– Ping Time –
Jack closed the drawer of his desk, leaned back in his chair, stretched out his long legs and began the operation. Thinking time, he said to himself.
Ping! went the screen of his laptop.
From where Jack sat, with only the receptionist and the main door to his rear, almost the whole of the open-plan office was laid out before him in a wide arc. He had chosen that strategic location for his desk so that he could keep an eye on the staff and their comings and goings. As far as he was concerned, that ability to quietly survey all those people – his people in his empire – was what made everything worthwhile.
‘It gives me a great sense of achievement,’ he once confided to Neville, the company’s Chairman. ‘It’s what gets me up in the morning.’
He had been annoyed with himself afterwards for opening up to Neville like that – he had imbibed an uncharacteristic third beer that night, two beers being his normal limit at social gatherings, especially those involving the staff – because he knew that at every opportunity when his back was turned Neville would repeat his outpouring to others in the company.
Ping! went the coat-stand at the side of the next desk down, where Polly, his PA, sat with her back to him.
It was the midpoint between the morning break and lunchtime. Save for the soft tapping of a dozen or so keyboards, the rustle of papers here and there and the odd murmured phone call, the office was hushed at that hour. Thinking time, Jack repeated to himself. Now was an ideal opportunity to plan the structure of the presentation that he would give at the forthcoming staff conference.
Scanning the series of desks ahead of him and to his right, he was pleased to see that all the heads were down. He liked it when everyone was busy and there was no overt skiving anywhere. As usual, though, the only blot on an otherwise perfect landscape was that bloody room down there on his left. It was the only enclosed room in the whole office. When the company moved its head office to larger premises a few years back, the room was meant to be his; as Managing Director, he was supposed to have his own private space. However, despite Neville’s protestations, he had steadfastly declined the room, insisting instead on being placed among his people. That was when he had let it slip to Neville about what got him up in the morning. A bad mistake.
Ping! went the back of Polly’s chair.
Jack didn’t notice the shudder that ran through Polly. Nor did he see the signals that were exchanged between Polly and Chris, who sat a few desks away. He was too caught up thinking about the private room. He had wanted to use it as a storage room, but Maisie, the Operations Director, had demanded it, nagging him about it every day for weeks on end.
‘Can I remind you, Jack, that I’m the Director with responsibility for the large majority of the staff in this place?’ had been her daily mantra. ‘You must see that I need to have my own office so that I can deal with personnel matters in complete confidence.’
He had had to agree with the bitch, of course. Another bad mistake. He had only given in to her because the room was glass-fronted and he thought that he would be able to see directly into it from his vantage point. It hadn’t occurred to him that she would keep the blinds closed all day – deliberately, in his opinion, to block off his view. As a further insult to him, the door to the room was closed this morning. He knew that she was ensconced in there with some of her minions, but he didn’t have a clue about what they were all up to. Letting her have the room had been another bad mistake, all right.
Ping! went the glass plate on the wall adjacent to his desk. Mounted on that exact spot so that it was visible to any visitor to his desk, the plate was a trophy from the local enterprise agency. The words ‘Fastest Growing Business, Small to Medium Size Category, 2005’ were inscribed in fake gold leaf on it. Although well out-of-date now, the trophy reminded Jack every morning that it was he who single-handedly had steered the company from its third-rate origins to its present success.
Polly shuddered again, stood up, collected her handbag and walked towards the exit. Chris copied her actions moments later. With his eyes still fixed on the closed door of Maisie’s room, Jack hardly noticed the two ladies leaving. Not to worry, he nodded to himself, Maisie would be getting her comeuppance soon enough. He would be getting rid of her and a few others before long. That posh git of a Branch Manager down in Bournemouth for a start. Lord Snooty Hamish had annoyed him too many times now. Unlike the rest of the Branch Managers, he was always out of line, seldom followed procedures and seemed just to do his own thing as if he were the bloody MD! And his office was always a tip – stuff stuck up all over the walls with Blu-Tack, in spite of instructions to the contrary. Well, all his misdemeanours were detailed in Jack’s notebook, along with possible scenarios for his dismissal. It was the same for Maisie and the other square pegs and deadwood in the company. He had recorded lots of evidence in that little black book in case it was needed at any future employment tribunals; something he had learned to do after being ejected from the last place by his so-called fellow-Directors ...
