My colleague Jess and I were in the pub talking to Michelle, our head of communications. It was her leaving do and many of the senior managers were there. Needless to say, enthusiasm was compulsory. She was being prompted to our New York office and we were learning about her move. It was a long winded tale of logistics and house-hunting, but we listened attentively.
Michelle was also getting married. Her wedding plans, while elaborate and considered, appeared to leave no room for romance. Again, the emphasis was on the detail. She showed us a multi-tiered cake on her phone.
“What do you think?”
“What would you prefer,” I said, “unqualified praise or a critical appraisal?”
She looked up and smiled. “How about a bit of both?”
Jess threw her head back and started laughing – teeth showing, a hint of the ’90s Julia Roberts. Someone tapped Michelle on the arm and she excused herself.
“Great career-laugh, Jessica.”
“Glad you like it.” She took a swig from her Bacardi Breezer. “Its taken years to hone.”
I have long known I am made of weaker stuff. Her eyes glowed a little brighter and her legs appeared a little longer. As with all men, it only takes a dab of alcohol to unleash the beast beneath.
Jess had long mastered the art of ingratiating herself with our superiors. Despite her abhorrence for everything corporate (and a specific dislike for our sector – financial services), she was skilled in her handling of the bosses. I was not so adept. But Jess knew I operated on auto-pilot, the ambitious wolf of my younger years had been tamed. These days, my main concern was looking efficient – actual productivity was secondary.
While not a classic beauty Jess’s face was pleasingly symmetrical and kind (despite her nonsensical attempts to appear hard). We had worked together for three years and had become something of a double act – in as much as we jointly stole the credit for the projects we were involved with. She was my greatest (and possibly only) ally. She was of course unaware of my intention to leave the company – just as soon as I figured out how.
We stayed on after the rest of the office left. It was a Tuesday night and the pub was quiet.
“It’s gone eleven, on a school night,” Jess said, “are you sure you can handle this?”
“No, to be honest.”
She rested her head in her hand and leaned on the bar. In her tailored jacket, she was a vision of corporate wonder.
“Another one?” she said.
“Line ’em up.”
This was meant euphemistically but Jess ordered two tequilas – she had the City girl’s maddening talent for self-control. I have long known I am made of weaker stuff. Her eyes glowed a little brighter and her legs appeared a little longer. As with all men, it only takes a dab of alcohol to unleash the beast beneath.
I winced after the shot. Jess laughed.
“You ok?” She said.
“Not really.” Saliva flooded my mouth.
Outside, police sirens sounded. Chaos was everywhere in London – how much of it you avoided was mostly down to luck.
I watched Jess’s mouth as she spoke about her love of ballroom dancing. Things had turned out well for us. We had grown up in the same grim South London enclave and had exceeded the expectations fixed to our type. Jess through hard work and ingenuity, me through my pseudo-middle-class affectations. I pictured Jess in her ball-gown, it was an incongruous but lovely image.
I touched the glass and swore my own oath: I would earn Jess’s forgiveness, whatever the cost. Not quite the battle cry of kings – but it mattered to me.
“What the hell?”
Jess was pushing at my face with both hands.
“What?” I said, feigning shock.
I leaned forward, trying to kiss through her pushing hands – they felt bony and purposeful.
“Just stop,” Jess said.
The bartender stopped wiping the counter and straightened up. Jess mouthed something and he resumed his task. I steeled myself for another charge but she recoiled.
“You’ll regret this in the morning,” she said.
Was she being coy, I wondered? I scanned her glacial eyes.
“Seriously,” she said.
Jess asked the bartender to call a taxi. He was a lean Italian, all chest and sullen pride.
“Jess, I’d better…”
She nodded then said, “let’s talk about it tomorrow.”
I left the pub and stepped out into the night. As I walked along Cannon street I pondered my next career move. I passed the London Stone – a mystic object upon which medieval men swore blood oaths. The chunk of limestone was now trapped in the basement of a bank, encased in a street-level window. The legend goes that ‘Brutus’ brought the stone from Troy when he founded the city. I touched the glass and swore my own oath: I would earn Jess’s forgiveness, whatever the cost. Not quite the battle cry of kings – but it mattered to me.