To Cut A Long Story Short

Short Story read time

6 mins

Short Story

The Grass Is Always Greener

Bill woke with a start. It was always the same following a long sleep-in over the weekend. Once the sun had risen on Monday morning they would expect him to move on. He had slept under the archway of Critchley’s Bank for more years than most of the staff had worked in the building.
Bill would turn up every evening at around seven o’clock to claim his spot. Not that anyone else would have dared to occupy his pitch after all these years. Over the past decade he had seen them come and go, some with hearts of gold, some silver and some bronze. Most of the bronze ones were only interested in the other kind of gold. He had sussed out which was which, and not just by the way they treated him.
He glanced up at the clock above the door: ten to six. Young Kevin would appear through that door at any moment and ask if he would be kind enough to move on. Good lad, Kevin – often slipped him a bob or two, which must have been a sacrifice, what with another baby on the way. He certainly wouldn’t have been treated with the same consideration by most of the posher ones who came in later.
Bill allowed himself a moment to dream. He would have liked to have Kevin’s job, dressed in that heavy, warm coat and peaked hat. He would still have been on the street, but with a real job and regular pay. Some people had all the luck. All Kevin had to do was say, ‘Good morning, sir. Hope you had a pleasant weekend.’ Didn’t even have to hold the door open since they’d made it automatic.
But Bill wasn’t complaining. It hadn’t been too bad a weekend. It didn’t rain, and nowadays the police never tried to move him on – not since he’d spotted that IRA man parking his van outside the bank all those years ago. That was his army training.
He’d managed to get hold of a copy of Friday’s Finan- cial Times and Saturday’s Daily Mail. The Financial Times reminded him that he should have invested in Internet com- panies and kept out of clothes manufacturers, because their stocks were dropping rapidly following the slowdown in High Street sales. He was probably the only person attached to the bank who read the Financial Times from cover to cover, and certainly the only one who then used it as a blanket.
He’d picked up the Mail from the bin at the back of the building – amazing what some of those yuppies dropped in that bin. He’d had everything from a Rolex watch to a packet of condoms. Not that he had any use for either. There were quite enough clocks in the City without needing another one, and as for the condoms – not much point in those since he’d left the army. He had sold the watch and given the condoms to Vince, who worked the Bank of America pitch. Vince was always bragging about his latest conquests, which seemed a little unlikely given his circumstances. Bill had decided to call his bluff and give him the condoms as a Christmas present.
The lights were being switched on all over the building, and when Bill glanced through the plate-glass window he spotted Kevin putting on his coat. Time to gather up his belongings and move on: he didn’t want to get Kevin into any trouble, on account of the fact he hoped the lad would soon be getting the promotion he deserved.
Bill rolled up his sleeping bag – a present from the Chairman, who hadn’t waited until Christmas to give it to him. No, that wasn’t Sir William’s style. A born gentleman, with an eye for the ladies – and who could blame him? Bill had seen one or two of them go up in the lift late at night, and he doubted if they were seeking advice on their PEPs. Perhaps he should have given him the packet of condoms.
He folded up his two blankets – one he’d bought with some of the money from the watch sale, the other he’d inherited when Irish died. He missed Irish. Half a loaf of bread from the back of the City Club, after he’d advised the manager to get out of clothes manufacturers and into the Internet, but he’d just laughed. He shoved his few possessions into his QC’s bag – another dustbin job, this time from the back of the Old Bailey.
Finally, like all good City men, he must check his cash position – always important to be liquid when there are more sellers than buyers. He fumbled around in his pocket, the one without a hole, and pulled out a pound, two 10p pieces and a penny. Thanks to government taxes, he wouldn’t be able to afford any fags today, let alone his usual pint. Unless of course Maisie was behind the bar at The Reaper. He would have liked to reap her, he thought, even though he was old enough to be her father.
Clocks all over the city were beginning to chime six. He tied up the laces of his Reebok trainers – another yuppie reject: the yuppies all wore Nikes now. One last glance as Kevin stepped out onto the pavement. By the time Bill returned at seven that evening – more reliable than any security guard – Kevin would be back home in Peckham with his pregnant wife Lucy. Lucky man.
Kevin watched as Bill shuffled away, disappearing among the early-morning workers. He was good like that, Bill. He would never embarrass Kevin, or want to be the cause of him losing his job. Then he spotted the penny underneath the arch.
