This is a serialisation of the novel ‘Marcello: Love in the City’. This week: Marcello is forced to network.
Rita, the HR director, summoned us to the grey inferno that was her office. She was a tall, skeletal brunette with razor blue eyes. After some cursory chat about our still-broken air conditioning she commanded my colleague Jess and I to attend a networking event. That evening.
“It’ll be good for your development,” she said, without looking up from her BlackBerry. “I’ll be going myself.”
She turned away and started typing, her way of indicating the meeting was over.
Jess nudged me and we left. In the corridor she said, “I think it’ll be a laugh.”
“A laugh, are you mental? I don’t like the people in our sector as it is, why would I want to expand this already inconveniently large circle?
That night Jess spent a long time turning herself into an ‘Apprentice’ style siren. My only adjustment was to go tieless – jacket but no tie: The Tony Blair. At the drab corporate venue there were drinks on arrival. I downed mine then took another. A smiling official assigned us badges. I shoved mine in my pocket only to be told that I should remain identifiable. Jess, compliant as ever, badged-up and fetched another drink.
I quaffed my wine like a feudal lord. “So, you think this is going to be one of those nights when I get lashed up and ridicule myself?”
“I hope so,” she said, smiling. “I’d probably get your job.”
It was a preposterous scenario but it still nipped – like some besieged Roman general I saw dark sprites in every Germanic thicket. Jess was joking of course, but her line reminded me that in the corporate world we should remain mindful of the usurper. I glanced round to see her watching my profile. She looked away.
The room was crowded with people in variations of our attire, many of the males had longish hair parted towards the middle, several had their shirt sleeves half rolled up – there was something of The Richard Madeley about these men: affable, moderately successful, and crushingly dull. I scanned the room for lone women. Everyone was engrossed in their networking tittle-tattle so I thought it best to head for the buffet table and work from there. I noticed Jess talking to a notoriously oily recruitment consultant. It was her ambition to be headhunted and she worked tirelessly on ingratiating herself with those she considered noteworthy.
“Looks like you’ve got the right idea.”
I turned to see a young blonde woman in a trouser suit. She took one of each type of canapé and refilled her glass.
“Those are good,” I said, pointing to the vol-au-vents. “Best thing about these events. That and the free midrange wine.”
“I know what you mean.”
I took a long swig then thrust out my hand to introduce myself. Her handshake was unnecessarily firm.
“I’m Julia,” she said. “Who are you with tonight?”
When I told her who I worked for, she was suitably impressed.
“And who are you with?” I said.
“I’m interning at Bank of America at the moment.”
To intern – I had forgotten it was now a verb.
“And are they paying you for that?”
She laughed and shook her head.
“How’s it working out for you?”
“Great, this is my second internship now. Most people do three but I think I’ll try and get out there after this.”
“Sure.” I finished my wine. “I mean, how much filing experience do you need?”
I said, “So how have you managed to fund this exercise?”
“I’ve been lucky, my parents are very supportive.”
“Yes, you are lucky.”
I reached for another canapé.
“You sound as though I should be ashamed of it.”
I shrugged. “Why, are you?”
“I most certainly am not. Don’t tell me, I should check my privilege, right?”
“Hey, I was only making smalltalk, no need to get all upset.”
Julia smiled. “Smalltalk, of course. Anyway, nice speaking to you, I’m going to go mingle for a bit.”
“Yes.” I stuffed a puff pastry into my mouth. “You go mingle.”
I stayed by the table – the groups had formed and only the recruitment people were bothering to move. I checked my phone then refilled my glass. A gentle warbling sound reverberated around the room, it was the jangle of soft insincere laughter. I watched the men awhile. They were all malformed in one way or another. This was no place for us, I thought, we should be out in the world building things. Instead, we were trapped in a sticky meeting room laughing at facile jokes.
Jess walked over and pulled at my sleeve.
“What have you done?” She said.
“What?” I waved at the space around me. “I am networking. What’s the problem?”
“God, you’re drunk.”
“I am not.”
“You were being weird with Phillip Brenner’s niece.”
He was our steely chief operating officer.
A self-styled dictator, Phillip Brenner considered himself a man who ‘got things done’. Despite the cruelty, he was a slightly ludicrous figure – less Stalin, more Mussolini.
I said, “You mean Julia? Great, I wish she’d said who she was.”
“Yes, because that’s how it works. She came over and started talking us. When Rita introduced herself Julia was all like oh, I’ve just met one of your team.
“Rita’s here? But of course. I suppose I’d better sort this out.”
I put down my glass and straightened my belt. Julia was leaving Rita’s group on the far side of the room. I hurried over, catching her by a tray-carrying waiter.
“Hey, my man,” I said to the waiter. “Can I get one of those?”
I took a drink then pretended to notice Julia.
“Oh, hello again,” I said. “Fancy seeing you by the wine.”
I laughed and raised my glass. “Great minds, eh?”
“Yes,” she said. “I can see you like a drink.”
I paused before saying, “Well, who doesn’t? Listen, I think we got off on the wrong foot earlier.”
“It’s fine, really.”
“No, it’s not. See, I was only being like that because I think you’re pretty nice. Call it a defence mechanism, maybe. I’m not sure, but really, sorry.”
She didn’t say anything.
“I suppose I just don’t know how to navigate these things. I see a pretty lady and I decide to make a silly joke, like that lawyer on LinkedIn that time.” I forced a smile. “But hey ho, it’s just a laugh, right?”
“Oh, is it now?”
“Well, yes. Don’t you think?
The sparkle from earlier had disappeared. Over her shoulder I saw Rita laughing with a group of puffy-faced executives – our eyes met and the smile fell from her face. I looked back to see Julia turning on her heels.
The waiter was still close. I called out to him.
“Mate,” I said, removing my jacket. “You’d better give me another one of those.”
Next: Marcello meets his brother Dan and rakes over his relationship woes.
You can read more of Marcello’s book on WATC here.
You can purchase his book here.