Back into the office on Monday. Because it is a bank holiday there are only a few of us to provide cover. Edith is one of those in the main office. Before things get underway I make us both a cup of tea and go sit with her.
“What’s this about two girls leaving?” I ask. “Are they definitely going?”
“Yes,” she replies. “I asked them both to think about it and send me an email confirmation this morning. Both emails have come in. They are leaving at the end of this week. I hope you can get a temp in quick.”
“How did you know I am supposed to be finding a temp?”
“Bertie told me yesterday.”
Bertie? Ah, yes. The Finance Director. I am beginning to think there is more going on between him and Edith than just good friends. They seem to be seeing a lot of each other since Bertie’s wife died last year.
“I’m sorry he dragged you in on your day off,” Edith continues. “I wouldn’t have told him if I had known he would do that. I’m afraid I panicked a bit when both girls resigned.”
“That wasn’t the only reason he called me in,” I say. “He also wanted to discuss something that Sales has landed on us. He had Mike come in as well.”
“He mentioned something about that. I do wish he would stand up to Sales more. I told him he wants to be telling them to help get some of the debt down.”
“Good for you girl,” I say, “Maybe he will listen to you. I seem to have been asking him to do it for years and have got nowhere.”
I change the subject.
“What I came to tell you is that I may have got a temp lined up already. He should be coming to see us at nine thirty tomorrow morning. If you think he will do, he should be able to take his coat off and start straight away. I am hoping he will prove suitable to move to become permanent.” I don’t say that I hope he will be able to spend some of his time working as my assistant.
We finish our tea and I go to my office to prepare my case for the Managing Director. On the way I call in at Mike’s den. He thanks me again for taking him to Mother’s. More mundanely, I mention that the MD should be in later and might want a word about the EDI project.
By late morning, I have worked on my costings and put together some bullet points to make an informal presentation to the MD.
For some reason I can’t get Diana out of my head. For one thing, I am surprised that Mother has let her into her circle. She is far too likely to usurp Mother’s position as self-appointed queen bee. Of more immediate concern is her threatening tone when she reminded me of Maggie’s warning about the customer.
Since I have not heard the MD arrive, I go on-line to see what I can find out about Maggie’s brother’s business. What I find confirms Maggie’s story. I also find that the customer pulled out about three quarters of the way through a two year contract, in line with what Mike was saying about them. The icing on the cake is that Maggie’s brother’s company had just spent some serious money upgrading their systems to accommodate the customers’ requirements. My money says that part of that requirement was installing EDI.
I make some more notes and as I finish I hear the MD coming along the passage. He pokes his head into my office.
“Mornin’,” he grunts. “I want a word with you in my office when you have a moment.”
His tone tells me what sort of mood he is in. One where I would normally keep my head down, but the unwritten rules are different when doing cover for public holidays, and I am fired up over the EDI thing.
“That’s alright,” I say, looking down at the papers on my desk. “I want a word with you too. I’ll be along in a minute.”
I can sense he has not left the room. I look up.
“You’re not thinking of resigning are you?” His jesting tone is not entirely convincing.
“No.” I pause for effect, then add, “Not yet.” Though I may well do if he doesn’t act on what I have to tell him.
He nods as if trying to digest what I have said and then turns to leave. “Give me five minutes,” he says as he goes.
I print off some copies of my notes and spreadsheets, do a final rehearsal of my argument, then gather everything up and walk along the passage into the lion’s den.
“Ah. Patrick, come in,” he says when I tap on the MD’s door. Then he asks, “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes, and you wanted to see me. I’ll take about fifteen minutes. Do you want to go first?” I am not sure if this is the best tactic but it might keep him guessing enough to tone down what he has to say to me.
“I had a phone call from my aunt this morning. I’m not happy that you been discussing company business with her.”
“Your aunt?” I say. “Do I know her? When am I supposed to have talked to her?”
