flakes with slices of banana, brush my teeth clockwise, run a razor across my chin and tickle Arthur’s belly. Arthur is my tabby cat in case you wondered. I slam my door and check it’s locked, always twice. I sit and listen to the scrape and grind of the Northern Line. I dodge cracks in the pavement and avoid the homeless guy with a coil of hair on his chin like a watch spring. I arrive at work and count the stairs – four sets of thirteen. If I don’t take the lift I’ll reward myself with a Twix. Boredom catches up by eleven. I slurp my coffee, finish the digestives and read the news online. I’ve spent my life staring at a flickering screen, face blank as a fish, stomach growling for lunch. I look forward to standing at a urinal, watering our cactus Colin or making instant coffee for to break up the day.
I always thought I’d quit first. I ran the tap cold and cupped water into my face. If there was another James Whitmore beside me – the James Whitmore who joined the firm from university – I would have wept to have seen him and how he had changed. The skin below my eyes appeared bruised, my lips were cracked and my lank, greasy hair was in need of a trim. My gut sagged against a belt that only had one notch left. Change can creep up on you like that.
I unfolded the paper and smoothed it against the mirror. It’s a no-brainer, Pomeroy had written to the group head of HR. There were cutbacks to be made. Profits were down. The head of HR wanted to know who Pomeroy would let go. It’s a no-brainer, Pomeroy wrote.
I’m charged with the monthly media reports, but I haven’t completed a new one in three years. I change the month and I change the year. I cut and paste and work on a variable of eight per cent. We go up or we go down. Sometimes I let us dip for a few months so I can announce an improvement and the directors get to feel they’ve made a breakthrough.
I took off my shirt and splashed cold water on my neck and shoulders. We don’t have fluffy cotton towels. Pomeroy’s latest economy drive meant I had to dab at my skin with those gritty blue paper towels they had at school. OK, I thought. It’s a new chapter. In a way they’ve put me out of my misery. But I wouldn’t make it easy for Pomeroy. I was buttoning my cuffs when Sophie raised an eyebrow. My hair was sopping wet at the fringe.
‘Did you send the-’ Sophie begins.
‘No, I didn’t.’
Graeme shot a warning glance at Sophie. There was a faint hiss from the radiators. I wriggled in Pomeroy’s chair, angling it so I could rest my feet on the radiator while I tapped at his laptop. An idea struck me as I stared out at the dripping trees in the square. A thin man in a crumpled grey suit lugging a battered briefcase shuffled into the park. He did this at noon every day. He checked his watch, spread his raincoat on the damp bench and waited.
It took me less than ten minutes to write the press release. The trick was to fill it with corporate speak so it had that whiff of authenticity. We’re telling you something, but making out it’s so trivial you don’t need to bother running the story. You’ve got to look like you’ve got something to hide. I buried all the really bad stuff in the Editor’s Notes. I sorted quotes from the MD, Parker Hayes, and sent it out from Pomeroy’s email. I had one last read, grinned and cracked my knuckles. I printed a copy and hit send. Sophie watched, worried.
‘Early lunch,’ I said.
Sophie stared at me open-mouthed, as if I was waving a sawn-off shotgun in the office. The phones began to ring as I made for the stairs. Out in the park there was no sign of the man with the briefcase. I sat in the dry patch he’d left behind and stared up at a fuzzy, bleached sky. I read the press release aloud to the starlings and sparrows and the woman with knitting needles in her hair chucking crusts to the pigeons.
A pioneering energy firm has announced ambitious multi-million pound plans to generate green energy at a Midlands beauty spot.
The group has submitted plans for a giant wind farm facility on a site in Bluebell Woods.
Nigel Pomeroy, group head of communications, said: ‘We’ve had great feedback from the local authorities who are right behind us on this.
‘This is terrific news for those of us focused on saving our planet. We want to fit 1,000 turbines, which will of course be in keeping with the natural environment. We appreciate there may be some concerns but I’d like to tell people it’s all about squaring the circle.
The company also announced plans to look at harnessing nuclear power at a new site in the region. Mr. Pomeroy said he could not disclose a location at this time.
I folded the release, slipping it into my pocket. Graeme was watching me from the office window, trying to shut out the ringing of phones. They hadn’t a clue, bless them!
As I was walking away my phone rang and I saw Pomeroy flash on the display. Why not, I thought, he’ll be hopping mad.
‘Mister Whitmore?’ Pomeroy could squeeze so much contempt into that Mister.
‘I’ve got some news for you. Are you sitting comfortably?’
Pomeroy was in a bar or restaurant. I could hear the tinkle of cutlery on plates and laughter.
‘Are you comfortable, Mister W?’
Pomeroy apologized for the noise, blaming a group from Portsmouth. He was cupping the handset, sharing a joke. Sweat ran from my temple.
‘Have you heard from Sophie or Graeme?’
Pomeroy asked me to repeat. ‘I’ve got about a dozen missed calls,’ he said. ‘Isn’t it something you can handle?’
I started to answer, but Pomeroy cut in. My heart thudded against my ribcage.
‘Forget that, sunshine. I’ve got something far more interesting to tell you.’
Pomeroy’s words were slurred. The Mavericks’ Dance the Night Away was playing. He told me he was going to be a director. I swallowed, licking my lips.
‘Well, aren’t you happy for me?’
There were shouts of ‘down it, down it!’ and I heard Pomeroy call someone an animal.
‘Great news,’ I said, but I don’t know if he heard me.
‘The thing is mate that leaves a vacancy. Now it’s a big pair of shoes to fill, granted, but who do you think I’ve recommended?’
I didn’t need to hear it. I turned off the phone and slumped against the bottle green railings. I sat cross-legged on the mossy, bald soil and watched the pigeons fight over the crusts.