Karen didn’t really like Mark. No one in the office did. But Karen, squeezing out the last months of her thirties, had other things on her mind, and even though she wasn’t a fan, she hoped Mark might do.
She gave him a card on his birthday. She made him cups of coffee. She asked him questions about his weekends (which he never properly answered). He had bad teeth and greasy hair. He wasn’t friendly; he didn’t speak much. Mena said he looked like a man who watched a lot of porn. Karen couldn’t decide if that was a good or bad thing. And anyway, if an office has enough people, someone will always be mocked, avoided, unpopular, whether they deserve it or not. Karen was just glad it wasn’t her; and Mark didn’t seem to mind that it was him.
Karen didn’t really like her job either. There wasn’t much of a happy atmosphere among the staff of Delivering Money Solutions Ltd. Rumours of redundancies grew and thrived, like the furry layers of mould on the abandoned, half-eaten food rotting in the fridges. Whether defiant, desperate or indifferent, everyone expected to be shown the door sooner rather than later. At DMS Ltd, job security was a mythical knight, a damsel-rescuing hero, with an improved pension plan tucked into his shining armour.
Karen, Mark and their five colleagues in Ad Buying Team 3, occupied a corner of the second floor, penned in by wobbly, baize-covered metal screens. Line manager Ed had a larger chair and his desk was set at right angles to the two rows of desks at which the others sat: Karen, Danny and Mark on one side; Tall Paul, Paul C and Mena on the other. Like guests at a boring dinner party.
The bombshell email, addressed to all staff and marked Top Priority, was lying in wait well before nine-thirty that Friday morning. By about ten-fifteen – allowing time for late-comers, making drinks, chats about last night’s telly, consumption of bowls of cereal, status updates and general preparation for another working day – everyone had read it.
‘What does it all mean, Ed?’ asked Paul C. ‘At risk?’
‘You can read, can’t you?’ Mena – often called Meanie behind her back – sneered. Paul C’s blushes highlighted his acne. He lived with his parents and spent most of his pitiful salary on hair gel and taking his gran to the bingo. Karen – in a brief, mad moment – had considered Paul C for the task in hand, but had quickly given up that idea. She didn’t want a puppy to train. If Mark watched porn, he must know his way about.
Ed, a scuffed and baggy fifty-seven, took a sip of nettle tea. ‘Don’t worry, Paul. We’ll find out more later today, I’m sure.’
‘What’s to find out?’ Meanie asked, straight to the point as ever. ‘For once they’ve been crystal clear. It’s a takeover. Our shark has been eaten by a bigger shark. They’re going to cut staffing levels by 50% and move HQ to Dungeness.’
Ed pretended to laugh. ‘Dagenham, Mena. That’s still London-ish.’
‘To you maybe.’ Then she said, ‘I’m not surprised – none of us is any good. We’re certainly the worst Ad Buying team…’
‘But first, Mena, everyone,’ Ed raised his voice slightly, drawing them in, as best he could, ‘there’s the Team Building weekend. Nothing will happen until after that.’
This so-called training exercise had been planned for months. However hard they’d tried, no one had been able to get out of it. They were due to leave that very evening for a mystery destination in the countryside, like wartime evacuees.
‘But surely that’s been cancelled now?’ Mena raised her voice.
‘As I understand things,’ Ed said carefully. ‘We do still have to go.’ He tidied the papers on his desk, avoiding Mena’s hard stare. ‘All the Ad Buying Teams are in the same boat.’
‘Why do have to do it first?’ Karen asked. ‘Why pick on us? What about Accounts – everyone hates them?’
Mena wouldn’t be silenced. ‘But, Ed, what’s the point, if they’re going to sack us anyway?’
‘I’m not going.’ Paul C said. No one took any notice.
‘I don’t need role-playing exercises to know what you lot are like.’ Mena’s eyes blazed with scorn, like a cat presented with an under-par mouse.
Danny perked up. ‘So then, Ed, if we do all right – on the weekend – there’s a better chance of being kept on?’ His self-shaved head glowed like a billiard ball in the strip lighting. He was always pumping iron, running marathons, climbing mountains. It was only at work that he didn’t seem to do very much.
