Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Chapter 8

Chapter 8

The postman delivered the mail at the usual time and drove off up the hill in his red landrover.

Nick crept back downstairs from his usual hiding place as soon as he was sure it was safe. Scattered on the carpet lay the familiar collection of threatening-looking letters which he hid unopened in a new hiding place at the back of the airing cupboard. A few remaining innocuous-looking circulars he left on the kitchen table as decoys for Maureen to open when she came home from work. One letter, however, stood out from the others.

He picked it up gingerly. The blue and yellow corporate logo on the front of the envelope looked vaguely familiar. He looked closer. “Nexab International”. He frowned. The name seemed familiar. It took him a few seconds to recall that it was a company he had written to several months previously in response to a recruitment advertisement in the local paper, one of many he had responded to during the brief period of heady optimism that had gripped him in the immediate aftermath of his business failure. As far as he could recall he had applied for the position of Marketing Director. A senior post in a fast-growing young company that was making a name for itself in the software industry. How na├»ve he had been! He weighed the envelope in his hands for several seconds, postponing the almost certain disappointment that would follow when he finally opened it. He hesitated. Sometimes it was better not to hear back from a company at all. In certain circumstances no news was good news. Or at least it wasn’t bad news. This letter was almost certainly a standard rejection, a polite disavowal of the need to deploy his undoubted talents in the company. Just like all the rest. Another blow to his diminishing residue of self-esteem left over from the good old days when he had been a successful entrepreneur.

Even more than usual he wasn’t in the mood for bad news that morning. After the confrontation with Maureen and the shock of having their electricity cut off he hadn’t slept at all well. Too many wild and vivid dreams had left him struggling to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Twice he had woken up dreaming he was drowning. Even in the cold light of day – and it really was cold without the central heating - he had looked around in relief at his familiar surroundings, amazed that he was still alive. He could almost feel his synapses popping from anxiety as the inevitable denouement approached. Any more bad news would almost certainly tip him over the edge, precipitating another bout of crippling despair, the probable precursor to something much worse. He pushed the letter away from him, determined to prolong his blissful ignorance for as long as possible. He would wait at least until he had finished a second cup of tea before opening the letter. A disappointment postponed was…well, a disappointment postponed. It wasn’t much of a reprieve but when you’re living precariously on the slopes of an active volcano every second of tranquillity before the next eruption is a bonus.

Trying to conserve fuel he boiled the water on the primus with the jet at half strength. One solitary cup of tea would constitute his whole breakfast. In the event the tea was surprisingly good considering the cheapness of the yellow label tea bags he had bought so shamefacedly from the local village shop. The Today programme was on the radio but he wasn’t really listening – he didn’t much care about the rest of the world right now, he had more than enough troubles of his own to preoccupy him. With no morning paper to read he sat staring at the envelope in front of him while he drummed his fingers on the table. At least judging by the postmark it wasn’t the news he had been dreading - a summons from the sheriff officers. The minutes dragged by in a funereal procession and the news ended. The radio continued to churn out the sound of people talking and for a moment he imagined he was back at work listening to the hum of conversation all around him, most of it unintelligible, just the odd familiar word. Breathtaking. Glittering. Soaring imagination. They were discussing a new production of one of Arthur Miller’s plays, he wasn’t sure which one. The Crucible, probably. It didn’t matter. None of what they said made any difference to him. All he wanted now was silence but he was too tired to get up and switch the damned radio off. His fear of the outside world had reduced him to such a state of torpor that time itself had almost ground to a halt, animation was suspended. He imagined that this was how life closed in on you at the very end, darkening your horizons, blocking off all escape routes. He took another sip from his cup of weak tea but the dregs were now cold and he recoiled in disgust as the cold, greasy liquor swilled around his mouth. He knew he could not put off the inevitable any longer. Even cowards finally reach the point where it’s easier to confront the truth than to live in permanent fear. Bracing himself for bad news he lunged across the table and grabbed the envelope and ripped it open, forcing himself to read what he was sure would be the latest rejection letter from a prospective employer.