“She says she was at your mother’s for lunch yesterday. She’s called Diana. Apparently you were talking about one of our major customers saying we should make sure they don’t bankrupt us.”
“Ah! Now, I understand.”
I explain that I simply told his aunt where I worked and, when asked, who some of our major customers were. Nothing that isn’t already in the public domain. It was Mother’s friend Maggie that was telling us about her brother’s experience with the same customer.
“And in fact, that’s what I wanted to see you about,” I say. “We are effectively giving the customer pound notes with every unit they take.”
“You had better show me,” he says.
I outline my argument with him showing the negative contribution already being made on sales to this customer made worse by the lack of a price increase following increases in our input costs. I show him the further adverse impact that the EDI project will make. I point out no other customer has asked for EDI. They are quite happy with other procedures we have in place. I suggest that we should ask for a twenty percent increase to get the margin back to something respectable.”
“They will not stand for that,” is his statement of the obvious.
I show him how the customer’s debt outside terms is increasing and point out the effect on the balance sheet if their total debt went bad. For good measure I reminded him of his aunt’s phone call and show him what I had found out about Maggie’s brother, Dennis, and his business and how that corroborates what Mike and I had already heard about the customer.
“I used to see him at the Chamber of Commerce,” the MD says when he sees Dennis’ name on the papers. “I remember his company going bust but I hadn’t realised the circumstances.”
I have to run through one or two points again and I can see he is trying to think what to do next.
“Have you shown this to Bert yet?” he asks.
“No,” I say, “he had left before I got my preliminary results on Friday and he is not in today.”
“He soon will be. He needs to see this. Sales need to see it, too, but Scott is messing about in the snow in Austria so he will have to wait until he gets back next week.”
That is typical of Scott, the Sales Director. Dump a job on us then bugger off on holiday expecting all the work to be done when he gets back. This time he has gone skiing. With a bit of luck he will break a leg.
The MD looks up at me. “Will you please go and ask Mike to join us while I ring Bert and get him to come in.”
As I walk along the passage to fetch Mike, I enjoy the visceral pleasure of being responsible for the Finance Director having to come into work on his day off.
When Mike and I return to the MD’s office, the MD has a smile on his face.
“Bert will be along shortly,” he says. “He said he would be fifteen minutes, I told him to make it ten.”
The MD asks Mike to corroborate my report of our conversations with Diana and what else he has heard about the customer. He also asks Mike to confirm the expected cost of implementing the system changes Sales are asking for. Fortunately, on our walk back, I had mentioned to Mike how much I had now built into my calculations for the various costs, so he could quote the same numbers.
Bert, the FD, arrives looking flustered and still in his gardening gear. He did, at least, stop to wash his hands and face.
“I came as fast as I could,” Bert says. “I was doing Eadie’s garden for her.” Is that the only thing he is doing for her?
He looks at Mike and me with suspicion. He is probably thinking we have gone behind his back over the EDI system which, of course, we have.
“I was expecting to talk to you two tomorrow,” he continues before turning to the MD. “What’s the problem, George? Couldn’t it wait?”
“These two had the misfortune to bump into my aunt yesterday, that’s why it couldn’t wait,” the MD replies before continuing, “The problem is a customer and their habit of bankrupting their suppliers. Patrick will you please run through what you told me again, so that Bert can see what you have found?”
This time I make my presentation a little slower and more detailed so that Bert and the others can follow my logic and ask appropriate accounting questions to test my arguments. I also include a comparison with Maggie’s brother’s business, saying that, as yet, we are not as exposed in terms of the customer’s proportion of our turnover or total debtors as they were when they went bust. As I finish, I look at the MD.
“I got the impression,” I say, “that if I didn’t tell you what Maggie had said, your aunt would have my balls for breakfast.”
The MD grunts out a laugh.
“Your right there, lad,” he says before getting back to business. “Scott won’t be back until next Monday and he’s the one who has been dealing with this customer. I think we’ll keep it that way.”
