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Company of Fools
Justin Whalley, a nice enough fellow, no delusions of grandeur here, all he wants in life is the norm. The wife, the kids and a half decent job he enjoys doing. Simple. Not quite.
Justin begins with fervour and determination; the absolute belief that what he longs for is there for the taking. Just out of reach but so tantalizingly close.
Aided and abetted, though hindered and hamstrung by his close friends and work colleagues Justin begins to despair that perhaps this wasn’t as easy as he planned it to be.
When the girl of his dreams turns into the depths of his worst nightmare Justin’s dwindling hope hits rock bottom.
With his private-life teetering on the edge of chaos, his performance at work suffers adding pressure beyond his imagination.
Riotously funny, heartbreakingly honest, through a roller coaster ride of human emotion, tragedy, embarrassment, laughter and despair. Join with Justin in the search for eternal bliss, or what he can get: a true testament to the indomitable human spirit.
I was a boy born into an already-large family. I had two sisters and two brothers. All my parents’ offspring – bar one – were older than I. That made no odds to me. I believed I was a bright, intelligent, adept man.
There was Jennifer, Oliver, Mark, Emily and me.
I knew deep down that I was not absolutely gorgeous to look at, but easy enough on any female’s wandering eye. That’s what I always liked to believe. As I developed, so did my personality and my emotional state.
As a child I would cry very easily at things, such as being smacked by my mother. The threat of punishment also brought the same results, though: an embarrassing time in front of my older siblings.
I felt as though I couldn’t control my emotions. Worse still, I thought I would never be able to. That was far more frightening. Eventually, I did learn to master them. In fact, I seemed to go the other way, showing no emotions whatsoever. I obviously over compensated.
Yet I look at my family, who are close but in a distant, unspoken way. Very few hugs. No saying, ‘I love you’ or ‘You be careful!’ Intrinsically, though, that language of love was always quietly spoken. I always knew it was there. Just because something wasn’t said didn’t mean no one was thinking it.
I must make it clear that I do love my family, unequivocally. No doubts. I understand that everyone handles – and displays – emotions differently.
Oliver and Mark work in so-called brilliant jobs. Both still live at home. Jennifer, the eldest, has a different father. She works as a lawyer or a barrister, I think. Then Emily followed, born just a year after me, and does some kind of office work.
I was never too sure what Jennifer did work-wise, as she was so many years older than I. The barrister thing was probably just a dream.
From what I can remember, she is very attractive. Maybe her beauty came from her father’s genes. I never asked my mum about her father or about what happened. She always displayed a wounded expression when I – or one of my brothers – asked about him.
Our house was always overcrowded, although I do remember my time there with some glee and humour. I recall Mark’s first kiss on the doorstep with Vanessa Trindel. As we watched from the bedroom window, he burped in her face just before that most crucial moment: when their lips touched. He heard us laughing. I’m afraid my laugh can be raucous and easily identified. He never forgave us; he certainly never forgave me. Maybe that’s why he’s still living at home with daddy.
I looked at my two older brothers – Oliver (thirty-five) and Mark (thirty-two) – and I was determined not to end up like them. Content with very little, with no freedom, and no place to call their own. Then again, there were reasons for that.
Well, I found my liberty to a certain degree and escaped the loving home life: the sanctity and safety my dear mother provided.
I began to wear glasses when I turned eighteen. I had reached six feet one inch in height. I took care of my jet-black hair, washing it regularly and styling it with the gels and sprays recommended by hairdressers. I wore aftershave and dressed in suits, something I’d always liked doing.
My school friends would think I originated from a wealthy family, simply because I was always turned out crisply. I looked the part, whatever the occasion. The real truth was that we had very little, but my mother’s maternal pride kept all of us looking better off than we really were.
This simple trait paid dividends for me. My attitude and outward appearance reflected how I looked and came across to the outside world: calm, loyal, enthusiastic. That’s me, Justin Whalley.
I may appear to be a confident and slick operator, but my heart thumps so hard, at times I think I’m going to fall over. My hand shakes so much that anyone who sees might think I’m a gibbering wreck. Thankfully, my abilities to display a steely persona are legendary. Otherwise, there would be a lot of explaining to do.
I’d done well, or so I thought, to get the job I now do (at twenty-eight years old). I’ve been there just over a year and I really do like it. However, some of the procedures and processes are nothing short of idiotic. But then, who am I? A young twenty-something upstart from a dodgy area of the city. They certainly wouldn’t give a shit what I think.
Anyway, there are three major tangibles I want from life. I don’t think it’s asking much.
1. A wife (or at least a long-term girlfriend to start with).
2. Children (the idea of the patter of tiny Justins makes me go all giddy inside).
3. A good job (one out of three wouldn’t be bad).
This is the beginning of the story of my attempts to obtain – and keep – what I craved. These were life-changing events! I know life is a learning process but, for friggin’ hell’s sake, I didn’t think it would be this difficult.
‘THE SALES CONFERENCE’
I had finished my presentation to a buoyant, ebullient audience. Three hundred pairs of eyes bore into my frail medium-sized frame.