He read quickly, his eyes darting dizzily across the blue company letterhead:

“Dear Mr Dowty

Unfortunately the post for which you applied in February has been filled. (He knew it!) We did however put your application on file and as a result we wish to invite you to a preliminary interview for the position of Business Development Executive which has arisen due to the rapid expansion of our company (Good God! A miracle!).

While this is a less senior position than the one for which you originally applied we do feel that it is one with the potential for promotion within the company. If (IF!!!!!!!) you wish to be considered for this post please phone me to arrange an interview at your earliest convenience.

If we do not hear from you within the next five working days we will assume you are not interested in this position and will accordingly delete your file from our records.

Yours sincerely

David Millen
Personnel Director”

As soon as he had recovered from his initial shock Nick excitedly phoned the company to arrange an appointment for his interview. They were in a hurry and gave him a date in three days time. The intervening period would be nerve-wracking but exciting. When Maureen and Martin came home that evening they found the house transformed.

“I’ve been Spring cleaning,” explained Nick, beaming.

“Have you been to see the bank manager?” demanded Maureen, looking tired and worried.

“No need.”

“Oh, Nick, you promised.” Maureen looked close to tears.

“Read this.” He held out the letter from Nexab International.

Optimism flooded the house, bathing all of them in its warm glow.

“Will you get a company car?” asked Martin wistfully. He was so ashamed of Maureen’s banger that he made her drop him off a mile from his school.

Maureen laughed. “Give him a chance. He hasn’t got the job yet.”

“I’ve got a good feeling about this one, Maureen. I’m sure I’ll get it. It’s made for me. I could do it standing on my head.”

“The right way up will do fine.”

“I just want to live again. You know. Free from fear. Like ordinary people. Come home after an honest day’s work and collapse in front of the fire with a glass of wine and a good book. Re-read all the authors I loved when I was younger. Hemingway. Fitzgerald. Evelyn Waugh. Re-connect to the things that really matter. Give my soul the kiss of life. Get back to being the kind of person I was before I took a wrong turning in life.”

“You’ve got plenty of time to read now if you wanted to.”

“I can’t concentrate. All I can think about are our debts and what’s going to happen. I read the words but I can’t take them in. I need that job to set my mind free again. It means everything to me.”

“I hope you get it. I really do. For all our sakes.”

While they waited for the day of his interview to arrive they continued to live off scraps of food in the cold house, without electricity, living in constant fear of a knock at the door announcing the arrival of an irate creditor. Miraculously no-one came near them.. Even the postman passed them by, sparing them any more bad news. The phone remained silent. Finally the waiting ended. His appointment was scheduled for 1.00 o’clock that afternoon. He hadn’t been able to sleep the night before and he was still in bed when it was time for the others to leave. Maureen bent down and kissed him on the forehead before she set off into town with Martin.

“Good luck, darling,” she whispered, “You can do it. I know you can.”

“Sock it to them, dad,” said Martin, giving him a big thumbs up, from the bedroom doorway.

When the time came he set off to walk the half mile down to the bus stop. He was dressed in his now unfamiliar best dark blue suit, with Maureen’s best wishes still ringing in his ears and his heart pounding wildly. The bus arrived on time for once and he climbed aboard to attend his first job interview for almost two months. As they entered the outskirts of town Nick watched the sporadic groups of people scurrying about their daily business. After the emptiness of the countryside it was a pleasure to see this sprinkling of humanity at work. He envied them their apparent sense of purpose. Soon he hoped to be just like them, with a job, a steady income, manageable debts, a sensible mortgage, mundane worries about cutting the grass and cleaning the car, anticipating their glass of wine at the end of the day, enduring a reasonably happy marriage, glowing with a modicum of self respect. He felt a pang of envy. He realised that to be like them was all he had ever wanted from life. He should have been a lawyer or an accountant. Even a schoolteacher. Anything that would have made him ordinary, more like other people, averagely happy.