He picked it up and smiled. He would replace it with a pound coin that evening. After all, wasn’t that what banks were meant to do with your money?
Kevin returned to the front door just as the cleaners were leaving. They arrived at three in the morning, and had to be off the premises by six. After four years he knew all of their names, and they always gave him a smile.
Kevin had to be out on the pavement by six o’clock on the dot, shoes polished, clean white shirt, the bank’s crested tie and the regulation brass-buttoned long blue coat – heavy in winter, light in summer. Banks are sticklers for rules and regulations. He was expected to salute all board members as they entered the building, but he had added one or two others he’d heard might soon be joining the board.
Between six and seven the yuppies would arrive with, ‘Hi, Kev. Bet I make a million today.’ From seven to eight, at a slightly slower pace, came the middle management, already having lost their edge after dealing with the problems of young children, school fees, new car or new wife: ‘Good morning,’ not bothering to make eye contact. From eight to nine, the dignified pace of senior management, having parked their cars in reserved spaces in the carpark. Although they went to football matches on a Saturday like the rest of us, thought Kevin, they had seats in the directors’ box. Most of them realised by now that they weren’t going to make the board, and had settled for an easier life. Among the last to arrive would be the bank’s Chief Executive, Phillip Alexander, sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven Jaguar, reading the Financial Times. Kevin was expected to run out onto the pavement and open the car door for Mr Alexander, who would then march straight past him without so much as a glance, let alone a thank-you.
Finally, Sir William Selwyn, the bank’s Chairman, would be dropped off in his Rolls-Royce, having been driven up from somewhere in Surrey. Sir William always found time to have a word with him. ‘Good morning, Kevin. How’s the wife?’
‘Well, thank you, sir.’
‘Let me know when the baby’s due.’
Kevin grinned as the yuppies began to appear, the auto- matic door sliding open as they dashed through. No more having to pull open heavy doors since they’d installed that contraption. He was surprised they bothered to keep him on the payroll – at least, that was the opinion of Mike Haskins, his immediate superior.
Kevin glanced around at Haskins, who was standing behind the reception desk. Lucky Mike. Inside in the warmth, regular cups of tea, the odd perk, not to mention a rise in salary. That was the job Kevin was after, the next step up the bank’s ladder. He’d earned it. And he already had ideas for making reception run more efficiently. He turned back the moment Haskins looked up, reminding himself that his boss only had five months, two weeks and four days to go before he was due to retire. Then Kevin would take over his job – as long as they didn’t bypass him and offer the position to Haskins’s son.
Ronnie Haskins had been appearing at the bank pretty regularly since he’d lost his job at the brewery. He made himself useful, carrying parcels, delivering letters, hailing taxis and even getting sandwiches from the local Pret A Manger for those who wouldn’t or couldn’t risk leaving their desks.
Kevin wasn’t stupid – he knew exactly what Haskins’s game was. He intended to make sure Ronnie got the job that was Kevin’s by right, while Kevin remained out on the pavement. It wasn’t fair. He had served the bank conscientiously, never once missing a day’s work, standing out there in all weathers.
‘Good morning, Kevin,’ said Chris Parnell, almost running past him. He had an anxious look on his face. He should have my problems, thought Kevin, glancing round to see Haskins stirring his first cup of tea of the morning.
‘That’s Chris Parnell,’ Haskins told Ronnie, before sipping his tea. ‘Late again – he’ll blame it on British Rail, always does. I should have been given his job years ago, and I would have been, if like him I’d been a Sergeant in the Pay Corps, and not a Corporal in the Greenjackets. But management didn’t seem to appreciate what I had to offer.’
Ronnie made no comment, but then, he had heard his father express this opinion every workday morning for the past six weeks.
‘I once invited him to my regimental reunion, but he said he was too busy. Bloody snob. Watch him, though, because he’ll have a say in who gets my job.’
‘Good morning, Mr Parker,’ said Haskins, handing the next arrival a copy of the Guardian.
‘Tells you a lot about a man, what paper he reads,’ Haskins said to Ronnie as Roger Parker disappeared into the lift. ‘Now, you take young Kevin out there. He reads the Sun, and that’s all you need to know about him. Which is another reason I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t get the promotion he’s after.’ He winked at his son. ‘I, on the other hand, read the Express – always have done, always will do.