A drip of perspiration ran from high on my forehead into the crevice created for my eyes, and under my thin-rimmed designer spectacles. That well-used swan analogy – serene on the surface but paddling like mad beneath it – floated in and out of my mind. This increased as the audience erupted into riotous applause.
I stepped two paces back from the lectern and smiled at the applauding audience.
‘Thank you, thank you!’ I called out over the noise.
Even though the mic pinned to my lapel was switched on, I doubt if anyone heard me. They were enjoying this. Admittedly, so was I.
A rush of adrenalin overcame my nerves as I lapped up the praise. Was I really that good? Damn, I must have been. That’s what I kept telling myself until I could get down off the stage, which I desperately wanted to do.
I beckoned to the chairperson to step forward to introduce the next speaker, one of the three senior executives seated behind me on stage. I was glad I didn’t have to follow me.
Audiences of marketeers were either boisterous (but still listening) or as quiet as a mouse whispering in a library (fast asleep and paying no attention whatsoever).
Relief flooded my whole body as I finally negotiated the five steps down off the stage. I’d felt a little like a pop star up there. Each step was taken with extra care, as the cameramen videoed my every movement. This would be played back in each of the twenty offices around the world at a later date.
I reached the floor without a hitch, and strode confidently down the left-hand side of the enormous Lincoln Suite that was only a quarter filled with Eiron (pronounced ‘eye-ron’) Plc sales executives. The host made some witty remark about the applause I had just received, but I wasn’t listening. I didn’t care either way.
Intricately decorated chandeliers hung ostensibly from the high ceilings of this vast auditorium. Thick, plush carpet covered most of the floor. The rest was wood panelled. The air conditioning droned in an attempt to keep everyone cool and awake. It was no different to any other hotel business function room that I had been to.
The host, however, was an absolute arsehole. It’s not like me to bitch, but he was. A one hundred percent tosser. I didn’t know someone could be as he was. Unfortunately, he was the UK Managing and Sales Director, so we had to answer to him. Not everyone did, but that’s another story.
He stood proud and haughty as he looked out across the audience, and soaked up the remainder of my adulation. His curtain hairstyle (like something from the eighties) swayed forward and back as he nodded to accept the applause. Walter Baker – six feet five, with a stern straight face and piercing ice-blue eyes – smiled smugly, as was his trademark.
I fixed my eyes on a few guys from my team. There were all sitting towards the back of the hall. My immediate manager, Errol Hughes, was a clever, shrewd black guy, with a style that reminded me of Huggy Bear, a character in an eighties cop show. The only differences between them were the hair – Errol had hardly any – and of course the clothes.
He was getting out of his seat, signalling to me with his right hand. I thought he was going to congratulate me. I certainly hoped so. As he struggled to get by the legs of the other execs, I saluted Tom and Shaun, who smiled back and bowed their heads, mouthing, ‘We are not worthy’. I got the joke.
Errol finally stepped over his underlings and reached out his right hand. I stood beaming from ear to ear, and grasped his hand firmly.
‘So you did it, you old bastard. Well done, my man. How’s your underwear?’ Errol asked me confidently, with an assured toothy grin.
We spoke quietly, and continued walking towards the exit. The knob-head on the stage built up the next speaker.
By now, Errol had his left arm around my shoulder. He knew I was nervous; that’s why he’d asked me about my underwear.
‘You know me too well. Where’d you think I’m heading now? The loo! I’m gonna have to go. You know the score.’
‘Hey, you can talk to me!’ Errol laughed quietly as we pushed open the heavy oak double doors that led to the corridor.
‘Don’t worry, Justin. I’ll be right by your side.’
I gave Errol a strange look, which he ignored. He continued to smile.
I had known Errol a long time but he had never wanted to go to the toilet with me before. I was obviously being paranoid.
When we reached the toilets, Errol told me why he wanted to come in too. I was glad he did.
Inside, there were four urinals. One exec I’d seen around from our London office stood at an angle, with his tiny bit firing out his liquid substance. Errol and I gave him a quick once over. He finished and moved towards the basins to wash his hands. When he’d gone, Errol began telling me what had grabbed his interest.
We stood with one urinal in between us. It was a man thing. It’s so awkward when a third man enters and has to decide which urinal to use. You keep looking straight ahead, never turning left or right. Every man should be allowed his privacy.
‘Yeah, Just, I overhead the big man on stage tell the European MD to look out for you.’ Nearly everyone shortened my name to Just – when I allowed them to.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, as I my urine was making its way out of my cylindrical orifice.
‘Don’t worry! It’s all good. Good for you, I mean.’ I broke the rule and glanced to my right, but kept my head erect and maintained level eye contact with Errol. I had a ‘tell me some more’ look on my face.
‘Walter actually singled you out, you know, for greatness and shit.’ Errol chuckled in a deep throaty way as he said the words. I couldn’t believe it either.
‘So I could be moving up in the world,’ I said as I turned back to face the sterile white-tiled wall.
