I’m five minutes late, out of breath from running and knackered after the commute, and Alan is holding the door open for me and being a knob about it.
“Afternoon, Michael! What time do you call this?”
Afternoon. I get it, because I’m five minutes late and he’s exaggerating for effect. I sort of half-croak something resembling a word. It’s early.
“Speak up, son! Heh Heh.” Alan is still holding the door open for me. I’m three feet away. How short does he think my arms are?
I walk towards the break area. The vending machine has the customary fifteen people waiting to use it, so I walk over to my desk and drop my bag under it before turning my PC on.
My phone’s ringing. Before I can pick it up, Charles Williamson walks over to my desk with his trademark, flailing swagger.
“There’s no work for you today,” he says.
“Oh,” I say. I don’t know how to talk to this man or if I should talk to this man.
“Oh?” Charles says.
“Sorry.” I don’t know what I’m apologising for. “I haven’t had time to check the work rota yet.”
“Check the app before you clock in tomorrow. Your services are not required today. To the canteen you go.”
I want to try and tacitly divert his attention to the forty-eight missed calls showing on my handset, but he’s back at his desk, screaming at somebody or other down the phone.
I take my sales script down to the canteen with me. There are, I’d guess, fifty salespeople in there; a few temps, but mainly people like me who’ve been around ages and rarely get the chance to do the job. George, my Team Leader, beckons me over to a roundtable with eight of my colleagues.
“There are no spots upstairs today, so we need to go over the sales scripts again.”
This is the seven hundred and third time I’ve done this.
George clears his throat. “Simon, you go first.”
“Hello, my name is Simon, and I’m calling you on behalf of The Williams Williamson & Ecclestone –“
“Fuck’s sake, Simon. You got the Williamson and Williams the wrong way round. Again.”
“I’m sorry. ‘The Williamson Williams & Ecclestone’ is a right mouthful, though.”
“If you can’t even get the name of the bloody company right, Simon, you might as well bugger off now. Off you go.”
Simon trudges off. “You next, Marie.”
Marie starts her spiel: “Hello, my name is Marie, and I’m calling you on behalf of The Williamson Williams and Ecclestone. Are you tired of filing your own reports? Feel time-consuming admin is getting in the way of your real business needs? That’s where we come in. You see, -“
“The fuck’s that?” George asks.
“I thought I’d try a new approach,” Marie offers.
“One, you sounded like a bloody telly advert. Two, stick to the bloody script in front of you. Get out of my sight and practise by yourself over there. By the bin. Drew, you’re up.”
“Hello, my name is Drew, and I’m calling you on behalf of The Williamson Williams & Ecclestone. We have identified you as an emerging, exciting new company that can grow alongside ours. What we’re offering you today is a mutually beneficial relationship, which will enable your company to reach new heights. We offer-“
“Terrible,” George interjects. “Drew, you were sticking so closely to that bloody thing I’m going to start calling you Glue. It’s no use. Nobody’s getting it today.”
Just as George starts to get up, the doors fly open and Dave, another Team Leader, barges in. Craig, the lad who works opposite me, follows closely behind, in tears.
“There’s been an, erm, rota rewrite,” Dave says. Dave and George share a conspiratorial look. I think I detect a sense of despair, but I can’t be sure.
George turns to me. “Michael, you’re needed upstairs.”
It’s about bloody time.
“Just remember to stick to the script,” George says, as Drew buries his head in his hands.
I pick up the phone and dial the first of the three numbers that have been assigned to me on the work rota. The person on the other end picks up but doesn’t say anything.
“Hello, my name is Michael and I’m calling on behalf of The Williamson, Williams & Ecclestone. We have identified you as –“
The man on the other end tells me to “Shut.The.Fuck.Up” in a bizarre staccato before clapping five times, clap-clap clap-clap-clap. “Shut.The.Fuck.Up.” Clap-clap clap-clap-clap. “Shut.The.Fuck.Up.” Clap-clap clap-clap-clap.”
I scrunch my face and put the phone down. I can hear Sarah opposite me sob and pop Rhodiola pills.
“Please sir, if you could…just…please stop telling me I’m boring.”