As soon as he alighted from the bus in the centre of town it struck him forcibly how much things had changed in the six months during which he had been exiled deep in the countryside.

For a start nearly everybody now seemed to be striding around with a mobile phone pressed to their ear, a sight that in his day had been a comparative rarity. There seemed to be many more young people too, all of them exuberantly self-confident, even aggressive. Everyone was in a hurry, the same grim expressions on all their faces, living in another world, making plans over their phones, their lives bursting with purpose. It was a world so different from his own aimless, tortured existence that he ached with jealousy. Battling through a tidal wave of earnest shoppers he commenced his dazed progress along the crowded High Street where it ran through the centre of town. It was impossible not to notice that all the shops seemed to be holding sales, their floodlit windows plastered with posters announcing massive discounts on just about everything in huge screaming letters. The milling crowds rushed around from shop to shop, frantically snapping up bargains, everyone loaded down with bulging plastic bags as if the world was coming to an end. He stopped and gaped. Everyone seemed to have money to spend yet no one seemed to be working. It didn’t make sense. What was the secret of their wealth? Christ, he thought to himself in bewilderment, he wished he knew. He’d been hard up all his life, had ploughed every spare penny back into the business. Over the years he had become conditioned to living frugally, eventually reaching the stage where he actually hated spending money, especially on himself. It was all so different today. All the fast food shops were packed, people were lining up outside in the streets to get in. Whatever had happened to home cooking? A flask of soup, a sandwich made at home before setting off to work? Vast numbers of people were eating in the street totally without shame or embarrassment. Empty food cartons were discarded on the pavements without a second thought, litter piled up everywhere, swept into corners by a swirling, snell March wind. Nick was only too conscious of the fact that he couldn’t afford lunch and the pervasive smell of fast food that lingered around the entrances to the shopping malls made him feel nauseous with hunger. Something else struck him in this alien environment. The expressions on the faces of the people in the crowds. They seemed almost subhuman. Universally aggressive, as if their snarling humanity had somehow degenerated in his absence into something primitive, perhaps tribal. Christianity had deserted the city, the abandoned churches now were all pubs and restaurants. In his short time away people had begun worshipping a different God with a fervour he had never observed before. Shopping truly was the new religion. He felt like a stranger amongst these pagan hordes, a character trapped in the bustle of a Breughel painting. As he fought his way along Union Street, swimming against the prevailing current, hordes of people charged past him, elbowing him out of the way, glaring at him as if he was an imbecile. The feeling of latent violence in the air was oppressive. The shopping malls through which he passed became a series of brightly-lit nightmares. He felt claustrophobic, it was hard to breathe, he was beginning to panic, wishing he’d never left home. To make matters worse he realised that he had lost his ability to navigate through crowds. His clumsiness meant he was continuously jostled, pushed backwards, cursed at, disoriented. He felt like he was drowning in a whirlpool of heartlessness. Carried out through a heavy glass door into the chill fetid air of the main street he stood in a daze as the traffic raced past in an endless stream, a few feet away, snarling at his ankles whenever he attempted to sprint across to the other side of the road.

By the time he finally reached Nexab House in the West End he was already ten minutes late for his interview despite running the last half mile through the broad leafy avenue lined with granite mansions built by fish merchants and Baltic traders back in the nineteenth century.

He needn’t have worried.

He was dismayed to discover that he was one of at least twenty candidates for the post and his prospective employers had already fallen well behind with their interviewing schedule. He sat on a plastic seat in the large, modern reception area of the converted town house along with half a dozen other candidates, all of whom were much younger, and, mercifully, even more apprehensive, than he was. After a while he noted that the switchboard on the receptionist’s desk hardly ever rang which was surprising for such a supposedly busy company. He was mildly irritated at the way the bored receptionist did not attempt to engage any of them in conversation or offer them coffee. Instead she spent most of her time on the phone to a friend, a conversation he was obliged to overhear.

