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by Phil Clarke
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The building resembled an enormous doughnut. On the top floor a wide corridor curved into obscurity at about 50-metres. Concealed lighting bathed magnolia walls. A thick red carpet induced a muffled silence that hung ominously in the warm motionless air. An oppressive monotony reigned, as if to discourage malingerers.

A tall stocky man of fifty in a dark Jermyn-Street suit, a white shirt and a broad red tie, marched into view. Here, for about 20-metres along one side of the corridor, all was glass, revealing a dreary skyline dotted with grey monoliths, and below, grimy rail sheds with sidings, several car parks and a main road. His head high, he walked smoothly in unhurried even steps past the long window, scarcely glancing anywhere but straight ahead. In his hand at his side he clutched a folder; and above the folder, from the sleeve of his jacket, peeped a Rolex watch on a solid gold bracelet. After the windows, smaller corridors branched outwards at intervals, and as he passed one of these, signposted 'Costume Dept', he heard a rustling noise.

'Mr Arlen!' said a soft voice.

He jerked to a halt. Beside him now, as though dropped from the ceiling, stood a thin pale man of forty in his shirt sleeves, holding a broom. His head was covered in bald patches with wisps of hair so thin that they were hardly visible.

'Oh, it's you Tom.' Said the manager, lowering his gaze, 'What are you doing here?'

'It's John, Mr Arlen.' he said, 'My team is assigned to clean this annex today.' He flicked his head towards the small corridor.

'I see.' Said the manager, walking on.

John followed him, and they walked in silence for about twenty paces.

'I haven't seen you in a long time, Mr Arlen.' Said John, almost skipping to keep up, 'Not since you were in charge of House Services. You've come a long way since then. I've been hearing about your progress.' The manager slowed and hesitantly peered round, 'You wouldn't remember, of course,' John went on, 'but in those days you turned me down twice for promotion, and even wrote several undeserved derogatory remarks in my file.' The manager stopped and turned to him, his face starting to redden, 'I've been striving and waiting for years for some kind of chance to improve my position,' John persisted, 'I was hoping you might withdraw those remarks and put in a good word for me. You know, I've always been a conscientious worker.'

'It's true, I may have been a bit harsh.' Said the manager, straightening his posture. 'It's a way of keeping people on their toes. But there's nothing I can do now.'

'You look a little stressed to me, Mr Arlen.' Said John, with an insolent smile, 'You should take it easy. Can't we have a little talk? I mean, I know your position puts you way above concerning yourself with the likes of me, but there can be no harm in it. And I've something important to tell you.'

As the manager stared at John, a flicker of empathy mingled with curiosity crossed his face, then he glanced at his Rolex and said, 'I've a meeting in ten minutes, come into this audition room.' He walked a few steps, opened a door opposite the next annex, and ushered John in. A large window looked over the circular courtyard. Four easy chairs were placed around a coffee table and on one side a drinks vending machine hummed invitingly. The manager slapped his folder onto the table, and went to the machine. 'Coffee?'

John nodded. 'White, no sugar.' he said glumly, plonking himself into a chair.

'How are you these days?' Said the manager placing two steaming polystyrene cups on the table, 'Now, let's see,' he began, taking a seat opposite. 'it must be ten years at least.'

'Eight and a half.' corrected John.

The manager shrugged and sipped his coffee. 'Well, you know how it is; I'm a busy man now. No time to waste. It seems an age since you worked under me.'

'You might do some little thing.' Sighed John, 'A word here or there, a little adjustment to the records.'

'What would it achieve?' replied the manager, leaning back and stretching his legs, 'I'd be accused of interfering on someone else's territory. And I can't go around altering records. Besides, these matters you speak of are long past. No one's going to refer to them now.'

'Nevertheless, they've marked me.' sighed John, slurping his drink.

'Nonsense.' Snapped the manager, raising his eyebrows and leaning forward again, 'I'm sure your current supervisors recognise your skills and other qualities. Conscientious application to work is highly regarded, and to place someone beyond their level of competence is only going to plunge them into a horror of confusion and worry.'

'You think I've reached my limit of competence, destined to sweep floors and polish desks for the rest of my working life?'

'Now, I didn't say that.' muttered the manager, reprovingly, 'Obviously, you're capable of a great deal more… but…'

John stared quizzically at the manager, 'But?' He said.

'But there are others to take account of.' the manager went on grimly, 'When a vacancy occurs, it's a simple case of the best man or woman for the job. You must know that. Law of the jungle. It's business.'

'Is that how you made your leaps?' mocked John, an impertinent sneer on his lips, 'Because, let's face it, you and me are from the same mould; we belong to the same social class.'

'Come off it!' growled the manager, 'That may have seemed true once.'

'And yet,' John went on, 'here's me, a mere sweeper, and here's you a bignut managing director! So how's it done? Let me in on the secret.'

'Maybe I was lucky,' murmured the manager, gazing uncomfortably at the floor.

'Lucky?' laughed John, 'But, of course, like us meeting just now. Oh, what a nerd I've been. To think, but for luck it could have been me sitting there and you here. Pure, unpremeditated luck!'

'Stoop to sarcasm if you must,' said the manager, raising his head, 'It doesn't suit you.'

'Then why not give a straight answer? Is it too much to ask?'

'Very well.' Said the manager, puffing his chest, 'To put it bluntly, you've got to know when to make your move. When there's weak competition, and you've laid some groundwork, that's when you leap.'

'Groundwork? You mean ingratiating yourself to those you rely on for your next position?'

'Well, I wouldn't quite put it that way. It's a matter of basic common sense. The truth is that most people can adjust to most jobs. With the right experience, I dare say you'd be as capable of doing my job as I am.'

