Leading the board
By Mark Burrow
Few places could steal your dignity like an office. Its set hours. Clean desk policies. Endless meetings. Health and safety.
As if the crushing rigmarole wasn’t enough, there were also individuals like Len Sharpe. Men who believed in management theories. Soft skills. Team building.
‘You’ve been off for the previous nine Mondays,’ he said.
‘You’re a good salesman, Ben.’
‘I lead the board.’
‘You lead the board.’
I’d considered killing Lenny in a variety of fashions. Poisoning his home made risottos. A car bomb. Buying a high powered rifle with scope. I’ve always thought that snipers have a certain glamour quality.
Imagine lying in wait in that willow tree opposite where he lives. Getting him in the cross hairs as he leaves the house and perfunctorily kisses his flame haired, horsey wife goodbye. I’d breathe in a controlled manner and then gently - it had to be gently - squeeze the trigger…and bam. Grey matter. Bone. Claret exploding over the garden path and miniature, plastic lions.
(Shades of the book depositary coming to suburbia).
‘I’m your best salesman.’
(The plaza. Nightmares on Elm).
‘So you keep telling me.’
(Texas sunlight in the commuter belt).
‘A good salesman is worth his weight in gold.’
(The nation mourns Len Sharpe’s passing).
On the tube home, a fat man next to me, smelling of dirt and sweat. The heavy odour scoured my throat. After three stops I gagged. His rolls pressed against me, billowing like a flesh duvet across the arm rest that was supposed to keep us apart. And the heat of the bodies pressed close. Earphones. Muffled music.
I tried to distract myself by looking at a newspaper.
Pages and pages about national floods. Then I saw Len Sharpe’s ugly mug on the third page, hanging out with the celebs at an exclusive bash. On page seven, he’s at his desk, propping up a cheque, a giant one, like in a gameshow circa 1985, his hair receding and ridiculous, like feathers stuck to an eggshell.
I closed my eyes and told myself this was a phase I was going through and that a sign of maturity is the ability to ignore unpleasant situations.
I felt the blood in my veins, coursing.
Valves opening, closing.
(Len Sharpe, do you know what you did to me? Even now?).
Frankly, I’d been going through some rough situations regarding my manager. For instance, I’d crawl into bed and there he’d be, old Sharpey, the head of sales, under my pillow. Or in the shoe box where I kept pay slips.
Only recently - or so it seems - I opened the fridge and there he was, laughing at me, nearly killing himself, disguised as low fat, mild cheddar cheese, mischievously wrapped in foil. On other occasions, he’d be chocolate flavoured ice cream or a banana gone slightly brown.
The tube driver told the Len Sharpes of this hostile public transport system not to lean against the doors as this set off the brakes. ‘You do want to go home, don’t you?’ said the driver.
I couldn’t hold back as the equivalent of a fur ball rolled up my throat. I coughed. Covered my mouth. A woman in a red dress for an evening function veered from me and shrieked as I spewed onto the darts playerish gut of the fat man.
Chunks kept coming.
Stringy bits of tomato and cucumber, bread, last night’s steak, and within the clear fluid were billions of miniature Len Sharpes.
Telling me that I was fired. That I was a sham. Not wanted. Inferior. The heads translucent yet unmistakably him, attached to tadpole bodies. ‘You’ve no respect for process,’ they bawled.
I shoved myself off the tube at the next station. Someone grabbed me. The fat man kept saying, ‘Oh my god, oh my god.’
‘You can’t leave him like that,’ a voice said.
I slept for three days, apparently. Lou, my girlfriend of seven years, brought me soup, bread, orange juice. She’d wet a cloth and set it on my forehead.
‘You were delirious,’ she said. ‘It was scary. You babbled to yourself and the GP nearly sent you to hospital.’
‘Thanks for caring for me,’ I said, feeling excessively whorny. I tried to bring her in for a cuddle. She reared back and I sensed an announcement was on the cards.
The pleasantries lasted for about five minutes and then she said, ‘I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a long time.’
I reached for the orange juice. It was warm and gloopy; the bits had settled at the bottom.
‘I’m sick of being your house slave. You don’t ask how I am. About my days. It’s all you, you, you. Once you’re indoors it’s either you yapping about your job or you won’t speak for hours and you’ll snap at anything I do or say. You don’t seem interested in anybody except yourself. I mean, you don’t even call your family or bother to return their calls.’
‘Pressure, Lou. You wouldn’t believe the targets I have to hit. The global market for credit cards is astonishingly competitive at the moment.’
She straightened herself.
In the living room, the TV was on. A girl who wanted to be a model sobbed because she hadn’t made it through to the next round.
‘What do I do?’
‘My career. What do I do, Ben?’
I paused. It was a pub quiz moment. Time sensitive too with her glaring at me. Eventually, I said, ‘Law stuff.’
She rolled the engagement ring. ‘What area?’
‘You haven’t the faintest idea.’
Off came the ring on the bedside cabinet.
‘Is there someone else?’ I asked.