“We’re flying down to London on Easyjet in September….that’s right…no…Luton… then we’re flying Virgin to Barbados…I know…Garry booked it on the internet…I know…he’s brilliant that way, he does it all while he’s at work. What? My mum’s met him…yeah, she likes him…My dad? No way. He’d scare him off…What?…Too right. This is my last chance and there’s no way I’m going to let my dad screw it up…What?…Two weeks. It’s all inclusive…I know. Garry says we’ll get our money back on the booze alone. The way he drinks we might even make a profit. It’s dead cheap over there anyway…No…I’ve been to Spain and that with my folks lots of times but this is the first time I’ve been properly abroad…What?…as long as the food’s okay I don’t mind…What?…And the weather yeah…The sea’ll be warm at that time of year…I know…Garry says”

As the minutes stretched into hours Nick began to hate Garry.

Darkness was falling outside he was finally summoned to his interview. When he stood up he felt light-headed from hunger. A smartly-dressed young woman led him into a smallish boardroom which was almost totally filled by a large and expensive-looking rosewood desk. He squeezed into the proffered seat opposite his two interviewers. A man and a woman both in their early twenties, casually dressed, cool, self-important. They seemed completely at ease in his presence which immediately unnerved him.

The man flicked through Nick’s CV. “You’re obviously a self-starter if you’ve run your own business,” he observed, smiling encouragingly at Nick across the highly polished expanse of desk, a gulf that was wider than he would ever know.

Nick nodded. “I don’t lack motivation.”

“How would you feel working for someone else? Not being your own boss any more?”

“Not a problem. The challenges you have to face if you want to succeed in business are the same whether it’s your own business or someone else’s.”

“You’re quite a bit older than everyone else round here. You wouldn’t mind that?”

“I’ve been around all right,” agreed Nick, forcing himself to smile deprecatingly. As soon as he uttered the phrase he regretted it. It made him sound like an old whore who was past her sell-by date. Exactly the opposite impression to the one he was trying to convey.

“What special attributes would you bring to this job?” asked the woman in a bored, refined voice, without looking up.

Nick thought for a minute but it was hard to concentrate. He couldn’t get the nasal twang of the receptionist’s voice out of his head. He knew he had to say something if he was to have any chance of getting the job. Before he could organise his thoughts his mouth opened and he heard himself saying, in a surprisingly confident voice, “Well, I’m numerate of course. I can run the numbers. Cash flow, profit and loss, balance sheet. All the key financial ratios. I know how to monitor the way a company’s performing and discover what is and isn’t working. I’d also like to think I could put all my experience of running a business to good use to achieve the company’s key objectives.” He was pleased with his answer. He’d managed to avoid waffling or saying anything stupid just by sticking to the truth.

He was taken aback when the young man winced. “That’s a bit old economy, isn’t it? Cash flow? That’s not how we measure success here. Cash in the bank earns peanuts. We’ve got first mover advantage in our field and our primary objective is to leverage that into a dominant market share. Just like Microsoft,” he added, helpfully.

Nick’s first reaction was that this was a pretty dumb strategy for a small business. Cash flow was all-important in the early days. On the other hand, what did he know? His attempt to build a successful company hadn’t exactly been a rip-roaring success despite the years of careful investment. “I see,” he said, nodding his head sagely. When it obviously didn’t pay to disagree it was a technique that had served him well in the past.

“We’re growing too fast to worry about cash flow,” continued the young man airily, “When we’ve burnt up our cash reserves our exponential growth means we’ll have a queue of investors dying to pump fresh capital into the company. When we’re number one in the market then the cash will come flowing in. How we spend it will be the problem.”

Nick couldn’t stop himself from looking doubtful. “I thought the technology bubble had burst?”

“We’re not technology. Definitely not. We’re enterprise systems. Business process engineering. And in our field we’re unique.”

“Truly differentiated,” explained the woman brightly.

Nick felt at this point that it would be prudent to guide the conversation back onto safer ground where he actually knew what they were talking about. He coughed politely. “So what is your product exactly?”