Tall Paul said, ‘Ed, did you get a chance to talk to Weldon?’ His eyes were bloodshot and he looked about ready to drop. His wife had recently given birth to twins, and no one in the Tall Paul household was getting much sleep. Karen was sure that they must be doing something wrong, and that her own child (when he or she came along) would sleep like a baby. Tall Paul said, ‘I can’t leave Jenny on her own with the boys…’
‘Let’s have a separate chat later.’ A ‘separate chat’ was how Ed referred to a private conversation conducted in whispers out on the stairwell.
‘What he means, Paul,’ said Meanie, ‘is that you’ve got to fight for your job like the rest of us, and that means going on the Boy Scout trip.’
Ed looked flustered.
Mena shook her head. ‘Do you know anything about what’s actually going on, Ed?’
Karen glanced at Mark, quiet, as usual, apart from frenzied mouse-clicking. She thought a weekend away, even if it involved rock climbing and paintballing, might be just what was needed to reel him in.
At six pm that evening a small fleet of minibuses collected the four Ad Buying Teams from the offices of Delivering Money Solutions Ltd.
Three of the minibuses headed north; theirs went west.
‘I thought we’d all be together.’ Karen said, picturing Arno from Team 1, short but not bad looking, who might be an option if Mark proved to be a dud. ‘Ed, why aren’t we all going together?’
‘Yes indeed – shouldn’t we be competing against each other in the time-honoured way? Or is that too much like a normal day in the office?’ Mena, who was sitting behind him, leaned over the back of Ed’s seat and thumped him on the shoulder.
Ed bristled, but didn’t answer. He had a small box of raisins sticking out of his jacket pocket, and his thin fingers drew out a clump of little pellets, like rat droppings, and stuffed them into his mouth.
‘I wish we were all going together,’ Karen said. ‘It would be more fun.’
‘Do you really think so?’ Mena asked.
After several hours on the M4 and twenty-five minutes of B roads, they were deposited at a smart-looking hotel at an undisclosed location, generally surmised to be ‘somewhere in Wales’.
The sharp taste of the sea filled the air. ‘It’s a bit cold,’ Danny said.
‘You need a hat, Danny,’ Mena said. ‘Or hair.’
‘Very nice hotel,’ Ed gushed. ‘They’re not skimping.’ But it didn’t take long for word to get round that The Luminous belonged to a hotel chain owned by Sir James Fleece, brother of DMS Ltd CEO, Arthur Fleece. It was true that the rooms were large, the furnishings plush, the beds firm, and that every bathroom was equipped with a hairdryer and miniature bottles of toiletries artistically arranged in a wicker basket. It was also true that all alcohol had been removed from the minibars.
On arrival, they had to surrender phones and laptops to the smarmy hotel manager. Everyone protested – especially Tall Paul, obviously thinking of Jenny, home alone with four-week-old twins – but Ed was surprisingly firm. ‘Paul,’ he said. ‘We’ve had a separate chat about this. You’ve given Penny the hotel number, if there’s an emergency, you’ll be informed straight away.’
‘Jenny,’ Tall Paul corrected under his breath.
‘It’s late,’ Ed said. ‘Let’s meet for dinner in ten minutes.’
Dinner – served in a private room – was deadly dull. Wind-powered rain hammered against the French windows.
‘Any chance of a glass of wine?’ Mena asked.
‘Oh, I don’t think we need the demon drink.’ Ed gave one of his half-laughs.
‘A cocktail might be nice,’ Karen said, thinking about the night ahead.
The kitchen was about to close. They were allowed to choose a main course only from a short list of very similar options. Except for Ed, who’d brought his own supplies of the coarsely-grated, stubbornly-raw, still-sprouting vegetation that passed for food in his life. His wife had left him in 1993 at the height of his alfalfa craze.
Karen glanced over at Mark, who stared out into the darkness.
‘I’m quite missing Paul C,’ Mena said. With the encouragement of parents and gran, Paul C had resigned and gone home at lunchtime.
‘But you were always teasing him,’ Karen said carefully. It was best to keep on the right side of Meanie.
‘I know. I feel bad about that now. I think he did the right thing. We should all have done the same.’
Tall Paul sighed, looking down at his battered cod and chips. ‘I wish I had.’
‘Positive thinking, everyone.’ Ed tried to sound cheerful. ‘Danny, what are you drinking there?’
Only Ed and Danny seemed in any way to be enjoying themselves, and they started up a dreary conversation about pomegranate juice. Ed agreed to give it a try, though he was sure it couldn’t beat nettle tea.
The meal did not take long. Ed suggested an early night. ‘Breakfast at six, remember,’ he said with a chortle.