Oh, Christ. Don’t say that when Charles is on the floor.
“I said mutually beneficial. Mutually beneficial. Mutually beneficial. Mutually beneficial! Why do you keep saying ‘What?’ Is there distortion on your line, sir?”
“I’m just trying to do my job. Please. You’re my third call. If I don’t-“
“Sarah, you son of a bitch!” Charles bursts out of his seat, rips the headset off her ear and towers over her. He fixes his face into a wild-eyed gurn.
“Stick to the script,” he says, pronouncing the word gutturally like its twenty letters long.
Charles pulls Sarah’s headset back on. She can’t control her bawling. “Our services include, but are not limited to, accounting, filing, reconciliations, accounting –“
“You already said that, you stupid bitch,” Charles says, screaming into her headset, punctuating every word with his pigeon head thrust. Sarah starts to retch. Charles’ face contorts to an exaggerated frown.
“That was your third call,” he says. Sarah retches and sobs, the capillaries in her eyes like static on a broken TV.
“That’s three calls without a sale. Get your stupid behind down to the canteen and don’t look at me, or sit in that very chair, until you learn how not to be a disgrace.”
Sarah cries as she walks out of the office floor. Minutes later, Marie arrives from the canteen and takes the spot at her desk.
Ignoring the sight of his trembling hands almost knocking his handset over, I look at the work rota and dial the second number assigned to me. A woman answers.
“Hello, 50’s Vintage – Karen speaking.”
“Hello Karen, my name is Michael. I’m calling you on behalf of The Williams Williamson & Ecclestone.” A mistake on my second call. Shit. “Sorry, I don’t think I’ve woken up yet!”
“You fucked up! You fucked up!” Karen says, but I think I sense a playfulness in her tone. I try to engage with her now that the forced formality has, however inadvertently, been broken.
“I’ll just start again, OK? And try not to mock me this time” I say, flirting. “Hello Karen, my name is Michael and I’m calling you on behalf of The Williamson Williams and Ecclestone. We have identified you as –“
“You still suck! You still suck!”
“Why do I suck?” I ask, feigning indignation.
“You keep saying ‘The’.”
“Well, yes…it’s part of our company name.”
“That’s silly. I want to go to The McDonalds for my lunch today. That’s also silly.”
Charles isn’t paying attention to me.
“Erm…the ‘The’ made sense when we were The Williams Williamson & Ecclestone Partnership. Now, we’re just The Williamson Williams and Ecclestone.”
“You fucked up! You fucked up!”
“How have I fucked up now?” Fuck. Everybody on the desk heard that and now they’re looking over at me.
“You got Williamson and Williams the wrong way round again. And you keep saying ‘The’. Shouldn’t you just be Williamson, Williams & Ecclestone?”
“It’s our company name!” I half-shout, feigning anger.
“You’re silly. What do you want?”
“I want to sell you something.”
“What do you want to sell me?”
“Well, we’ve identified you as-“
“Stop reading from a script.”
I exhale. “You’re an emerging, privately-owned company. We have discovered that you haven’t selected a company to outsource your administration to. We are hoping that you’re sat there with a garage full of files that you can’t be bothered to process yourself, and would much rather pay us to do it for you.”
Charles has a stern expression on his face and he’s walking over to my desk.
“Sounds about right,” Karen says. “How much are we talking? I don’t even know what’s a good price. I just make dresses. I hate all this business business.”
Charles is hovering over my desk. “Our price is a good price,” I say, incongruously.
Charles glares at me.
Karen laughs. “Our price is a good price?”
Charles lifts the headset from my ear. “Stick to the script” he shouts.
Karen sounds confused in the background. “Who’s shouting?”
I can’t stick to the script. I’ll lose the sale. I decide to jump ahead to and tweak the closing pitch; that way, I’m sticking to the script, almost, and not alienating Karen.
“Now that we’ve established a dialogue, would you be interested in meeting face to face? We can offer you a range of establishments for complimentary lunch or dinner.”
Charles is blowing a gasket. He picks up my bag from under the desk and empties the contents on my head. My heart is pounding at this point.