The young man leaned forward, his eyes burning with all the fervour of a true believer. “We’ve developed an innovative suite of enterprise software that will completely revolutionise supply chain management in the oil industry.”

“Supply chain management?” Naturally Nick had heard the term but he had no real idea what it meant in practice.

“Do you think you could deliver that concept to the key players in the industry?” the woman asked him abruptly, looking up from her notes for the first time.

“Do you mean could I sell the software?”

“Well, yes.”

“I did all the sales and marketing for my own company for ten years.”

“Ten years!” The young man rolled his eyes and whistled. “We plan to sell out within three, max.”

Nick had dedicated half his life to growing his old company. With disastrous consequences. Maybe the young man had the right answers after all. He said, “If you’ve got a good product I guarantee I can sell it.”

“It’s a GREAT product,” enthused the young man.

“Who’s bought it so far?”

The young man’s eyes widened and an idiotic smile spread across his face as he began nodding conspiratorially. “Our upgraded beta version is currently being evaluated by some of the biggest names in the business.”

“The feedback is very positive,” the woman added, beaming.

“Once we’ve ironed out the bugs we’ll have an army of sales guys hitting the road running. You could be one of them.”

“It’s an international product.”

“That’s right, the oil industry is just the start. There are dozens more applications in just about any market segment you care to think of.”

Nick tried to look positive as the two young people stared triumphantly at him. They really believed in what they were saying. Maybe they were right. Most successful companies were built on faith. If the product was half as good as they thought it was this could be his big break. Even if it sounded like they hadn’t actually sold anything yet. “Okay,” he said, nodding deliberatively, mirroring the actions of the young man opposite him, “I know how to talk to buyers at that level. A lot of these guys in senior positions are my age too. I’ve probably played golf with most of them. Once I figure out what your fancy software actually does I’m sure I can sell them the benefits in a language they can understand.”

The young man’s grin grew even broader. “That’s exactly why we asked you here, Nick. There’s still a lot of old farts in this game who don’t speak our language. That’s why we need an interpreter like you, someone who’s on their wavelength. A bridge between the old and new. Today and tomorrow.”

“The quill pen and the computer,” added the woman helpfully.

“We’ll have to train you of course.”

“I’m not too old to learn.”

“Oh, you don’t need to know much. Once you’ve got your foot in the door we’ll send in the real experts after you.”

“Guys with brains,” the woman added.

“Bright young techies who write computer games as a hobby.”

They laughed and Nick laughed with them.

Ten minutes later he left the meeting feeling ten years older but for once he was not disheartened by his age. He had the feeling that he’d done rather well, that beneath their confident surface these young people were rather in awe of his age and experience. For once, he thought, the past might just be working in his favour.

A few days later Nick’s quiet confidence was amply rewarded when he received a phone call from the company offering him the position of he’d been interviewed for, starting immediately. The salary was double anything he’d earned before and there were stock options attached which would be worth a large amount of money if the company went public. He couldn’t believe his luck. It really did seem as if his fortune had finally changed for the better. Even his creditors had remained quiescent. Best of all, the debt collector had not reappeared. He phoned Maureen and told her the good news.

That afternoon the electricity came back on. The empty fridge whirred back into life. The video recorder re-set itself. The pump on the central heating started circulating. The house grew warm.

Maureen phoned just as he was settling back to watch some horse-racing on the afternoon telly. “Nick, I…”

“Maureen, you won’t believe it but the electricity has come back on. It’s a miracle.”

Maureen laughed. “Not exactly. On the strength of your good news I borrowed some money from mother and went round and paid off the arrears. They were very good about it actually.”

“Oh. Well, it’s still a miracle isn’t it.”

“It is, Nick. Will you be allowed to keep all of your wages? What about the bank?”

“They’ll take the lions share I’m afraid. But they’ve got to leave us enough to live on. It’s the law. We’ll see a huge difference compared to what it’s been like. We can start living again.”

