James looked out of the window and shivered, and not just at the wintry London sky. After a month of preparation and planning, he had closed a major deal that afternoon. One that could impact his future with this firm, perhaps his entire career.
He glanced at the clock on his computer. Almost time for the call with his colleague across the pond. He reached across the desk for their file.
Her royal highness chose this moment to honor him with an appearance.
“The bad Penny! Been waiting all afternoon for one to turn up, if you catch my drift.”
Penny was afraid that she did. She gave him a withering look. “I’ve just been on with Cheryl at T & A.”
Penny was a Senior Assistant with the firm, a trim woman with short blonde hair, in her mid-thirties. Sharp and efficient, and serious to the point of severity. In certain moments, James pictured Penny as a dominatrix named Helga. Helga on with Cheryl and T & A…
“They have to cancel their 5:00 pm. Some sort of medical emergency involving Frank Greene.”
“Medical emergency, my Aunt Fanny. Fellow probably decided that he wanted the afternoon off to play golf, or whatever they do to amuse themselves over there.”
“She did sound pretty upset.”
James grunted noncommittally. He studied Penny across the desk and decided that she looked a lot like he felt.
“Oh well, seems we could both do with an early day.”
James walked around the desk and made to place an arm on Penny’s shoulder, a misery loves company sort of gesture. She shrugged the arm off like a petulant schoolgirl and headed for the door.
“I’ll be here until 5:30 if you need me.”
Sleazy banter and touching again! Penny didn’t linger there a second longer than necessary. It was all so tiresome. Mother would no doubt have advised that she play along, humor him.
Men are such silly creatures.
Life is hard for a woman on her own.
And most disgusting of all—A girl needs to make the most of her natural advantages.
But mother wasn’t here anymore.
Penny had never known her father, but as a small child she had idolized her mother. She used to dream of following in her footsteps and becoming an actress, which, as the older woman never tired of pointing out, she had been before fate had stepped in in the form of Penny’s arrival in the world.
It seemed so romantic. Penny’s child brain had conjured up pictures of a mansion in Hollywood, hordes of adoring fans, handsome princes in love with her, the works. The fantasy worked well—up until the time that Penny started to suspect what her mother really did for a living. Suspected, she was never quite sure…
One thing Penny did know for sure, mumsy had a lot of friends back then and they were all men. They would come to the house at night wearing dark suits and frozen smiles and leave before dawn. Like vampires. Very nice to Penny, the men always were, sometimes they even brought her things. Coloring books, stuffed toys, a little clockwork thing that danced when you wound it up… Christmas every other week, provided she was a good little girl, minded her manners and stayed out of the way. Then one night, when her mother had popped out of the house for a short while to pick up “something she needed”, one of them had…
Penny didn’t feel much like a movie star these days. She had fallen into a pit long ago and there were no handsome princes there, only snakes. The councilor said that it would take time, that she needed to learn to trust. Penny heard the clock ticking as she lay awake nights and felt the pulse throbbing in her throat and thought that she didn’t have that much—time or trust.
A few weeks ago, though, she had met somebody. A new addition to her weekly therapy group. An awkward, sad-eyed man, looked to be around her age, perhaps a few years older. Social anxiety she heard, possible Asperger’s. The man had stirred something new and strange in Penny.
Penny was unsure quite how she felt about this. As a human being you were supposed to be able to feel, or what was the point of it all?
Would he be there tonight, this man? What would they find to say to each other, anyway? She was hardly the assertive type and he had not shown any particular interest in her.
James Flynn had been with the firm of Foster and Sloan almost five years. His rise through the ranks had been nothing short of meteoric. Nonetheless, he hadn’t made a major killing in almost a year, and the word was that his career had stalled. If he was to achieve the goal he had set for himself of making partner by the age of forty, he would need to pull off something big, and soon. This deal might just be the one.
Not if it blew up in his face. You could get a pass on just about anything in this game, it seemed. Cronyism, double dealing, creative billing, even embezzlement, provided that you did it in style and you had the right friends. The one thing they never forgave—BAD JUDGEMENT. The pokey little outside offices and the cubicles were rank with the stink of dead ambition. Burned out husks in the twilight of their careers begging scraps from the tables of the…
What had he done?