I think he is going to enjoy putting the Sales Director on the spot. He has that same look on his face that Diana had yesterday.
“That gives us a week to get all our ducks in row. We need to get rid of this customer, but we need to be managing it. I want you two,” he points to Bert and me, “to work up a worst case scenario: if they walk away and don’t pay their account, and how we can mitigate the damage. In the meantime send them copy invoices so they can’t claim they haven’t had them.
“I also want you to look at how we can redeploy our resources when they go. Will we have to make redundancies and what will that cost us? You will need to see what we are committed buy from our suppliers so that I can give Scott an idea of the volumes he will need to achieve from alternative customers.
“We need to think of how to refute the arguments Sales will put up against dumping the customer. I’m sure Eadie can help you there, Bert.” A smile crosses the MD’s face before he turns to Mike and me.
“You two might have won this round,” he says, “but don’t think EDI will go away. We have been unfortunate in our first experience but we are hoping to get more of the big players as customers, and some of them will insist on it.”
Mike’s response catches everyone off guard.
“If you want to do that, the first thing you need to do is completely replace your IT systems and re-engineer your procedures. To do it properly will cost serious money and take time. If you want to play with the big boys, you need to have the big boys’ toys. Will you commit to that or do you expect to muddle through with what you have and risk everything falling down around your ears?”
Yesterday’s talk with Brenda must have really fired him up.
The MD looks shocked at Mike’s blatant challenge. Thankfully, he looks at me for a comment and not Bert.
“I agree with Mike’s assessment,” I say. “You are always prepared to spend money keeping the equipment and vehicles up to date, but you never spend anything on updating the back office systems we need to keep the whole thing running.”
If he had asked Bert first, I would have expected some platitude to take the edge off Mike’s comment. Even now his response is muted, but damning in its own way.
“I suppose the systems are due for renewal. They have been in use now nearly fifteen years.”
Mike and I meet in the corridor as we arrive on Tuesday morning. He has a smile on his face. There is no doubt it is attractive.
“What’s put you in a good mood?” I ask.
“Brenda rang last night and we had a long chat about what to do about Sam and the house. I gave her some info on the mortgage. She asked if we had obtained court orders for residency and contact. I explained that I thought we had agreed things amicably, but my ex always finds excuses to deny me contact when it is my turn. Brenda was very positive about my responses and said she would do some digging today.”
“And?” I can tell there is something else he is itching to tell me.
“Your boss came into my office after yesterday’s meeting to talk about replacing the system and asked me to look at what you could get for a budget of twice what you mentioned on Sunday. You might have to pay some consultants to help with re-engineering your procedures out of that, but you should still have a hefty chunk for me to play with.”
I am pleased for Mike, and for the good news, but I do have to add a note of caution.
“Allow some headroom for when he changes his mind and starts cheese-paring.”
We go our respective offices.
I clear my start-of-day jobs, work out what I want to work on later and do a quick tidy of my desk so that it looks reasonable for when Doug comes for his interview.
At half past nine, Edith rings up to let me know that Doug has arrived. A few minutes later she is ushering him into my room. I can tell she is in full mother-hen mode. One look at Doug and I am too. He has certainly made the effort to impress. Clean shoes, neatly brushed hair — more than I can say for mine — shirt and tie, and a smart and obviously new suit. He is also carrying a small briefcase. I do wonder how he paid for the suit, but I won’t say anything about his appearance in front of Edith.
I let Edith do most of the talking, especially the personal questions. He admits to living in the shelter although he doesn’t say anything about the possible closure. He tells us he had to move out of his parents’ home when he fell out with his father but he doesn’t say why. I don’t ask: he will tell us if he wants and for the job we have in mind, we don’t really need to know. He doesn’t mention living on the streets for a while but does say that Social Services were prepared to find him a hostel place as he was over sixteen; otherwise, he would have been taken into care. Edith coos that he should be thankful he avoided that; she has heard all sorts of horror stories about local authority care homes.