“We never stopped living, Nick. We survived, despite everything.”

“We did, didn’t we. Thanks to you.”

“And you, Nick. You’ve come good in the end. I always knew you would. Listen, I’ll stop off at the shops on the way home and get something nice for tea. We’ll celebrate.”

“Yeah, why not. I’m starving. Besides, we deserve it.”

“YOU deserve it.” They both laughed.

That night he and Maureen celebrated with Australian champagne. Even Martin had a glass. As a special treat Maureen cooked them some rib eye steak from the local butcher. They accompanied the meal with a modest Italian red wine from the Co-op which Nick warmed by a log fire he lit specially to give the room a festive air.

At the end of the meal Nick tapped the table with his knife and held up his glass. He was slightly tipsy and spoke slowly and deliberately so as not to slur his words. “A toast,” he declared. Maureen and Martin raised their glasses. “To the man upstairs. Our lord Jesus Christ. Who works in very mysterious ways but who came good in the end.”

“To the man upstairs,” they chorused.

Nick raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Next time though, don’t leave it so late.”

“Don’t let there be a next time,” said Maureen, smiling.

After the meal the three of them watched television together, enjoying the novelty, a nuclear family that had somehow avoided meltdown. When it was time for bed Martin hugged his father before he went off to his room. “I knew you’d get a job eventually, dad,” he said, tears in his eyes.

Nick smiled, a proud father once more. “Listen, Martin, life can be tough and pretty unfair at times but I’ll make you this promise. I’ll always be here for you. You hear me? If ever you get into trouble, no matter what it is, I’ll stand by you. The way you stood by me. As long as I live. It’s called unconditional love. It’s what families are for. You understand?”

Martin nodded. “I know, dad. You’re the greatest, you really are.”

“So are you, son.”

“Does this mean I can go to university?”

“Definitely. You have my word on that. It’ll still mean sacrifices but it’ll be well worth it.”

Later that night he and Maureen made love, for the first time in weeks.

“Jesus,” Nick gasped as he rolled off onto his back, “I needed that.”

Maureen laughed. “All you’ve got to do is whistle.”

“I’ve been in such a state these past few months. Getting a job changes everything. I feel like I’m a whole man again.”

Maureen leant across and kissed him on the cheek. “Welcome back, lover.”

“It’s good to be back.”

“Don’t make it so long next time.”

“That’s the first time you’ve ever said it was too long.”

She hit him with a pillow.

Nick smiled in the darkness. Miraculously they had weathered the storm together and he felt that they had never been closer. Whatever happened in future things would never be so bad again.

Three weeks later, a short time after he had completed his initial induction training, just as he was about to set out on his first proper sales call, Nexab International went into liquidation.
That afternoon the building was full of stunned employees. Nick joined the crowd staring in disbelief at the notice in the canteen explaining what had happened. Apparently the cash burn had been greater than anticipated. There were still bugs in the software. As a result sales had not materialised as anticipated in the business plan. The current cash reserves were insufficient to take the company through to profitability. Despite the best efforts of the original investors and their corporate advisers the directors had been unable to raise further capital. The bank had reluctantly called in the company’s overdraft. The company’s auditors had come in the same day and after a brief scrutiny of the books had advised immediate liquidation. The share options were worthless, there was not even enough money to pay that month’s salaries.

“Bunch of fucking wankers,” spat the man who had just become Nick’s former boss, turning away from the noticeboard with a look of fury on his face.

The former receptionist who had ignored him when he had arrived for his interview tottered past in a very short skirt and improbably high heels clutching a laptop and a printer to her bosom. “I’m entitled,” she gasped, tears streaming from her eyes, “The bastards owe me this at least.”

As he left the building Nick was handed a note telling him he would get the wages due to him from the liquidator, eventually. He felt ill at the thought of having to tell Maureen what had happened. So ill he wanted to die. He took a deep breath. Then another. And another. He felt like he was drowning. In fact, he wished that he was.