Like the wannabe model on TV, she started the waterworks …Lou style…Understated…Subtle….As a writer might say, the tears gently - that word again - trickled down her face.
‘You weren’t like this, Ben. You’ve changed.’
‘We all change, Lou. Who is he?’
‘Not like this.’
'It's Len, isn't it?'
Seven years together up in smoke. She left for that snake. That snatcher of dreams. I was alone. I phoned in sick for another five days. Watched films. Mostly war movies. Some Bond.
I watched a lot of cookery programmes too in the afternoons. They made me cry - a lot.
The days off were welcome, though. When you push yourself like I do, which is necessary if you want to lead the board, then you need to recharge your batteries.
I ordered plenty of pizza and barbecue chicken wings.
Lou didn’t answer her phone. I sent texts too and tried not think about his hands touching her skin.
The pizza boxes stacked up. As did the plastic binders for the lager I got through. Four days and nights passed and the beard I’d grown took on historical dimensions. I hadn’t taken a shower or bath. I wandered about the house in my dressing gown, popping the leftover codeine from a double hernia operation I’d had a couple of years ago, and taking booze from the limitless supply left over from the party Lou and I cancelled at the last minute due to an argument (she thought I was cheating on her).
I tried calling my parents. Lou wasn’t lying when she said I hadn’t called them in yonks. The silent treatment started after a Christmas argument. I thought they were to blame. Lou thought otherwise, as did the rest of the Ben clan. The message on mum and dad’s answerphone said they had gone away on a road trip in their brand new car and they weren’t sure when they were coming home.
That made me cry too.
Back in the office, I slipped into doing what I do best. Making the magic happen. Beating the odds and closing deals. You can’t teach what I do and that’s the truth.
‘It is expensive,’ said the German punter.
‘This is data rich, proprietary information. Iceland may be chilly but the cards market is hot. Those post communist Roubles put a fizz into things and that’s only going to continue. That means credit and cards. If you want the inside track on market share, leaders, losers, who’s who and what’s set to happen over the next decade, then this report tells you what you need to know.’
‘Can I have it in PDF format too?’
‘Happy to and that’s only an additional two, five 0.’
He bought the report. I’d been off a week and a half and within three hours I was in second spot on the board.
I was writing an email to a punter when I felt what could be described as a looming presence behind me.
‘Ben,’ he said. ‘You’ve turned up.’
I put my hands behind my head, swung round in my chair. ‘I’m feeling better thanks.’
‘I see you’re working on cards sales.’
‘Deals already in the bag.’ I flicked my eyes at the board and winked.
‘You missed our quarterly meeting.’
‘I was wondering where my champagne was for best salesman.’
He sat at the spare desk next to mine. ‘You’re not working on cards anymore. You’re on insurance.’
My arms loosened, folding about my head like I was about to start doing sit ups. ‘Insurance?’
‘It’s flagging and we need a person with your skills to bring the section up. This is a fantastic opportunity.’
‘Insurance isn’t my speciality.’
‘We want it to be fabulous.’
‘You can only dress up a pig so much.’
There was smaning among the rest of the sales team.
You’re probably asking yourself: why didn’t Len and Ben get along (aside from him stealing my girl)? What happened to cause such a tumultuous, dysfunctional manager, employee relationship?
It’s easy enough to explain.
People say: ‘Don’t be bitter’, but what’s wrong with bitterness, grudges, simmering hatred? Len Sharpe made head of sales when I’d been there longer and had better performance figures. That promotion was a knife in the gut, twisted, like when Telly Savalas stabs that girl in The Dirty Dozen. Apparently, Len has the people skills. He’s a good manager. He inspires the team.
Inspiration is fine. It’s not the same as action, though. Surely you want a manager who terrifies his cadre. A man who won’t tolerate second best and mediocrity. By definition, soft skills are for the weak.
Len, he was middle management. All polish. Surface. A Christmas decoration in a suit.
In other words, he licked a lot of anus. Ate it raw, basically.
I saw what he was doing with the insurance manoeuvre. Sort of admired the boldness too. Like when the Germans decided not to cross the Maginot line and went round the French defenses by taking the Belgium route, Len Sharpe knew he couldn’t compete head on with me in terms of pure sales. So his answer was to put me in a flagging section.
Then I wouldn’t be leader of the board. My commission would be less. That’d make my maverick streak even worse. He’d nail me for lateness, inappropriate language and, best of the lot, he could blame the underperforming insurance division on my good self.
Eventually, I’d either be pushed through the door or leave of my own accord.
‘This is already decided,’ I said. ‘You’re telling me I’ve got insurance.’
‘This afternoon you can pass your leads to me and I’ll give them to the new cards team.’
The phone went. I answered. Closed another deal. If I’d had the rest of the day on cards, I’d’ve made the top of the board.
Within half an hour of insurance, I knew I’d never be in pole position again.
I’d sit at my desk opposite this idiot Scotsman who drank high energy caffeine drinks and full fat coke constantly. I slid ever further downwards, hearing the cards team get rounds of applause and champagne for the leads I’d generated.
Len Sharpe made me clap too. During those first few days, he seemed to float about the office, walking on air.