He takes care over his answers and the questions he has for us. As I thought when speaking to him before, he seems articulate, well-mannered and genuinely interested in getting a job. I catch Edith’s eye and she nods at me. She thinks he has potential as well. I suggest something we often do when recruiting for the main office.
“Would you like to go with Edith and work with her for an hour or two, say until lunch time, to see how you get on, and if you think you can stand being the only man in the office with all her girls?” I smile hoping he realises I am joking. “Then if you still want the job you can come back and see me and we can sort out the paperwork to put you on the staff.”
Edith takes him back to the main office. She knows the routine. She will give me a ring when she has had a chance to see how he is getting on.
It is just after eleven when she calls. Much earlier than I expected.
“Have you any references?” she asks, “I think he is a keeper.”
“Nothing in writing,” I reply. She guesses that I know more.
“Anything off the record? Written references are a waste of time these days anyway. Nobody dare say anything negative for fear of being sued.”
“Very positive from Coles’ where he was working for a while.” Not for me to say he was working as a rabbit.
“If they think he was okay, let’s get him signed up. I’ll send him up at lunch time.”
Before she rings off, Edith mentions that she has sent the copy invoices for the delinquent customer by ‘recorded delivery’. She included copies of the relevant receipted delivery notes for good measure.
As I put my phone down, a very flustered Mike comes into my office and pushes the door to.
“What’s he doing here?” he hisses.
“The kid in the office with Edith.”
“Doug? He is our replacement for the two girls who are leaving. What’s the problem?” I ask.
“He’s the kid I bought that meal for. He’s scrubbed up well but it’s definitely him. If you must take him on I hope he is only temporary.”
“Ah. I was hoping he would be permanent. Has he recognised you?”
“I think so. He looked up when I was trying to place where I have seen him before. We both blushed.”
That might be a good sign. To gain some time I tell Mike the boy will be coming to see me at lunch time, and in the meantime I will have to think about what can be done.
I decide to wait to see what Doug has to say for himself. If he and Mike can patch up their differences, Doug might have some information that can help him with Sam. In any case, Mike needs to forgive Doug and not let it eat him up.
Lunchtime arrives and Doug duly appears in my office. I ask him to shut the door and sit down.
“How have you found it this morning?” I ask. “Not bored yet?”
“No, it was fine, thank you,” he replies. “It might sound boring but I can see there are lots of little wrinkles to learn. If you let me stay on and I get to see the bigger picture that could be interesting as well.”
‘If you let me stay on.’ Interesting choice of words.
“If we took you on permanently, where would you hope to be in five years’ time? University? Or perhaps sitting where I am now?”
“I’ve had to leave school. University is out; I don’t have any ‘A’ levels nor do I have the money for the fees. I was hoping to learn accounting by experience.”
“Mm, I’m not sure you can get a professional qualification without at least some ‘A’ levels,” I say. “However we can look into that if we need to.”
I have noticed he doesn’t seem comfortable, as if he is waiting to be told he hasn’t got the job. Maybe now is the time to ask him what he meant earlier.
“You said ‘If we let you stay on.’ What makes you think we wouldn’t?”
“I think I saw someone I recognised and I think he recognised me. I don’t think he was pleased to see me. He might tell you not to take me on.”
“What is his name? Or if you don’t know it describe him”
Of course he describes Mike to a ‘T’.
“I think I know who you mean,” I say. “Perhaps you had better tell me why he wouldn’t want you here.”
“No, I’d rather not.”
I am not going to let him get away. He is bright enough to get on and I think he could be an asset to the team.
“The door is shut,” I say. “What we say will stay between us unless you agree otherwise.
“Mr. Wen spoke highly of you and I wouldn’t have given him my card and asked you to come today if we didn’t think you have potential, and Edith has confirmed my judgement. You talked to me quite freely when we met outside Coles’ and gave me a glimpse of the difficulties you have been through. I suspect you have had to do things to survive that you would understandably prefer not to discuss. If that included…”
Here I have to pause to think of a suitable form of words, “… how shall I put it? A commercial transaction between you and the man you saw today, it is not my place to judge.”