Jack seemed to flinch from that last memory. Giving the slightest of jerks, he drew his gaze away from Maisie’s door and began to contemplate the backs of his hands instead, unaware that three other staff members were in the act of slipping away from their desks to follow Polly and Chris out of the office. Anyway, he resumed his thoughts, his little black book, the dismissals, the tribunals: they were all for another day. Right now, he needed everyone on board as he embarked on the next phase of his strategy to grow the company ... which brought him right back to the business of the staff conference.
Ping! went Polly’s keyboard.
Yes, he nodded to himself again, the first phase of what he described as his ‘strategy for growth’ had been a resounding success. Over a year ago, he had introduced a brand new logo, a new website, new letterheads, new business cards, new signage – the lot. It was a new identity for the company, really; smart and modern and eye-catching. And he had succeeded in getting all the staff – and clients – to embrace it. He got the idea for it when he attended a course run by the enterprise agency. He commissioned a design company immediately afterwards. That was twenty grand well spent, in his opinion. The turnover of the business hadn’t increased yet – in fact, it had gone down as a result of ... well ... other circumstances – but the increase would come in due course. You had to invest to prosper, didn’t you?
Now it was time for phase two. He had decided a few months ago that the new logo on its own wasn’t enough. It needed a catchy strapline to complement it. So he had gone back to the design company and asked them to come up with some ideas for one. Solid thinking was the idea that they had recommended and that he had readily accepted. It was exactly what he had been looking for and worth every penny of the extra five grand that he had paid them.
‘The word Solid denotes the experience, professionalism and dependability of the company, Jack,’ they had explained in their special design-speak, which he always found stimulating (or ‘sexy’, as they would say), ‘while the word thinking conveys the company’s creativity and its depth of expertise.’
Jack smiled. He thought there was a perfect symmetry to those two words. He hoped that Neville, the Directors, the Branch Managers and the rest of the morons would be able to see that symmetry, that balance, when he unveiled the strapline at the conference. But how to unveil it? That was the question.
Ping! went the silver frame of the photograph that was perched at the end of Jack’s desk. The photograph had been taken at the last staff conference, when he had launched the company’s new identity. Wanting to appear more distinguished and more in charge, he had worn his white suit that day and he had grown a beard for the occasion, which he hadn’t removed since then. Jack frequently admired the photograph. He felt that it portrayed him as proud and quietly confident in his white suit and beard. With the whole of the staff, almost eighty-strong of them from across the UK, standing four-deep at some distance behind him, he also thought that it made him look like a giant among them, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.
He had already organised the date, location and format of the conference. It would be held in London at the same venue as last year, a fairly modest hotel near Russell Square, which was reasonably central. He had chosen London again, not because it was an exciting place to go to, but because everyone outside of London could get there cheaply by budget airline. The downside was that they had to get up very early in the morning to catch the flight in and they usually had to hang about the airport until quite late for the return flight. But neither of those inconveniences had ever bothered Jack; not when the flights at those hours cost next to nothing.
As far as the format was concerned, he had decided that the conference that year should take place over two days, rather than one. It would begin just after lunchtime on the first day and would go on until early evening, when there would be a brief interval to allow people to freshen up before the conference dinner in the hotel. Then it would reconvene at nine o’clock on the morning of the second day, closing at lunchtime. Jack intended the early start on day two to discourage the excessive drinking that had gone on after previous conference dinners. More particularly, he sought to deter Neville from dragging half the staff over to that damned all-night bar in Covent Garden. He most certainly wanted to avoid a repeat of last year’s disgrace, when he had observed Neville and a group of other drunks staggering into the hotel at five am, just as he was leaving it to catch the redeye back to the office.
Ping! went the back of the monitor on the desk directly across the corridor. Jack noticed that Harvey, the desk’s occupant, was no longer there. Probably gone to the loo, he decided, before examining the backs of his hands again.
He already had a fair idea of the conference agenda over the two days. On day one, there would be his own PowerPoint presentation, of course, when he would give an overview of the company’s current financial position and its future trading prospects – neither of which were looking particularly healthy at that moment, he winced. Then each of the Directors in turn would give a presentation on his or her area of responsibility. Finally, the Branch Managers would provide brief accounts of what was happening in their respective localities. It was all the usual stuff, really, except that he would be using his presentation somehow to introduce Solid thinking.
