................. .......stories




Fifteen years ago when I was looking for a change of job I applied for the post of technician at a TV facility in Plymouth. To my knowledge there were no other applicants, and almost before the interview had started Bill Dodger, the personnel man, made me an offer. Bill would have made a brilliant salesman: he had the aura and smarmy eloquence that could have charmed even a monster. My success, though, was presumably on the strength of having worked for an outfit that was highly regarded in the industry.

I accepted the offer on the spot. Then I resigned my old job, sold my house, put my belongings into storage, and rented a bedsit near the Hoe - all in the space of a month.

I should confess here that I'm a smoker (or was then), and so were several other people in the technical area where I now worked. Needless to say, smoking was not allowed - except in an adjacent small control room. The senior guy there, though only in his thirties, behaved like a dictator, throwing his weight around like some military commander ordering a wayward platoon. There was no need for any of it. I soon learned that he had a highly dominant wife to whom he was at all times absurdly subservient.

Only one member of the department was spared his overbearing wrath. This was the 'second in command', a mellow, affable fifty-six year old guy named Joe who smoked constantly and resided almost permanently in the control room. He declared that he never smoked at home, but Bill (who seemed to know everything) confided in me one lunchtime that this was untrue and that he told his wife he never smoked at work. Bill also revealed that Joe had once been a senior director and had spent his time in the plush director's office entertaining his friends and getting drunk. Indeed, I got along well with Joe and he told me about it himself also (together with a few other things which I thought best to keep to myself). This, apparently, had happened five years earlier and it had been common knowledge at the time. Everyone had wondered how long he could get away with it.

Then one day, after several warnings, his fellow directors fired him. They forced him to sell his shares in the company in exchange for keeping him on at an agreed salary in some 'inconsequential' post.

Affable as he was, Joe frequently complained bitterly about his employers and their methods of running the company. And as time passed, Joe's bitterness increased. It was as if the directors were concocting some strategy to remove him altogether. Joe told me that the company had had their eye on him for the chop for a long time, because, he said, it was a vendetta, they had never been happy with the agreement to keep him on. It had been made in haste, he said, and they knew he was the best director of them all, and he was determined to do all he could to frustrate them.

There were eight of us working there, four smokers and four ex-smokers. One of the former, Fred, who rarely went in the control room - he must have been in his late forties - would now and then, when the chief left the area, discretely light a cigarette and take an occasional drag while keeping an eye on the door, ready to extinguish the cigarette should the chief return.

I'd been there just three months, and had begun to take the same liberty as Fred. Then one day I'd just lit a cigarette when the chief suddenly wheeled back in. It was a curious day because early on Joe had been cursing and puffing away more than usual in the control room. Apparently, he'd received some kind of an ultimatum, and was 'hell bent' (his words) on doing something about it. Then he'd gone very quiet for several hours and during a tea break he'd remained alone in the control room. This was odd because he was normally first out.

We'd only just returned from the break when I lit my cigarette - in fact I'd missed most of the break because of having to see Bill about my moving allowance, which is why I hadn't smoked during the break (Bill being a recent ex-smoker).

So the chief marched in and I quickly, surreptitiously, dropped my cigarette - there was no time or opportunity to bin it. He made straight for me, smiling and asking if I'd got everything sorted out with Bill. I told him "yes" just as the cigarette I'd meant to crush and conceal with my foot fell into a narrow slot between two badly fitted floor-panels.

At first I wondered what to do. Should I try to remove the panel? But a special tool was required, and it would have made a scene; I'd have been found out. Ten minutes went by. Then I noticed smoke rising from the gap. Surely the cigarette would have burnt out by now. I glanced around the room. Joe was standing, unusually, in the control room doorway across the area about thirty feet away looking anxious and hesitant. That was when the fire alarm went off.

The chief, who by then was attending to some equipment in a corner, leapt up and looking startled announced in his commander's voice that he could smell smoke and everybody out, "Pronto!" So we made an orderly exit into the car park. A few minutes later there was a small explosion and a puff of smoke and dust from the door. Then we heard the wail of a fire engine. As the engine appeared, so did the flames - and some flames!

Before the hoses were out, the place had become an inferno. What did they keep in there to go up like that, I thought? I glanced at Joe who stood beside me with his belongings in a bag beside him looking exceedingly smug and muttering under his breath something like, "Thar she blows."

"I wonder what caused it." I said, trying to sound astonished.

"Yes, I wonder," he replied with a smirk and blushing slightly, "but no matter," he added as I stared at him probably looking a bit bewildered (was it me who caused it or him?), "I've got my redundancy cheque and you're young enough to find something better… and sod the rest so far as I'm concerned."

Which of us was it? Or was it both of us together? I never dared to inquire what any investigation revealed, but I heard no more, and neither did he - until well after I'd moved back to London. We exchanged Christmas cards that year - he informed me that the company changed hands soon after the fire and the old directors must have gone broke because there was something wrong with the insurance, the policy for which he, Joe, had 'secured' as executive director without checking the small print (or was it so he could pocket an additional fee?). At any rate, no-one had thought to review it.

The following June, however, I met Bill again. He was being shown around where I then worked, a much bigger concern. He had the idea of getting a job there. His story was different again. Our eyes didn't meet even once while he told it, though he was unable to conceal an ironic grin that remained throughout.

According to Bill, a short-circuit had occurred in the transformer that supplied the premises and the burning smell had been the initial overheating prior to explosion. When I mentioned the insurance, he said it was true about the invalidated policy but because the fire had been caused by the transformer the responsibility fell to the supply firm's insurer and the payout had been extremely lucrative for everyone who held shares in the company. He had done quite well, he said, well enough to move to a comfortable house in London. It was lucky, he added furtively, that they'd had such an astute chief electrician who also just happened to be a big shareholder.

I thought it ungracious, at that moment, to point out that I knew well enough that the transformer was situated behind a high fence on the other side of the block from where the fire began. He got the job, by the way - so we then had a new head of personnel… and yours truly gained two promotions within six months…