Doug looks distinctly unhappy at my tirade, with good reason, but I feel I must lance this boil before it develops into something more serious for both Mike and Doug.
“From what you said,” I continue, “you understand that there might be difficulties between the two of you should you come to work here. I want you to join us but I don’t want the friction. My feeling is that, unless there was violence involved, you should make your peace with him. I expect you both to be embarrassed at first, but only you two know anything about what happened between you. I think it will be better for you both to clear the air.”
I see Doug tense up. Is he steeling himself to say something or is he getting ready to walk out?
“There was no sex involved, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he says, forcefully enough that I get the implication that I am a dirty-minded old man.
I don’t care. I am happy he is going to talk not walk.
“He bought me a meal. It’s what happened after that I am ashamed of.”
He looks as though he is going to tell me about it. I hold my hand up to stop him.
“You can tell me if you want and I will listen, but if you feel ashamed maybe you should tell him why you feel that way about what happened, and ask for his understanding.”
“Can I tell you first, please?” he says. “You know him better than me and can help me work out how to tell him.”
“Of course,” I say, pleased that he is thinking things through.
His story matches Mike’s word for word up until Mike left the pub. Then he fills in the detail Mike doesn’t know. Shortly after Mike left a big guy comes up and starts a conversation that he works round to asking things about Mike, without mentioning names. Doug is ashamed that he had carelessly repeated the conversation where he asked Mike about sleeping with him and Mike saying it was an attractive offer but turned him down. The guy had laughed, and said that meant Mike had wanted to sleep with him but didn’t have the time. Doug had tried to say that wasn’t how it was, but the big guy had grabbed him by the shirt and told him to shut up. He said it was near enough and it would get Mike kicked out and he could have the girlfriend to himself.
I thank Doug and tell him I am flattered he felt able to trust me with the story. I need to make sure I do not break that trust by having him find out from someone else that I know most of what happened already.
“I only found out the other day that the person we are talking about had been kicked out by his partner. He kept it very quiet. Am I right in thinking this happened about twelve months ago?”
Doug signals his agreement.
“I don’t know all the gory details,” I say, “but what you have told me adds to the picture. What I do know is that he has a young son and he is having trouble over access — what do they call it these days — ‘contact’. I am sure he would be interested in what you have told me.”
Doug looks upset when I mention Mike’s son. I tell him not to be, it’s not his fault. Their relationship was struggling already, he just got caught up in the final break.
We talk about how Doug can best tell Mike his story. Then I ask Doug when does he want to meet Mike, now or later? He wants to get it over with. I tell him he should be proud of himself for facing up to the challenge. I hope I don’t sound patronising.
We walk down the corridors to Mike’s den. I probably should have rung Mike first to warn him, but, like Doug, I want to get this dealt with. I tap on the open door and walk in.
“Mike,” I say, “I’ve brought someone to meet you: the new guy in the main office.”
Mike blushes but his ears are covered enough by his longish hair so that Colin, who is standing behind him, can’t see. Damn! I had forgotten Colin would be there.
As I am trying to think of a way to get Colin out of the room my stomach rumbles. Doug and I have been so busy talking we have forgotten about lunch.
“Colin,” I say. “Will you do me a favour and nip across to the sandwich shop for me please?”
We put together an order and I give Colin some money and hustle him out of the side door. He should be gone at least twenty minutes. At this time of day the shop is always busy and there is a queue. I turn back to Mike.
“Mike, Doug here has something to say to you that I think you need to hear.” Looking at Doug, I continue. “Do you want me to stay or would you prefer I left you two to talk alone?”
They both want me to stay. Will I have to be umpire?