“You premature son of a bitch,” he screams.
“OK, Michael. I shall meet with you…but only because your timing is so good. Your sales technique could use a little work.”
“Oh, I think it’s better than you’re giving it credit for.”
Charles is visibly seething, mimicking someone mentally afflicted to indicate the intelligence of my decision, and smashing his fist down repeatedly on the script in front of me. He storms off as I finalise the details of my meeting with Karen.
After a very long twenty minutes, Charles, whose face has finally lost its enraged, purple hue, gives me the disapproving slow blink and the silent come hither. I follow his bombastic hulk of a frame out of the office floor and up three flights of stairs to the old client meeting rooms, the squeaking of my sweaty hands on the bannister and the gabba thump of my heartbeat cutting through the silence. The floor is empty. Charles walks over to the Prosperity meeting room and motions for me to enter first. I do so, holding the door open for him, which he almost knocks off its hinges when he closes it behind him. I stand there not knowing what to do.
“Sit down, for Christ’s sake” he says. I sit down. He pulls out the chair next to mine and angles it so he’s sitting directly in front of me. I can feel his hot breath on my face.
“You fucked up,” he deadpans.
“You befriended somebody from an external company.”
“You undermined the company you work for and what it represents in order to make yourself look good.”
“I know,” Charles says, mocking the defeated lilt of my voice. “The fuck d’you mean, ‘I know’? What I want, quite frankly, is an explanation.”
He waits for me to talk, reclining in his chair and rubbing his temples. It’s so quiet up here when he’s not talking. I’m in outer space. My heart feels like it wants to fuck my throat. My mouth is cotton wool. I can’t speak.
“Talk, goddammit!” he roars.
“I booked a meeting,” I splutter, not sure where the words are coming from, but knowing talking is better than nothing. “The company sound interested in what we’re offering. I’m confident we might actually make a sale.”
Charles’ eyes narrow to slits. “Go on.”
“Which is a good thing, because nobody in this company has sold anything for months.”
Charles leans forward and rests his hand on my left knee. He gives the flesh above it a tight squeeze. He moves his hand forward slightly, taking my trouser leg with it, before giving it a hard slap.
“It’s just not the way we do business here,” he says.
Sensing an opening, I continue: “I have no problems with the script,” I lie. “Better salesmen than me have sold our services using it.”
Charles doesn’t interrupt. He just edges a little closer and puts his hand on mine, giving it a squeeze too soft to be avuncular. Then he reaches for my collar and caresses the loose top button. “You’re scruffy,” he says, softly.
“I…” I’m unsettled. “I know my behaviour was unprofessional. The customer –“
Charles suddenly squeezes my hand a little too hard and stands up with a snap.
“We’re going to have to let you go,” he says. Fuck.
“We have our own way of doing things here. And, as the undisputed market leader, I’m inclined to believe that our way is the right way, quite frankly.” Charles paces around the room. He hasn’t kicked me out yet.
“Please, Mr. Williamson. I know I fucked up, but I booked a meeting. I have potential. Prospective clients ring my number and ask to speak to me. I get ten emails every hour. If I can just have another day on the phones, maybe try to alter my style-“
“Shut up!” he roars. “We can’t have you undermining this company. We can’t have you setting a precedent for everybody else down there.”
“I know”, I say, with my head down.
Charles walks over to me slowly. I look up. He shows me the full whites of his eyes and the tip of his tongue. He stands in front of me very closely, his crotch level with my face, which is so numb my mouth is hanging open.
“You’re sacked,” he says. “Unless…”
Charles slowly unzips, leering at me until it’s all the way down, before theatrically turning 180 degrees and dropping his trousers.
“…you kiss. My. Arse!”
His bare, wrinkled posterior is staring me in the face. He lets out a deranged cackle. “Kiss. My. Arse!”
I leap up and run out of the room. I can hear Charles screaming “He’s gonna quit! He’s gonna quit!” as I reach the doors. I run down the stairs, taking them five at a time, until I get to the reception on the ground floor. I walk through the revolving doors and the cold air hits me so hard that I fall to my knees, sobbing.