'You don't say?' said John feigning surprise, then added, 'You know as well as I do that the least capable are most often promoted.'

'Ah, but least capable at what?' Said the manager in a forthright tone. 'That's what you need to ask yourself. What is sought most for senior positions is aggressive confidence, not the ability to push a broom; anyone can do that. You, my friend, have no aggression, and even less confidence. Only a complete moron would fail to spot that.'

'Aggression!' cried John, 'In House Services?'

'To give orders that will be obeyed, come what may.' Retorted the manager, perkily, 'To create an aura of respect through fear. To wield authority. To only make deals that lean in your favour. To be resolute, strong and unyielding. To remain at a distance, remote and even a little mysterious.'

'It strikes me,' Said John, thoughtfully, 'that what you describe is the precise opposite of what a good manager should be.'

'There we are then.' sang the manager brightly, getting up and retrieving his folder, 'All is explained. Now I really must be going.'

'In those days,' said John, undaunted, 'When you were away, the whole department ran more smoothly, not a single complaint was issued. The staff took pride in their work. Then as soon as you returned and resumed throwing orders, we saw ourselves as working for you and everything became slip-shod again. Who's going to put themselves out for a blunderbuss? Didn't it ever puzzle you that you had to send crews out over and over to the same place?'

'I haven't got time for this.' Snapped the manager going to the door.

John jumped up and faced him. 'There's one privilege, Mr Arlen, a cleaner enjoys that even you don't have.'

'Oh?' said the manager, turning.

'We have access to every office in the building, every unlocked drawer, every in-tray and out-tray, and… well, every waste basket.'

'What are you trying to say?' Said the manager with a serious and worried look, 'What are you insinuating?' 

John shrugged, 'Nothing. Nothing at all, Mr Arlen.'

'Look here,' the manager barked, reddening again, 'Have you been poking around in my office? Searching through my waste basket? You have no right to go spying in people's waste baskets. What's the meaning of it? What are you up to?'

John leaned on his broom and shook his head. 'I didn't say I ever took notice of anything, or even looked.' He mumbled defensively, 'Merely that we cleaners have access. I guess anything confidential is either locked away or shredded.' His expression and frail, pathetic form resembled a disorientated child, and seemed to momentarily touch the manager's pity.

'Listen,' the manager said, now in a consoling voice, 'I just happen to be the kind of person who thrusts himself forward. I'm pushy, ambitious, sometimes hard and irresolute, sometimes domineering and fierce. It's the way I am. Why should I pretend otherwise? But those are the qualities looked for in a job like mine. Above all you need a strong nerve, a sharp wit and a keen perception, an ability to see beneath the surface of a situation, to discern beyond the obvious. These are precisely what you lack, my friend. You are soft, easygoing, flexible and weak; one might even say subservient. You may be right that there are circumstances when my approach is out of place, but what can one do? I am who I am. And, more to the point, you are who you are.'

'I suppose that means our fates are sealed.' Sighed John.

'As things stand, I suppose it does.' said the manager taking hold of the door knob, 'Well, what were you going to tell me? I'm in a hurry.'

'But why should hard-nosed people like you get paid so much more than a cleaner like me?'

'The higher you rise, the tougher it gets.' declared the manager impatiently, 'Not everyone has what it takes, the wherewithal, the determination and stamina to achieve. As I've said, anyone can push a broom.'

'I bet you wouldn't swap with me even for the same salary.' Said John.

'Indeed not,' said the manager, peering ostentatiously at his watch, 'I'd be bored out of my brain.'

'Don't you think I am?

'Come on, man, I haven't got all day. What were you going to tell me?'

John lowered his head and stared at the floor. 'Today's my last day, Mr Arlen.'

'Oh,' said the manager, taken aback, 'I'm sorry to hear that. But obviously you've found something better. Good for you. Though why ask me to amend the records when you're leaving?'

'I was curious of how you'd respond. I should have known, of course.'

'Well, anyway, good luck,' he said, putting out his hand, 'Now I really must be off.'

'It's terminal leukaemia.' Said John wistfully, staring up into the manger's face, 'I've got about six weeks, maybe ten, who knows?'

For a moment the manager went rigid. 'I'm so sorry,' he said, flustered, glaring intently now at John's strangely wrinkled scalp, 'I should have realised… Look,' he turned away and reached for his wallet, 'Here, take this. It's all I have on me.' He thrust three £50, and two £20 notes at John.

'No.' said John turning away, 'I don't want your money. I didn't wait in that annex for two hours just to wheedle a few quid.'

'Then why…?'

'You wouldn't know, would you?' Mumbled John, 'And you wouldn't understand if it was written in blood. It was stupid of me to think you might. I ought to have known better. I'm sorry.'

'Please,' insisted the manager, pushing the money forward again, 'Please. Take the money. What more can I do?'

Hesitantly, John put out his hand and took the notes.

The manager opened the door. 'Well, if there's anything I can do, let me know. I am truly very sorry. Now I really must be going.' He put out his hand again, but John was staring at the notes, apparently oblivious to the manager's gesture. 'Goodbye then.' Said the manager finally, and with an expression of acute agitation walked swiftly away down the corridor. John followed him out and stood watching him until he disappeared round the curve.

Turning the other way, John stuffed the money into his pocket and leaned the broom against the wall. The beads of sweat that had been oozing from his forehead were starting to join and run down his face. He raised both hands and clasped the sides of his head, then wincing with pain as though the discomfort of his scalp was overbearing, he slowly, gently, eased away the latex until out burst a mop of thick black hair. Then, with a smug grin, he grabbed the broom, muttered, 'A strong nerve and a sharp wit!', and chuckling softly he hurried back to the 'Costume Dept'.