‘Good morning, Mr Tudor-Jones,’ said Haskins, as he passed a copy of the Telegraph to the bank’s Chief Adminis- trator. He didn’t speak again until the lift doors had closed.
‘Important time for Mr Tudor-Jones,’ Haskins informed his son. ‘If he doesn’t get promoted to the board this year, my bet is he’ll be marking time until he retires. I sometimes look at these jokers and think I could do their jobs. After all, it wasn’t my fault my old man was a brickie, and I didn’t get the chance to go to the local grammar school. Otherwise I might have ended up on the sixth or seventh floor, with a desk of my own and a secretary.
‘Good morning, Mr Alexander,’ said Haskins as the bank’s
Chief Executive walked past him without acknowledging his salutation.
‘Don’t have to hand him a paper. Miss Franklyn, his secretary, picks the lot up for him long before he arrives. Now he wants to be Chairman. If he gets the job, there’ll be a lot of changes round here, that’s for sure.’ He looked across at his son. ‘You been booking in all those names, the way I taught you?’
‘Sure have, Dad. Mr Parnell, 7.47; Mr Parker, 8.09; Mr Tudor-Jones, 8.11; Mr Alexander, 8.23.’
‘Well done, son. You’re learning fast.’ He poured himself another cup of tea, and took a sip. Too hot, so he went on talking. ‘Our next job is to deal with the mail – which, like Mr Parnell, is late. So, I suggest.. .’ Haskins quickly hid his cup of tea below the counter and ran across the foyer. He jabbed the ‘up’ button, and prayed that one of the lifts would return to the ground floor before the Chairman entered the building. The doors slid open with seconds to spare.
‘Good morning, Sir William. I hope you had a pleasant weekend.’
‘Yes, thank you, Haskins,’ said the Chairman, as the doors closed. Haskins blocked the way so that no one could join Sir William in the lift, and he would have an uninterrupted journey to the fourteenth floor.
Haskins ambled back to the reception desk to find his son sorting out the morning mail. ‘The Chairman once told me that the lift takes thirty-eight seconds to reach the top floor, and he’d worked out that he’d spend a week of his life in there, so he always read the Times leader on the way up and the notes for his next meeting on the way down. If he spends a week trapped in there, I reckon I must spend half my life,’ he added, as he picked up his tea and took a sip. It was cold. ‘Once you’ve sorted out the post, you can take it up to Mr Parnell. It’s his job to distribute it, not mine. He’s got a cushy enough number as it is, so there’s no reason why I should do his work for him.’
Ronnie picked up the basket full of mail and headed for the lift. He stepped out on the second floor, walked over to Mr Parnell’s desk and placed the basket in front of him.
Chris Parnell looked up, and watched as the lad disap- peared back out of the door. He stared at the pile of letters. As always, no attempt had been made to sort them out. He must have a word with Haskins. It wasn’t as if the man was run off his feet, and now he wanted his boy to take his place. Not if he had anything to do with it.
Didn’t Haskins understand that his job carried real responsibility? He had to make sure the office ticked like a Swiss clock. Letters on the correct desks before nine, check for any absentees by ten, deal with any machinery breakdowns within moments of being notified of them, arrange and organ- ise all staff meetings, by which time the second post would have arrived. Frankly, the whole place would come to a halt if he ever took a day off. You only had to look at the mess he always came back to whenever he returned from his summer holiday.
He stared at the letter on the top of the pile. It was addressed to ‘Mr Roger Parker’. ‘Rog’, to him. He should have been given Rog’s job as Head of Personnel years ago – he could have done it in his sleep, as his wife Janice never stopped reminding him: ‘He’s no more than a jumped-up office clerk. Just because he was at the same school as the Chief Cashier.’ It wasn’t fair.
Janice had wanted to invite Roger and his wife round to dinner, but Chris had been against the idea from the start.
‘Why not?’ she had demanded. ‘After all, you both support Chelsea. Is it because you’re afraid he’ll turn you down, the stuck-up snob?’
To be fair to Janice, it had crossed Chris’s mind to invite Roger out for a drink, but not to dinner at their home in Romford. He couldn’t explain to her that when Roger went to Stamford Bridge he didn’t sit at the Shed end with the lads, but in the members’ seats.