I couldn’t sell insurance. Didn’t have a feel for the area. No background knowledge…No little stats and facts to sprinkle in the punter’s ear to make them trust me and feel like I wasn’t selling to them but helping them to gain a competitive edge. If you’re in business, you can never know too much about your customers and the competition.
With insurance, my ignorance showed. I was tense when discussing the subject matter. There was no flow, no grace, no ballet. The names of companies and people were unknown to me. I mispronounced surnames, couldn’t drop the movers and shakers into the conversation. There was no, ‘Yes, I met so and so at…’ Or: ‘How’s your boy now? Is he still doing well at the swimming?’
I was a stranger. Cold calling, effectively.
Sales is about talent and confidence. It’s an indefinable quality, like what a classy striker who has that knack of sticking the ball in the back of the net. But you have to feel relaxed. At ease. Feeding off instinct.
You can’t think about it. You just do it.
And I was thinking about it.
Was it wrong of me to do what I did? Lou, with her gavel and oaths, would no doubt say I’d overstepped the mark.
Picturing him now as he was on the cliff top, bound hand and foot, tape across his mouth, I think I understand why I tried to do what I did.
Yes, I had a knife. He whimpered and wailed. Eyes like saucers.
Driving there in the motor, I explained to him that he knew insurance was my weakness. That he could’ve given me banking, wealth management, but no, he had to be all smart and give me the one area I couldn’t sell. He told the directors he was for the company, for the future, and yet I was bringing in the money, making the sales on cards and in his almighty wisdom he went and moved me. Where was the logic? He had to ruin a decent situation by bringing his petty ego into it. The promotion to head of sales wasn’t enough. He wanted everything and that meant throwing me out on my ear after taking the love of my life.
The English Channel battered rhythmically against the rocks. A gale was brewing and my jacket flapped like a flag in the wind.
He wriggled about on the grass and mud. His skin white under the full moon. Blood flecked his ears and neck where I’d cracked him one in the underground car park.
The strange thing is this: I couldn’t bring myself to put the knife in. I did the talk alright, saying I was going to sever his spinal cord, stabbing him in the back like he stabbed me and the rest of it.
He wormed onwards.
A voice in the back of my head though was wondering, questioning, full of doubt.
If I went and did him in, what then?
Could I go back to the office?
Carry on as normal?
If I had it all...A promotion...Company car...Shares...Bottles of champagne and motivational speeches to give to the team... Monthly board packs to prepare about the section…Lou and I walking down the aisle...Say the directors gave me what Len Sharpe had, did I actually want it? There was a reason for those sickies I kept taking. I swear, on some mornings, I couldn’t handle the thought of the desk, the emails, the phone.
There on the cliff’s edge, moonlight catching the blade, waves rolling in, I wondered about the constant stress and strain of winning, losing, closing the deal. He evidently craved the responsibility and burden of being head of sales more than I did.
For me, I wasn’t so sure. Besides, I couldn’t deny it - every now and then I sort of felt the utter loneliness, desolation and abandonment of being a man stranded in a seemingly meaningless universe.
And that’s when it happened. Some might call it a revelation, a vision. Others’ll be dismissive and say it was a trick of the mind.
Len Sharpe was squirming on the ground. Me, I was standing with the knife. Then I noticed the sea became calm, the wind softened to a gentle breeze. Where it had been cold, it became Mediterranean warm. The sky parted like dark blue velvet curtains and there, high above, gliding silently, was an E-Class Mercedes Benz with golden angel wings, sailing through the air, headlights on, moving straight for yours truly.
The headlights bathed me in a pulsating, ethereal glow. I dropped the knife as the heavenly taxi closed in.
Len Sharpe neared the cliff’s edge.
Without a sound, the E-Class had landed. The windows were darkened. A passenger door opened. My parents favourite song was playing. Oddly, it didn’t irritate me like it used to.
I walked towards Len Sharpe. Yanked off the tape. He spoke but it was a language I couldn’t understand. I untied him. Gave him the keys to my earthbound motor. The keys to my house. My wallet. My girl. I told him to have what had belonged to me, that it was now his, except for a picture in my wallet of Lou and I, taken when we had first started seeing each other, before the L word was mentioned but already felt. I slipped that into my back pocket and headed to the E-Class.
Before stepping inside, I took what I knew was my last look at the moon and the sea and waved farewell to Len Sharpe.
He flicked two crooked fingers at me.
As I reclined on the backseat, the door closed and locked automatically. I whistled to the song, looking at the chrome and feeling the leather against my skin.
In the front seat, I suddenly recognised my parents. They were young, healthy, their hair not grey, wearing the clothes they used to when I was growing up. My mother passed me sandwiches wrapped in cellophane and smiled.
The car ascended. You couldn’t hear the engine. My father shifted the gear stick as my mother offered me some squash.
I peered out of the rear window as we angled upwards, seeing Len Sharpe on the ground, gesticulating, happy to be alive, getting smaller, disappearing, a shrinking speck on the surface of a spinning world of white and blue, gently fading and then forever gone.