‘What’s the first challenge on the agenda?’ Danny started to bounce about on his seat and flex his biceps. His bald head had a raw and shiny newly-shaved look about it.
Ed laughed. ‘Now, Danny, you know the rules. Each task will only be revealed in turn. I won’t know myself until I’m handed the envelope at breakfast…’
‘All tediously mysterious,’ said Meanie.
‘And let’s do everything we can be beat the other Ad Buying Teams!’
Mena shook her head. Everyone drifted off to their rooms.
Ed opened his window to the fullest extent, allowing the health-giving glacial air to banish all cosiness. He quickly changed into his paisley-patterned pyjamas and huddled under the duvet.
Tall Paul, worrying about Jenny and the twins, and all the terrible things that could be happening to them, fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Mark efficiently negotiated his way to the pay-to-view film channels and was soon stretched out on the bed, fully engrossed in Banged-Up Babes.
Danny stripped down to his designer underpants and completed an indeterminate number of press-ups in front of the full-length mirror.
Mena had smuggled in vodka hidden in a mineral water bottle, and enjoyed a few pleasant nightcaps.
Karen, now the moment had come, was full of nerves. She’d never had much luck with boyfriends, and as the years rolled on they were harder to find and easier to lose.
But she dared not waste an opportunity of getting to grips with Mark, especially as the whole business might need several ‘goes’. After about twenty minutes of wavering, she put on her red dress, red shoes and red lipstick – she was ready.
She’d bought a new ‘enhancing’ bra a few days earlier. It consisted of lace, nylon, wire and a great deal of foam padding, and cleverly transformed her clementines into oranges. She only hoped that its removal would not lead to disappointment, confusion, a search party.
She knocked three times before Mark opened his door a few inches and peered out. Karen’s foam bosom pressed against her side of the door; she felt a quivering pressure of resistance from the other side. He didn’t ask her in.
She slunk back to her own room.
‘So this is what we all look like at six o’clock in the morning.’ Mena said as they all sat gloomily in their private dining room, eating breakfast. ‘About as much fun as a meal with my husband.’
Karen, who’d chosen what she wanted people to think she ate, stirred her bowl of fruit and yoghurt without joy. She looked across at Mark’s Full English – if her eyes could eat, he’d be staring down at an empty plate.
Ed enthusiastically consumed apples and pumpkin seeds. Danny piled a plate with scrambled eggs and worked through it with a busy fork. Mena and Tall Paul were apparently engaged in a race to see who could drink the most black coffee.
‘Are you all right, Paul?’ Mena pushed away her plate of toast. ‘You look knackered.’ Paul was dressed in his full outdoor kit, including a thick, padded jacket. He’d taken off his gloves to eat his breakfast.
‘Nice hat,’ Danny said with a smirk.
‘Thanks,’ Paul replied. The hat was bright blue, with a pattern of grey, diving dolphins around the brim. ‘Jenny knitted it. Before the twins, of course.’
‘Do twins put a stop to knitting?’ Mena asked, with a more gentle strain of sarcasm than usual. Karen was beginning to wonder if something was going on there.
‘No time,’ Paul said, wearily. Karen had had hopes of Paul not that long ago. There’d been a big snog at the Christmas party the year before last and a couple of drinks after work one night. But then he’d met Jenny, and that was that.
The hotel manager, dressed in a burgundy polyester suit, bustled into the room. With a flourish, he placed a slim envelope beside Ed’s empty breakfast bowl, and then backed away.
Ed opened the envelope with the meticulous care of someone expecting to reuse it. ‘Abseiling!’ he exclaimed.
‘Ed,’ Mena said. ‘Don’t you think Paul should go home?’
‘Er…?’ Ed’s worried-rabbit look was at full strength.
‘What about the rest of us? Will we be penalised?’ Danny asked.
‘Shut up, Danny. Ed, you should have sorted this out with Weldon, and got Paul paroled.’
Ed gulped down the last of his nettle tea.
‘I don’t want to let you all down,’ Paul said, completely unconvincingly.
Ed rallied. ‘That’s the spirit.’
‘Ed, for fuck’s sake, don’t be stupid.’
‘Mena!’ Ed gasped.
‘Paul,’ Mena said. ‘Surely you can find another job? Look at us all! Let’s all just go home.’
Danny said, ‘Don’t worry, Mena, we’ll all help you with the activities. I know you’re not very sporty.’