Once the letters had been sorted out, Chris placed them in different trays according to their departments. His two assis- tants could cover the first ten floors, but he would never allow them anywhere near the top four. Only he got into the Chair- man and Chief Executive’s offices.
Janice never stopped reminding him to keep his eyes open whenever he was on the executive floors. ‘You can never tell what opportunities might arise, what openings could present themselves.’ He laughed to himself, thinking about Gloria in Filing, and the openings she offered. The things that girl could do behind a filing cabinet. That was one thing he didn’t need his wife to find out about.
He picked up the trays for the top four floors, and headed towards the lift. When he reached the eleventh floor, he gave a gentle knock on the door before entering Roger’s office. The Head of Personnel glanced up from a letter he’d been reading, a preoccupied look on his face.
‘Good result for Chelsea on Saturday, Rog, even if it was only against West Ham,’ Chris said as he placed a pile of letters in his superior’s in-tray. He didn’t get any response, so he left hurriedly.
Roger looked up as Chris scurried away. He felt guilty that he hadn’t chatted to him about the Chelsea match, but he didn’t want to explain why he had missed a home game for the first time that season. He should be so lucky as only to have Chelsea on his mind.
He turned his attention back to the letter he had been reading. It was a bill for £1,600, the first month’s fee for his mother’s nursing home.
Roger had reluctantly accepted that she was no longer well enough to remain with them in Croydon, but he hadn’t been expecting a bill that would work out at almost £20,000 a year. Of course he hoped she’d be around for another twenty years, but with Adam and Sarah still at school, and Hazel not wanting to go back to work, he needed a further rise in salary, at a time when all the talk was of cutbacks and redundancies.
It had been a disastrous weekend. On Saturday he had begun to read the McKinsey report, outlining what the bank would have to do if it was to continue as a leading financial institution into the twenty-first century.
The report had suggested that at least seventy employees would have to participate in a downsizing programme – a euphemism for ‘You’re sacked.’ And who would be given the unenviable task of explaining to those seventy individuals the precise meaning of the word ‘downsizing’? The last time Roger had had to sack someone, he hadn’t slept for days. He had felt so depressed by the time he put the report down that he just couldn’t face the Chelsea match.
He realised he would have to make an appointment to see Godfrey Tudor-Jones, the bank’s Chief Administrator, although he knew that Tudor-Jones would brush him off with, ‘Not my department, old boy, people problems. And you’re the Head of Personnel, Roger, so I guess it’s up to you.’ It wasn’t as if he’d been able to strike up a personal relationship with the man, which he could now fall back on. He had tried hard enough over the years, but the Chief Administrator had made it all too clear that he didn’t mix business with pleasure
– unless, of course, you were a board member.
‘Why don’t you invite him to a home game at Chelsea?’ suggested Hazel. ‘After all, you paid enough for those two season tickets.’
‘I don’t think he’s into football,’ Roger had told her. ‘More a rugby man, would be my guess.’
‘Then invite him to your club for dinner.’
He didn’t bother to explain to Hazel that Godfrey was a member of the Carlton Club, and he didn’t imagine he would feel at ease at a meeting of the Fabian Society.
The final blow had come on Saturday evening, when the headmaster of Adam’s school had phoned to say he needed to see him urgently, about a matter that couldn’t be discussed over the phone. He had driven there on the Sunday morning, apprehensive about what it could possibly be that couldn’t be discussed over the phone. He knew that Adam needed to buckle down and work a lot harder if he was to have a chance of being offered a place at any university, but the headmaster told him that his son had been caught smoking marijuana, and that the school rules on that particular subject couldn’t be clearer – immediate expulsion and a full report to the local police the following day. When he heard the news, Roger felt as if he were back in his own headmaster’s study.
Father and son had hardly exchanged a word on the journey home. When Hazel had been told why Adam had come back in the middle of term she had broken down in tears, and proved inconsolable. She feared it would all come out in the Croydon Advertiser, and they would have to move. Roger certainly couldn’t afford a move at the moment, but he didn’t think this was the right time to explain to Hazel the meaning of negative equity.
