The silence was thick as suet. Not even a clock ticked in the featureless reception room. I glanced at the watch of the floppy-haired man in the grey suit to my left. We’d been there for over an hour. The blonde woman to my right, power-dressed in navy pin-stripe and American footballer’s shoulder pads, started to drum her manicured fingernails on the papers on her lap. Heads snapped in her direction and she clamped her other hand on top to still the impatient impulse.
At the far end of the room there was a door marked STANLEY HIGHSHORE. It opened and a harassed-looking woman in her mid-thirties stepped into the room
‘I’m so sorry you’ve been kept waiting. We have a – er – situation here … beyond our control. I’m unable at this stage to tell you how much longer you will have to wait. If you would prefer to leave now, we will contact you later to arrange another interview date.’ She glanced over her shoulder. ‘Yes. Sorry. Thank you,’ she muttered and scuttled back through the door, pulling it closed behind her.
Several people shuffled to their feet, murmuring things under their breath that I couldn’t catch but I suspected were along the lines of ‘Oh shite. Another build-up to Nowheresville.’
That left four of us – the hard core. I was willing to bet that the other three were thinking it might be a set-up to see how we’d react under pressure, and they were damn sure they weren’t going to crack. No one was about to initiate any conversation.
As for me, a JCB couldn’t have prised me the black-leather tubular-steel contraption I was sitting on. It wasn’t that I was desperate for the job, though ‘BBC Documentary Researcher’ did have a nice ring to it; or even that I had nothing better to do – though that was not entirely untrue. The real truth is that I was only there to get the dole off my back, on the strength of a CV that was 98 per cent fiction. Isn’t everybody’s? But that woman had seemed panicky rather than stressed, and I never could resist a whiff of drama.
The minutes dragged sluggishly onwards. Just when I had decided that this was more boring than interesting and I couldn’t possibly be so sad as to carry on sitting there, the door opened again and Ms Very Nervous reappeared. She seemed surprised to see us still there, and not particularly pleased.
‘Look. I’m really sorry, but there’s no way the interviews are going to take place today. I’ll have to ask you to leave now. We’ll be in touch.’
She was still jittery, but now exasperation blended with the nerves. Whatever she was having to deal with, she didn’t need a bunch of stubborn desperadoes sitting sullen and mute in the reception room to add to her stress. She swivelled and returned to the inner sanctum.
We unpeeled ourselves from the black leather and made for the door. But I had a plan. I was first to reach the exit when one of the men cleared his throat: ‘Excuse me. You’ve dropped your keys under your chair.’
‘Oh, silly me,’ I simpered, and held the door open as they filed through. I ambled over to my chair, picking up the keys and giving Applicants One, Two and Three time to get to the end of the corridor and into the lift.
Then I went straight to the inner door and yanked it open. That was as far as my plan went. I was winging it – my usual approach to life and one which my mother never tired of telling me would be my undoing. Ms Very Nervous was over by the floor-to-ceiling window, biting at a finger nail. There was a suited BBC executive type perched on the massive rosewood desk, his collar and tie askew. A black guy, smart but casual in black jeans and shirt, was sitting on a bowl-shaped chair with his head in his hands.
Two things struck me about the fourth person in the room. The first was that I recognised him, though not by his face, which I’d never seen before. The other was that he was stark naked and up a ladder. The media world knew him as Stanley Highshore – top ranking BBC executive producer and spouse of Tory MP, Catherine Highshore. I knew him from another world. A world in which he was known as Stapled Stan. I’d better explain.
I used to work in and S&M bar called the Torture Palace. You know how it is with bar staff. Well, it’s no different in a bar filled with people who were leather-clad, pierced, studded, masked and tattooed. I knew all the regulars on the Scene and enjoyed a reputation as a good listener, a good laugh and a bit of a fixer. Stapled Stan was a regular, and no more outrageous than most. The fact that he had a very straight alter ego was also not unusual.
I stepped further into the room. Stan was not only starkers up a ladder. His penis, stapled several times along its not insignificant length, was held taut by a chain looped through the staples. At the end was a large brass padlock. The other end of the chain rose above Stan’s head and was hooked over the corner of a picture frame, from which a photo of Stan grinned out, shaking hands with the Queen Mother.
The thought of the gorefest that would result if Stan jumped from the ladder would certainly account for the expressions of horror on the faces of the others, now also registering shock at my unexpected eruption into the scene.
Before they had a chance to compose themselves, I breezed into the room and straight to the foot of the ladder.
‘Oh, come off it, Stan. You and I both know you’re not going to jump. You’re doing the classic submissive thing of exerting passive power. Now come off that fucking ladder and let’s talk.’
I didn’t think the others could have looked more shocked than they already did, but somehow my little outburst achieved that. Stan, however, looked long and hard at me before giving a lopsided grin and saying, ‘Hi, Jen.’
He reached up and unhooked the chain from the frame. A little shudder went through the room. Then he looked pointedly at the others.
‘Look, I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘but Mr Highshore and I have some things to sort out. As you can see. I think it would be better if you left.’
‘Now wait a moment,’ expostulated the suit. ‘You can’t just walk in here and expect …’
‘Please, Tony …’ whined a voice from somewhere near the ceiling.
We all looked up but it seemed Stan wasn’t willing to say any more.
There was a pause while each of them weighed up the situation. A mixture of emotions played across their faces. I could see ‘Who the fuck does she think she is?’ in there, as well as relief that an edge had been taken off the horror. But relief won the day. Ultimately, they were only too happy to let someone else take responsibility. They were all way out of their depth.
The Suit couldn’t quite manage to leave without one last attempt to assert himself. ‘Who exactly are you?’ he inquired loftily, as though he had to deal with this sort of thing on a regular basis.
‘I’m a personal friend of Mr Highshore, and I’m also the person who can help to sort out this mess’, I replied sweetly.
The black guy addressed a point somewhere to the left of Stan’s shoulder. ‘Is that OK with you, Stanley?’ he asked. I swear I could see his fingers crossed behind his back.
Stan nodded gloomily.
They filed to the door. The woman hesitated at the last moment. ‘If you need me, Mr Highshore, you know where I am,’ she breathed, her voice catching.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Stan came down from his perch and started putting on his clothes, which were neatly folded on a dark swivel chair.
‘Susie Marchant folded them,’ he said, shaking his head in amazement. ‘There I was, up a fucking ladder, about to rip my cock to shreds, and she folded my clothes for me. Can you believe it?’
‘Stan’, I said. ‘We really do have to talk.’