It was bitterly cold up on Rock Cliff Path. Mena said, ‘It’s when you find yourself doing things like this that you realise how crap the job is.’
‘Employers’ market,’ Karen said sadly.
The two instructors kept a professional distance from Ad Buying Team 3, who formed a dismal collection of would-be abseilers. Except Danny, who alternated running on the spot with bending from the waist.
Mena stood in a wind-battered huddle with Tall Paul. Her words ‘go home’ drifted over to the others. Paul’s knitted hat was the same colour as the sky.
Karen asked Ed if he was worried about climbing down a mountain at his age. He said, ‘Not at all, not at all. You know I like to keep myself fit.’ He was rather proud of the gentle exercise routine he’d developed over the years: getting off the bus one stop early, walking up and down stairs, putting the things he most needed on the top and bottom shelves of cupboards.
‘Even so, I would have thought…’
‘No discrimination at DMS, Karen. We’re all treated exactly the same.’
The top instructor called them all to attention. ‘Listen carefully,’ he began, and then went on for some time. No one, except Ed and Danny, was even half-listening.
Karen stamped about, trying to keep warm.
A powerful blast of wind whipped around them. Paul’s dolphin hat was snatched from his head and carried out to sea. Paul started to run after it, stumbling in a weaving zigzag along the top of the cliff. Both instructors yelled out for him to stop. Whether it was the wind, his tiredness or the loose stones – or a fatal combination – within seconds, Paul had tripped, fallen, and rolled over the edge.
The rescue services were quick to arrive. Paul’s lifeless, crumpled body was retrieved from a rocky cove down below, just in time not to be washed away by the incoming tide. ‘That was lucky,’ Ed said.
They made statements to the police. Back at the hotel, they were reunited with phones and laptops. Ed lifted the booze embargo. It was nine o’clock in the morning. He said he would see about them leaving, and then disappeared, not resurfacing until early evening. Those who had people to phone made calls. Mena handed out coffee and hugs. The long hours passed in a haze of incapacity. They waited to be told what to do.
‘I want to go home.’ Karen said. Everyone except Ed was back in the private dining room. It was gone six and pitch black outside.
Mena said, ‘I’ve made two big decisions. I’m going to leave Rolf.’
‘Who’s Rolf?’ Danny asked.
‘Her husband, of course. Oh, Mena, are you sure?’ Karen couldn’t imagine giving up a husband, however unsatisfactory he might be. ‘It’s all been so shocking and terrible. Poor Paul’s wife…’
Mena said, ‘I spoke to Jenny.’
‘How is she?’
‘Oh, fine, Danny, absolutely fine. What do you think?’
Danny blushed, annoyed. ‘I didn’t mean…’
‘That was so good of you,’ Karen said. ‘But… Did she know…?’
‘Yes. Ed bottled it – of course – made Weldon tell her. If she wants to sue, I’ll be right behind her.’
‘Oh,’ Karen said. ‘Do you think that’s a good idea?’
Mena went on, ‘My other news is that I’ve resigned. Sent an email to Weldon, copied in Nettle Ed. It’s done.’
Mark looked up, briefly interested, and then returned to his laptop.
Karen wondered if Mena knew what she was doing. ‘You’re so brave.’
‘You should all do the same. It’s a horrible place to work, if you can call it work. We’re all rubbish at our jobs anyway. We only got away with it because DMS is even more crap than we are. Looks like they’ve finally come to their senses, and so should we.’
‘Oh, I couldn’t.’ Karen said.
Mena was back to her usual bossy self. ‘Think on, Karen.’ She nodded towards Mark. ‘Best try internet dating.’
‘Actually, I think I’m quite good at my job,’ Karen whined.
‘I’m not prepared to fall off a cliff for anyone,’ Mena said angrily.
‘You still have to pay the bills,’ Danny said.
‘Not with blood. And someone else’s blood at that.’
Ed bustled into the room. ‘At long last,’ Mena said. ‘Thanks for joining us.’
‘I’ve spoken to Weldon. Of course everyone at DMS is devastated. They’ll do everything they can. There’s a death-in-service policy. Paul’s wife Penny has just had twins, so I’m sure the extra money will come in handy.’
‘Jenny,’ Mena, Karen and Danny said.
‘When’s the minibus going to be here, Ed?’ Mena asked.
‘Now Mena, I saw your email. This is not a day for hasty decisions. Let’s have a separate chat about it later.’