On the train up to London that morning, Roger couldn’t help thinking that none of this would have arisen if he had landed the Chief Administrator’s job. For months there had been talk of Godfrey joining the board, and when he eventually did, Roger would be the obvious candidate to take his place. But he needed the extra cash right now, what with his mother in a nursing home and having to find a sixth-form college that would take Adam. He and Hazel would have to forget cele- brating their twentieth wedding anniversary in Venice.
As he sat at his desk, he thought about the consequences of his colleagues finding out about Adam. He wouldn’t lose his job, of course, but he needn’t bother concerning himself with any further promotion. He could hear the snide whispers in the washroom that were meant to be overheard.
‘Well, he’s always been a bit of a lefty, you know. So, frankly, are you surprised?’ He would have liked to explain to them that just because you read the Guardian, it doesn’t automatically follow that you go on Ban the Bomb marches, experiment with free love and smoke marijuana at weekends.
He returned to the first page of the McKinsey report, and realised he would have to make an early appointment to see the Chief Administrator. He knew it would be no more than going through the motions, but at least he would have done his duty by his colleagues.
He dialled an internal number, and Godfrey Tudor-Jones’s secretary picked up the phone.
‘The Chief Administrator’s office,’ said Pamela, sounding as if she had a cold.
‘It’s Roger. I need to see Godfrey fairly urgently. It’s about the McKinsey report.’
‘He has appointments most of the day,’ said Pamela, ‘but I could fit you in at 4.15 for fifteen minutes.’
‘Then I’ll be with you at 4.15.’
Pamela replaced the phone and made a note in her boss’s diary.
‘Who was that?’ asked Godfrey.
‘Roger Parker. He says he has a problem and needs to see you urgently. I fitted him in at 4.15.’
He doesn’t know what a problem is, thought Godfrey, continuing to sift through his letters to see if any had ‘Confi- dential’ written on them. None had, so he crossed the room and handed them all back to Pamela.
She took them without a word passing between them.
Nothing had been the same since that weekend in Manchester. He should never have broken the golden rule about sleeping with your secretary. If it hadn’t rained for three days, or if he’d been able to get a ticket for the United match, or if her skirt hadn’t been quite so short, it might never have happened. If, if, if. And it wasn’t as if the earth had moved, or he’d had it more than once. What a wonderful start to the week to be told she was pregnant.
As if he didn’t have enough problems at the moment, the bank was having a poor year, so his bonus was likely to be about half what he’d budgeted for. Worse, he had already spent the money long before it had been credited to his account.
He looked up at Pamela. All she’d said after her initial outburst was that she hadn’t made up her mind whether or not to have the baby. That was all he needed right now, what with two sons at Tonbridge and a daughter who couldn’t make up her mind if she wanted a piano or a pony, and didn’t understand why she couldn’t have both, not to mention a wife who had become a shopaholic. He couldn’t remember when his bank balance had last been in credit. He looked up at Pamela again, as she left his office. A private abortion wouldn’t come cheap either, but it would be a damn sight cheaper than the alternative.
It would all have been so different if he had taken over as Chief Executive. He’d been on the shortlist, and at least three members of the board had made it clear that they supported his application. But the board in its wisdom had offered the position to an outsider. He had reached the last three, and for the first time he understood what it must feel like to win an Olympic silver medal when you’re the clear favourite. Damn it, he was just as well qualified for the job as Phillip Alexander, and he had the added advantage of having worked for the bank for the past twelve years. There had been hints of a place on the board as compensation, but that would bite the dust the moment they found out about Pamela.
And what was the first recommendation Alexander had put before the board? That the bank should invest heavily in Russia, with the cataclysmic result that seventy people would now be losing their jobs and everyone’s bonus was having to be readjusted. What made it worse was that Alexander was now trying to shift the blame for his decision onto the Chairman.
Once again, Godfrey’s thoughts returned to Pamela. Per- haps he should take her out to lunch and try to convince her that an abortion would be the wisest course of action. He was about to pick up the phone and suggest the idea to her when it rang.
It was Pamela. ‘Miss Franklyn just called. Could you pop up and see Mr Alexander in his office?’ This was a ploy Alexander used regularly, to ensure you never forgot his position. Half the time, whatever needed to be discussed could easily have been dealt with over the phone. The man had a bloody power-complex.
On the way up to Alexander’s office, Godfrey remembered that his wife had wanted to invite him to dinner, so she could meet the man who had robbed her of a new car.