Doug makes his apology to Mike and tells his side of the story. Mike doesn’t interrupt, but grunts occasionally to show he is listening. When Doug has finished it is Mike’s turn. He accepts Doug’s apology, thanks him for his coming to clear the air between them and asks his forgiveness for all the times he has called Doug an ungrateful little bastard.
Eventually they shake hands. It is one of those handshakes that morphs into a hug. I have to admit Doug is quite huggable. The sentimental fool in me wonders if I shall ever be on the receiving end of one of his hugs.
All is sweetness and light by the time Colin returns with the sandwiches.
Mike and Doug are deep in conversation about something as Colin hands the sandwiches round.
“Who’s the twink?” Colin whispers to me as he gives me my sandwich. I know what he means, but I can’t resist having a little fun.
“I thought you were,” I whisper back as I blatantly look him up and down.
I smile and raise an eyebrow when I see that Colin’s trousers are tight enough to be revealing of his interest in Doug. I am rewarded with a blush.
“Sorry,” I say, schooling my face back into something more appropriate to the workplace, “I should have introduced you before I sent you out for the sandwiches. His name is Doug and he is going to be working in the main office, at least to start with.”
I call Doug over and introduce him to Colin properly.
When Doug and I return to my office, I tell him we need to finish the paperwork to bring him onto the payroll and hand him one of our standard personnel forms.
Doug starts filling it in then stops. I am watching him complete the form and I can see the next question is the one asking for his National Insurance number. He picks up and opens his briefcase and pulls out what looks like his payslip from Coles. It will have the number on it.
He also gets something else out of the briefcase, looks up and, with a smile on his face, hands it to me.
“I’m sorry, I forgot to give you this,” he says. “Mr Wen gave it to me to give to you. He said it was the last one.”
It is an Easter egg. It looks like one of those with a motto inside. Doug has gone back to work on his form, so I crack it open. Yes, there is a motto, but it is a bit different to the others.
“The strap-hanger pays the dividend.”
Charles Tyson Yerkes c 1895,
Chairman, Underground Electric Railways Company of London, 1902-1905.
I nod to myself in appreciation of what I think is meant.
I am about to offer some of the egg to Doug, when I remember I still have one or the rainbow eggs left. I pull it out of one of my desk drawers and hand it to Doug just as he is about to hand me his completed form.
“This is the last one of these as well,” I say. “It seems appropriate that you should have it.”
I pick up Doug’s form and read it through to make sure that he has not missed anything or if there is something I need to clarify. We do require home addresses for the last three years and this is something that new staff are prone to ignoring. Doug has correctly filled it in. The most recent is the hostel address that he has marked as temporary. There is another address for an earlier period that I presume is where he was living with his father. The intervening period he has marked NFA which I know to mean No Fixed Abode.
I am about to tell Doug that we have completed all the necessary formalities and he can return to the main office for the rest of the day when my phone rings. It is Mike.
“I’ve had Brenda on asking me where the house is. I told her where. It’s not far from your mother’s,” he says before continuing. “I mentioned that Doug had turned up and she would like to meet him as soon as possible. Would he be willing, and if so, when?”
I hold my hand over the phone mouthpiece and ask Doug. He nods okay and says “Whenever.”
“How about this evening at my place?” I think it would be best if it was on neutral ground. “Shall we say six-thirty? I could do something to eat and you can talk over the meal. How does that sound?”
Again I see Doug nod his acceptance, Mike also agrees but tells me to hang on while he calls Brenda on his mobile.
By the time I get Brenda’s agreement, Doug has broken open his egg and read his motto. He is chuckling away to himself.
“What is so funny?” I have to ask.
He passes me the slip. It is another lame rabbit joke:
Q: Why do rabbits have shiny noses?
A: Because their powder puffs are on the wrong end.’
“Not very funny, is it?” I say.
“No,” Doug replies, “but if you see two together without shiny noses, they must have been having a sixty-nine.”
I thought I was the one with a dirty mind.