‘Uh huh.’ Errol finished and zipped himself up.
‘You know, I was never quite sure whether Walter liked me. He’s one of those people you can’t really judge. He doesn’t give much away.’ I tried to explain something, but the words that came out sounded as though they were coming from someone else.
I finished, and nervously looked down at my light-grey trousers, hoping there were no splash marks. This time I was lucky.
I was washing my hands when in walked Len Ferris. Forty-something, and a jackass in my book. He lived in the past, and thought he’d done it all, always saying too much and at the wrong time. This opportunity was no different.
Len stood at the second urinal. Errol and I had nearly finished drying our hands when he spoke.
‘Alright lads. Great conference again, eh? Usual bullshit speeches and pats on our back, while that slimy Walter bastard does fuck all and gets nearly half a mil a year.’
I had to step in, even though Errol took hold of my arm to stop me.
‘Look, Len, these conferences are a third business, a third geeing up the troops and a third piss-up. It’s never been any different. You of all people should know that.’ I told him straight. No messin’ around. I think Errol was mildly impressed.
But Len wasn’t.
‘What the hell do you know? You’re a young whippersnapper, still wet behind the ears no doubt.’ I raised my eyebrows and noticed that Errol was about to make a move. This time I stopped him. I let Len continue.
‘This company has its arse in its hand. Doesn’t have a fucking clue what it’s doing. I’m telling you now, I’ll be the first to speak up when it comes to issues and Q & A.’
We both nodded. Len let out a string of consecutive farts, saying that’s what he thought of Walter Baker!
I had to warn Len about something before he went shouting his mouth off, potentially making every salesperson’s life a misery. And making his wife’s life a misery; she was in the audience.
‘Len,’ I said in a calm voice (the kind that psychiatrists use). ‘Look before you dish any shit, and make sure no one else does the same to you.’
Len looked at me as innocently as a newborn baby.
‘What? me? Dirty?! I’m the cleanest motherf—’
I didn’t let him finish.
By now, Errol and I were leaning against the basins. My arms were folded. Errol had his hands in his trouser pockets, and was shaking his head at Len.
‘What about Barbara in sales admin? The sales conference in Paris. It was the only time they were allowed to come along because we’d had a fantastic year. My first, as I recall.’ I paused. Len interjected.
‘So you shagged her silly. Her words, not mine. Said you were like a tiger starved of food for weeks. You couldn’t get enough. You cut her on her left breast, you were biting that hard. Should I gone on?’
Len was actually quiet for a whole minute. Errol looked at me. I returned his gaze. Len looked at the floor, rubbing his chin with his free right hand.
‘How in the name of god do you know about it?’
‘Whoa! So you admit it happened? No denial? That will help you with Sarah. She’ll probably forgive you for shagging her best friend.’
I had a smile on my face but I didn’t know why. Errol said we’d better get back or people would talk about us being in the gents for so long together. I think it was more to do with getting out of the room Len was in. As we headed for the door, I turned to Len.
‘Remember, Len, no company is perfect. Neither are any of us. Think about who else might know what I’ve just told you. They may try and use it against you. You can trust me that I won’t. Let’s hope no one heard us.’
‘Look, son, thanks. It was one of those irresistible urges that we men get. You know the score. She virtually laid it on a plate and, boy oh boy, I lapped it up. It was the best screw I’ve ever had. I can’t complain.’
Len had this ability to be supremely crass or crude at any opportunity. He did it effortlessly. Almost as though it were a gift. It seemed to be his way, his version of the spoken word.
Errol was now outside the gents.
I’d had enough of listening to Len trying to justify his one moment of passion. I knew that he was lying. He’d been having an affair with Barbara before I started at Eiron. His poor wife did not have a clue.
‘Let’s hope Sarah doesn’t hear you say that.’
Len laughed as I let the door close behind me.
As Errol and I headed back towards the hall, a strange eerie feeling came over me. We couldn’t hear anyone speaking in the hall. It was far too quiet as we approached. There were four huge sets of double doors. We were heading to the fourth, intending to enter at the back, where we’d exited.
Standing outside the second huge set of doors was Len’s wife, Sarah. She looked as if she could kill someone with her bare hands.
She was to all intents and purposes a calm woman. But I heard that if she was provoked, she could be a nightmare, worse that anyone could dream up. Right then and there, I was glad that I was not in Len’s size six shoes.
Yet I wondered why she was upset. There was no way she could have heard us. Then I saw the way Errol was looking at my jacket and shaking his head.
I watched Errol’s lips move. They mouthed, ‘Oh shit!’ I raised my arms as if to say, ‘What’s up?’
There on my left lapel was the mic. It was still switched on. We both knew that they – the whole sales force for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (aka EMEA) – were waiting for us to enter. I had no idea what kind of reaction we would get.
Thankfully, Errol was brave. He volunteered to go in first.
Using hand gestures, he told me to turn off the mic. He then mouthed ‘One … two … three’ and pushed open the door. I followed him about five seconds later. The reaction was something I’ll never forget.