‘He won’t want to come,’ Godfrey had tried to explain. ‘You see, he’s a very private person.’
‘No harm in asking,’ she had insisted. But Godfrey had turned out to be right: ‘Phillip Alexander thanks Mrs Tudor- Jones for her kind invitation to dinner, but regrets that due to .. .’
Godfrey tried to concentrate on why Alexander wanted to see him. He couldn’t possibly know about Pamela – not that it was any of his business in the first place. Especially if the rumours about his own sexual preferences were to be believed. Had he been made aware that Godfrey was well in excess of the bank’s overdraft limit? Or was he going to try to drag him onside over the Russian fiasco? Godfrey could feel the palms of his hands sweating as he knocked on the door.
‘Come in,’ said a deep voice.
Godfrey entered to be greeted by the Chief Executive’s secretary, Miss Franklyn, who had joined him from Morgans. She didn’t speak, just nodded in the direction of her boss’s office.
He knocked for a second time, and when he heard ‘Come,’ he entered the Chief Executive’s office. Alexander looked up from his desk.
‘Have you read the McKinsey report?’ he asked. No ‘Good morning, Godfrey.’ No ‘Did you have a pleasant weekend?’ Just ‘Have you read the McKinsey report?’
‘Yes, I have,’ replied Godfrey, who hadn’t done much more than speed-read through it, checking the paragraph headings and then studying in more detail the sections that would directly affect him. On top of everything else, he didn’t need to be one of those who were about to be made redundant.
‘The bottom line is that we can make savings of three million a year. It will mean having to sack up to seventy of the staff, and halving most of the bonuses. I need you to give me a written assessment on how we go about it, which depart- ments can afford to shed staff, and which personnel we would risk losing if we halved their bonuses. Can you have that ready for me in time for tomorrow’s board meeting?’
The bastard’s about to pass the buck again, thought God- frey. And he doesn’t seem to care if he passes it up or down, as long as he survives. Wants to present the board with a fait accompli, on the back of my recommendations. No way.
‘Have you got anything on at the moment that might be described as priority?’
‘No, nothing that can’t wait,’ Godfrey replied. He didn’t think he’d mention his problem with Pamela, or the fact that his wife would be livid if he failed to turn up for the school play that evening, in which their younger son was playing an angel. Frankly, it wouldn’t have mattered if he were playing Jesus. Godfrey would still have to be up all night preparing his report for the board.
‘Good. I suggest we meet up again at ten o’clock tomorrow morning, so you can brief me on how we should go about implementing the report.’ Alexander lowered his head and returned his attention to the papers on his desk – a sign that the meeting was over.
Phillip Alexander looked up once he heard the door close. Lucky man, he thought, not to have any real problems. He was up to his eyes in them. The most important thing now was to make sure he continued to distance himself from the Chairman’s disastrous decision to invest so heavily in Russia. He had backed the move at a board meeting the previous year, and the Chairman had made sure that his support had been minuted. But the moment he found out what was hap- pening over at the Bank of America and Barclays, he had put an immediate stop on the bank’s second instalment – as he continually reminded the board.
Since that day Phillip had flooded the building with memos, warning every department to be sure it covered its own positions, and urging them all to retrieve whatever money they could. He kept the memos flowing on a daily basis, with the result that by now almost everyone, including several members of the board, was convinced that he had been sceptical about the decision from the outset.
The spin he’d put on events to one or two board members who were not that close to Sir William was that he hadn’t felt he could go against the Chairman’s wishes when he’d only been in the Chief Executive’s job for a few weeks, and that had been his reason for not opposing Sir William’s recom- mendation for a £500 million loan to the Nordsky Bank in St Petersburg. The situation could still be turned to his advan- tage, because if the Chairman was forced to resign, the board might feel an internal appointment would be the best course of action, given the circumstances. After all, when they had appointed Phillip as Chief Executive, the Deputy Chairman, Maurice Kington, had made it clear that he doubted if Sir William would serve his full term – and that was before the Russian de´baˆcle. About a month later, Kington had resigned; it was well known in the City that he only resigned when he could see trouble on the horizon, as he had no intention of giving up any of his thirty or so other directorships.