Jack paused for a moment, suddenly remembering something. Yes, except also that he had decided not to include an address from the Chairman. What was the point of letting Neville say anything? he asked himself. The man wasn’t even productive, was he? Okay, so he was the ‘majority shareholder’, a phrase that he frequently bleated to Jack, but it wasn’t him who had turned his failing company round, was it? Nor was it any of the other Directors, no matter how much they all claimed to be instrumental in the company’s growth. The very idea of it! No, it was all down to yours truly. His ideas. His vision. His leadership. The company really belonged to him now, which was another reason for putting a gag on Neville; everyone at the conference needed to understand that it was him, Jack Lamb, not their lazy Chairman, who was firmly in charge.
Right, Jack snorted, he would tell Neville that the agenda was too full to include anything from the Chairman on it. If Neville objected, he would do what he always did to get his own way: he would threaten to resign. The threat was always enough for Neville to cave in; the man knew what side his bread was buttered on. Neville Brown. N.B. for No Balls. No Balls Neville. That’s what he had heard some of the staff call him. And who was he to disagree with them? A tight, little smile appeared on his face.
Ping! went Jack’s wastepaper bin.
The smile disappeared. Anyway, he thought sarcastically, No Balls Neville would have plenty of opportunity to talk his usual rubbish on day two of the conference. He hadn’t worked out the details yet, but he planned a sort of brainstorming session, in which the staff would be asked to come up with some new ideas for marketing the company. Sure, he would take away a few of those ideas – one or two, maybe – and promise to develop them, but that was all. He didn’t want anyone to get carried away, thinking that they could significantly influence the running of the company. That was his role – and his role only. Oh, yeah, he had experienced staff democracy in action in the last place, and see what happened. It turned into a management fucking buyout! And the first thing that the bastards did was to fire him! No, there would be no tail wagging the dog in this company; he would stamp on anything remotely resembling it.
Ping! went Jack’s screen again. A slide of his draft PowerPoint presentation occupied the screen. The cursor sat halfway down the slide, blinking at him, reminding him that he still had to decide how and where to incorporate Solid thinking.
It occurred to Jack in a flash, as all his good ideas did, that he could introduce the strapline without actually saying anything. A slide with nothing but the words Solid thinking emblazoned across its centre could pop up intermittently throughout his presentation – whenever he paused, perhaps. Each time it popped up, the slide could linger for five seconds, say, before fading away. And when it appeared some rousing music could play. Wagner, maybe. A snatch of ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. That would do it! And every time the slide was there he would say absolutely nothing, pretending to ignore it, just letting the image – the concept – register with the audience in the same way as subliminal messages. Afterwards, when he had finished his presentation and invited questions, someone was bound to ask what Solid thinking was all about. Then he could launch into a full explanation. Perfect!
Jack paused. But who would ask the question? He didn’t want Neville opening his big mouth, nor did he want any sarcasm from toffee-nosed Hamish or any of the other smart-mouths in the company. No, he would have to control that bit by briefing someone beforehand to do it. Shelley would be the best person; he could rely on her, he could trust her. Oblivious to the fact that half the desks were empty now and that the office was even quieter than before, Jack looked across to the desk in the far corner, where Shelley, the Director of Administration, sat in deep concentration in front of her computer screen, her glasses perched on the end of her nose. He liked Shelley a great deal. In fact, she was the only person whom he could trust, whom he could really confide in. He sighed. If he could live his life over again, he would want to marry her, not the self-important prima donna whom he shared a bed with. He sighed again, remembering that she would be coming to the conference dinner as well – she insisted on attending every staff get-together, as if she was Lady Fucking Bountiful – and that, as usual, he would have to keep an eye on the lush’s drink intake.
Ping! went the ceiling above Jack’s head.
Right, he said to himself, examining the backs of his hands once more. Operation over. And some solid thought about Solid thinking in the process. He grinned, amused by his clever play on words.
There was a small crowd outside at the front of the building. For the third or fourth time, Harvey detached himself from it and walked over to the window at the side of the main entrance, from where he had a clear view of the whole length of the open-plan office.
‘It’s okay, folks,’ he called to the others. ‘He’s finished. He’s putting his nail clippers back into the drawer. It’s safe to go in now.’
Polly stubbed out her cigarette.
‘Thank God,’ she shivered. ‘It’s freezing out here. But every time I hear those clippers going, my flesh begins to crawl and I have to get out.’
‘You and me both,’ agreed Chris, who stood with her arms wrapped around herself.
‘Tell you what?’ said Harvey. ‘Next time, why don’t we video it and send it to You Tube? That would embarrass the wanker.’
‘Yeah! Good thinking!’ one of the lads at the back shouted.
‘Soooo – lid!’ added another.
– o –