James’ mind began to wander as it was wont to do lately, back to his student days. Why was he drawn to that time of all times at times like this? There was something in there that seemed important somehow, but for the life of him he could never figure out what, or why. Was it because he was happy then? The thought was a surprising one. Broke, strung out, living on the edge, cheap booze and cheap women and whatever else he could lay his hands on, just to make it through from one day to the next. And all the darned studying, Keynes and stuff—a bunch of antiquated junk that nobody in the business world even cared about these days, just to keep one step ahead of the curve. Funny to think how, one time, he’d been on the point of throwing the whole shebang in the crapper and taking up, of all things—bartending. He shuddered at the thought.
The wind was picking up and it was starting to snow. Mike had polished off the last of his thermos of coffee a half-hour ago and it felt as though his lips were starting to freeze.
He peered through the newly cleaned window, admiring his handiwork.
The man inside was seated at his desk, looking at his computer. Mike noted with some amusement that the bloke actually looked a lot like him. Or he would do minus the Van Dyke, the fancy suit and about thirty pounds.
The man turned his head in the direction of the window and Mike looked away. They weren’t supposed to look in the offices and he needed this job.
Up here, Mike had plenty of time to think. Days like this he mainly thought that he should have stayed in school. He was a student at the famous London School of Economics. He could have become something, somebody. The professors all told him that he had the smarts. The world at his fingertips, the future his. Grab it, they said.
How could he grab the future when he couldn’t even make sense of his past? One morning he dozed off on the bus after spending the whole night in the library. Found his sorry self in South Kensington without a penny to get home and decided then and there that he might like pulling pints more than he liked pulling all-nighters. Twenty years on and here he was.
Mike looked at the man again. Remarkable, really, the resemblance! Downright freaky, in fact. Right down to the mole on the right side of his (their) face! He stared through the window, open mouthed and no longer amused.
It was hot in the office and James’ sinuses were starting to act up. As he turned his head to grab for the box of tissues, something at the edge of his vision caught his attention. He looked up at the window.
There was a window cleaner on a scaffold out there. The man was looking at him. Not looking—staring! The man looked away the instant they made eye contact.
The prospect of corporate espionage reared its ugly head. Perhaps the fellow had one of those tiny cameras concealed in his brushes. James adjusted the position of his computer screen so that it faced away from the window.
The Abernathy figures stared at him, taunting him.
Sucker, they seemed to say, we got you this time.
Right now, James would gladly trade places with the window cleaner. No more market analyses, actuarial tables, stock projections, senior partners…
In spite of what he had said to Penny about leaving early, James knew that he would not get out of here for at least another two hours. There was a report to work up on this Abernathy affair, due on old man Foster’s desk by start of business tomorrow. After that he was home free. Free to return home to his Mayfair flat and stare at the four walls and think about the pair of concrete boots that he had fashioned for himself today.
Dominatrices and spies posing as window cleaners and concrete boots. James wondered what that high-priced shrink of his would make of it all. He was so tired. Tired from a grand total of ten hours of sleep in the past three days, tired of this firm. Most of all, tired of himself.
James laid his head on the desk and thought about Penny. Thought that she was hot, or she would be if she weren’t so freaking cold. No problem, he would thaw her out. Melt her heart. M. J. Flynn, Esq., knight in shining armor, he could do anything, right? In your dreams, hotshot, he thought as he drifted off. In another universe…
Mike shrugged, and glanced at his watch. Time to call it quits. Just as well, not only was he freezing up here, he was seeing doubles! He’d hit the pub on the way home for a pint and a spot of supper, then go home and crash on the sofa. Business as usual.
Well, not quite. With a little jolt of anticipation, Mike remembered that today was Thursday. Tonight was the meeting of the support group that he had recently started attending. There was a woman in the group that he was attracted to, though she was no doubt way out of his league. They had only spoken a few times. She told him that her name was Penny and that she lived alone since her mother died and worked as a secretary for an investment company in the city. And that she hated vampires.
Mike looked in the window again. The man had his head on the desk. Some sweet gig, paid through the nose to sleep half the day in his plush warm office. Mike didn’t envy the man, though. Fact was, he liked this job well enough, sub-arctic conditions and all. Up here in the sky he felt free. No boss to push him around, no snotty customers to deal with, no smart mouthed coworkers making his life miserable. Only Michael James Flynn, perched above the world like an eagle.
Mike’s thoughts returned to Penny. It had been so long since he had been with a woman. By all indications, she was unattached. He had been trying to work up the courage to ask her out. He’d do it tonight if the opportunity presented itself. Definitely tonight, he hoped.
Excerpted from Denis Bell’s new short story collection, A Box of Dreams.