When the Financial Times published an unfavourable article about Sir William, it covered itself by opening with the words: ‘No one will deny that Sir William Selwyn’s record as Chairman of Critchley’s Bank has been steady, even at times impressive. But recently there have been some unfortunate errors, which appear to have emanated from the Chairman’s office.’ Alexander had briefed the journalist with chapter and verse of those ‘unfortunate errors’.
Some members of the board were now whispering ‘Sooner rather than later.’ But Alexander still had one or two problems of his own to sort out.
Another call last week, and demands for a further payment. The damn man seemed to know just how much he could ask for each time. Heaven knows, public opinion was no longer so hostile towards homosexuals. But with a rent boy it was still different – somehow the press could make it sound far worse than a heterosexual man paying a prostitute. And how the hell was he to know the boy was under age at the time? In any case, the law had changed since then – not that the tabloids would allow that to influence them.
And then there was the problem of who should become Deputy Chairman now that Maurice Kington had resigned. Securing the right replacement would be crucial for him, because that person would be presiding when the board came to appoint the next Chairman. Phillip had already made a pact with Michael Butterfield, who he knew would support his cause, and had begun dropping hints in the ears of other board members about Butterfield’s qualifications for the job: ‘We need someone who voted against the Russian loan . . . Some- one who wasn’t appointed by Sir William . . . Someone with an independent mind . . . Someone who.. .’
He knew the message was getting through, because one or two directors had already dropped into his office and suggested that Butterfield was the obvious candidate for the job. Phillip was happy to fall in with their sage opinion.
And now it had all come to a head, because a decision would have to be made at tomorrow’s board meeting. If Butterfield was appointed Deputy Chairman, everything else would fall neatly into place.
The phone on his desk rang. He picked it up and shouted, ‘I said no calls, Alison.’
‘It’s Julian Burr again, Mr Alexander.’ ‘Put him through,’ said Alexander quietly.
‘Good morning, Phil. Just thought I’d call in and wish you all the best for tomorrow’s board meeting.’
‘How the hell did you know about that?’
‘Oh, Phil, surely you must realise that not everyone at the bank is heterosexual.’ The voice paused. ‘And one of them in particular doesn’t love you any more.’
‘What do you want, Julian?’
‘For you to be Chairman, of course.’
‘What do you want?’ repeated Alexander, his voice rising with every word.
‘I thought a little break in the sun while you’re moving up a floor. Nice, Monte Carlo, perhaps a week or two in St Tropez.’
‘And how much do you imagine that would cost?’ Alex- ander asked.
‘Oh, I would have thought ten thousand would comfortably cover my expenses.’
‘Far too comfortably,’ said Alexander.
‘I don’t think so,’ said Julian. ‘Try not to forget that I know exactly how much you’re worth, and that’s without the rise in salary you can expect once you become Chairman. Let’s face it, Phil, it’s far less than the News of the World would be willing to offer me for an exclusive. I can see the headline now: “Rent Boy’s Night with Chairman of Family Bank”.’
‘That’s criminal,’ said Alexander.
‘No. As I was under age at the time, I think you’ll find it’s you who’s the criminal.’
‘You can go too far, you know,’ said Alexander.
‘Not while you have ambitions to go even further,’ said Julian, with a laugh.
‘I’ll need a few days.’
‘I can’t wait that long – I want to catch the early flight to Nice tomorrow. Be sure that the money has been transferred to my account before you go into the board meeting at eleven, there’s a good chap. Don’t forget it was you who taught me about electronic transfers.’
The phone went dead, then rang again immediately. ‘Who is it this time?’ snapped Alexander.
‘The Chairman’s on line two.’ ‘Put him through.’
‘Phillip, I need the latest figures on the Russian loans, along with your assessment of the McKinsey report.’
‘I’ll have an update on the Russian position on your desk within the hour. As for the McKinsey report, I’m broadly in agreement with its recommendations, but I’ve asked Godfrey Tudor-Jones to let me have a written opinion on how we should go about implementing it. I intend to present his report at tomorrow’s board meeting. I hope that’s satisfactory, Chair- man?’
‘I doubt it. I have a feeling that by tomorrow it will be too late,’ the Chairman said without explanation, before replacing the phone.
Sir William knew it didn’t help that the latest Russian losses had exceeded £500 million. And now the McKinsey report had arrived on every director’s desk, recommending that seventy jobs, perhaps even more, should be shed in order to make a saving of around £3 million a year. When would management consultants begin to understand that human beings were involved, not just numbers on a balance sheet – among them seventy loyal members of staff, some of whom had served the bank for more than twenty years?