‘I think we should all resign – even you, Ed.’
‘I used to have a respectable job in motor insurance.’ Ed sighed.
‘So, when are we leaving?’ Mena went on.
‘Tomorrow, as planned. The minibus has taken some pensioners to Barry Island. It won’t be available until 4 o’clock tomorrow afternoon.’
‘Only one minibus in Wales is there?’ Mena was almost shouting. ‘What about hiring one? Or taking a train?’
Karen said, ‘Perhaps the police will need to talk to us again?’
‘Oh yes, that’s the other reason we have to stay.’
At eight o’clock the manager appeared and asked what they wanted to do about dinner.
‘It’s been a terrible shock, but we should try to eat,’ Ed said. ‘Please, just bring us what we had last night.’ He glanced over at Paul’s empty chair, and added, ‘Except for the battered cod and chips.’
As they sat in silence, staring down at the unwelcome plates of food, the French windows burst open with a volley of piercing cracks. A blast of cold air swept into the room. Two men, dressed in heavy black clothing, with masks concealing their faces, jumped into the room. They both waved large guns in wild arcs and one shouted, ‘No one move! Stay right where you are! This is a hold-up.’
Without hesitation Mark leapt from his chair and ran straight at the gunmen, swinging out arms and legs, like a cross between Bruce Lee and a chorus girl.
Ed stood up, gasped, and fell back into his seat. His face was a livid bluish-red and he was shaking from head to foot.
‘Ed! Ed!’ Mena screamed, catching everyone’s attention, except Mark’s, who had one gunman trapped in a corner. The other man dropped his weapon, ripped off his balaclava, rushed over to Ed, and started to administer CPR.
Karen burst into tears. Danny, open-mouthed, stared at the confusion in front of him. Ed, face now paper-white, had been lowered onto the carpet.
‘Mark! Stop it Mark! It’s not real!’ Mena yelled, over and over, until Mark stopped. The cornered man used his mobile phone to ring for an ambulance.
The hotel manager rushed in.
Mena bellowed at him, ‘What the fuck’s going on?’
The manager, trained to stay calm in any situation, walked over the window and examined the damage.
‘We’ve had the dead-colleague stunt already today,’ Mena screamed into his face.
He then turned to the unmasked men. ‘What’s going on?’ He pointed at Ed, ‘What’s the matter with him? Is he all right?’
The one who wasn’t trying to save Ed’s life said, ‘We’re actors. Hired by Fleece Corporate Events to stage a hold-up.’
Karen, Mark, Mena and Danny were given another private dining room to sit in. The manager brought in a large amount of alcohol to keep them going.
Ed had been taken away to hospital, not to be saved but to be stored.
‘Unbelievable,’ Mena said repeatedly. ‘Can you believe it?’
‘First Paul and now Ed.’ Karen dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. Who’d be next?
‘You were bloody brave there, Mark.’ Mena said. ‘Where did you learn those sweet moves?’
‘Jail Birds 2: The Breakout.’
‘I must have missed that one. Anyway, you’re a hero.’
Mark looked pleased.
‘It’s all so horrendous. I need to do something life-affirming.’ Mena looked from Danny to Mark, from Mark to Danny, and even briefly at the sobbing Karen. ‘What about it, Danny? Are you up for doing something life-affirming?’
Danny puffed out his chest; of all of them he seemed the least affected by the tragedies. ‘The hotel gym will be empty at this time of night. Let’s go and do a workout.’
Mena stood up unsteadily. ‘We can certainly start with that.’
‘What shall we do?’ Karen asked Mark, once they were alone. Should she take advantage of events to take advantage of Mark?
He took a swig of lager straight from the bottle. ‘Do you like porn?’
‘That’s really for men, isn’t it?’
They went up to Mark’s room.
His technique was more tenderising than tender. He told her she would look good in an orange jumpsuit. Afterwards, he went straight to sleep. Karen, lying on her back with a pillow carefully placed under her hips to raise her lower body, felt optimistic and wished the little tadpoles a safe journey. Mark wasn’t the most attractive man she’d ever met, but he’d taken on the masked gunmen – there must be good genes somewhere in the mix. Even Meanie said he was a hero.
She had a feeling that this time she would get what she wanted.
Judy Binning lives in London. She’s had a short story published in Knife Edge Anthology and was long listed in a Fish Flash fiction competition. She has an MA in Creative Writing and is currently working on a novel.