There wasn’t a mention of the Russian loan in the Mc- Kinsey report, because it wasn’t part of their brief; but the timing couldn’t have been worse. And in banking, timing is everything.
Phillip Alexander’s words to the board were indelibly fixed in Sir William’s memory: ‘We mustn’t allow our rivals to take advantage of such a one-off windfall. If Critchley’s is to remain a player on the international stage, we have to move quickly while there’s still a profit to be made.’ The short-term gains could be enormous, Alexander had assured the board – whereas in truth the opposite had turned out to be the case. And within moments of things falling apart, the little shit had begun digging himself out of the Russian hole, while dropping his Chairman right into it. He’d been on holiday at the time, and Alexander had phoned him at his hotel in Marrakech to tell him that he had everything under control, and there was no need for him to rush home. When he did eventually return, he found that Alexander had already filled in the hole, leaving him at the bottom of it.
After reading the article in the Financial Times, Sir William knew his days as Chairman were numbered. The resignation of Maurice Kington had been the final blow, from which he knew he couldn’t hope to recover. He had tried to talk him out of it, but there was only one person’s future Kington was ever interested in.
The Chairman stared down at his handwritten letter of resignation, a copy of which would be sent to every member of the board that evening.
His loyal secretary Claire had reminded him that he was fifty-seven, and had often talked of retiring at sixty to make way for a younger man. It was ironic when he considered who that younger man might be.
True, he was fifty-seven. But the last Chairman hadn’t retired until he was seventy, and that was what the board and the shareholders would remember. It would be forgotten that he had taken over an ailing bank from an ailing Chairman, and increased its profits year on year for the past decade. Even if you included the Russian disaster, they were still well ahead of the game.
Those hints from the Prime Minister that he was being considered for a peerage would quickly be forgotten. The dozen or so directorships that are nothing more than routine for the retiring Chairman of a major bank would suddenly evaporate, along with the invitations to Buck House, the Guildhall and the centre court at Wimbledon – the one official outing his wife always enjoyed.
He had told Katherine over dinner the night before that he was going to resign. She had put down her knife and fork, folded her napkin and said, ‘Thank God for that. Now it won’t be necessary to go on with this sham of a marriage any longer. I shall wait for a decent interval, of course, before I file for divorce.’ She had risen from her place and left the room without uttering another word.
Until then, he’d had no idea that Katherine felt so strongly. He’d assumed she was aware that there had been other women, although none of his affairs had been all that serious. He thought they had reached an understanding, an accom- modation. After all, so many married couples of their age did. After dinner he had travelled up to London and spent the night at his club.
He unscrewed the top of his fountain pen and signed the twelve letters. He had left them on his desk all day, in the hope that before the close of business some miracle would occur which would make it possible for him to shred them. But in truth he knew that was never likely.
When he finally took the letters through to his secretary, she had already typed the recipients’ names on the twelve envelopes. He smiled at Claire, the best secretary he’d ever had.
‘Goodbye, Claire,’ he said, giving her a kiss on the cheek. ‘Goodbye, Sir William,’ she replied, biting her lip.
He returned to his office, picked up his empty briefcase and a copy of The Times. Tomorrow he would be the lead story in the Business Section – he wasn’t quite well enough known to make the front page. He looked around the Chairman’s office once again before leaving it for the last time. He closed the door quietly behind him and walked slowly down the corridor to the lift. He pressed the button and waited. The doors opened and he stepped inside, grateful that the lift was empty, and that it didn’t stop on its journey to the ground floor.
He walked out into the foyer and glanced towards the reception desk. Haskins would have gone home long ago. As the plate-glass door slid open he thought about Kevin sitting at home in Peckham with his pregnant wife. He would have liked to have wished him luck for the job on the reception desk. At least that wouldn’t be affected by the McKinsey report.
As he stepped out onto the pavement, something caught his eye. He turned to see an old tramp settling down for the night in the far corner underneath the arch.
Bill touched his forehead in a mock salute. ‘Good evening, Chairman,’ he said with a grin.
‘Good evening, Bill,’ Sir William replied, smiling back at him.
If only they could change places, Sir William thought, as he turned and walked towards his waiting car.

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