A sickening tale set in the food industry.
Will our hero's womanising sicken female readers?
Or will women's attempts to put him under the thumb sicken the men?
Washpond impersonated a parrot. He flapped his arms, bounced up and down on his perch, and squawked: ‘Decisions! Decisions! I don’t have time for decisions.’
Simon Harcourt, aged twenty seven, discreetly adjusted his Porsche cuff links and relaxed in the leather chair. He nodded in agreement. No-one had time for one of Washpond’s decisions. ‘Leave them to me, Henry.’
‘I’m the head of an international company,’ persisted Washpond. ‘I can’t make decisions as well. Richard Branston and Alan Sugar don’t have this trouble.’
Simon’s voice was reassuring and urbane. ‘Don’t worry, Henry. I’ll find out.’
No-one knew why Washponds was the most successful food company in Britain. Their rivals didn’t know; the City experts didn’t know; the board of the company itself didn’t know; and of all the people who didn’t know, the man who knew least was Henry Washpond.
Simon rose and headed for the door.
‘Come back!’ screeched his boss, leaping to his feet. ‘Look at this. Look at it!’
Simon returned to the comfortable chair, rotated the offered baked bean can, and frowned. ‘I can’t see anything wrong.’
‘Can’t see what’s wrong? A moron can see what’s wrong! I can see what’s wrong. Look at the product title.’
‘Three words, correctly spelt.’
‘It’s supposed to say Low Fat Beans,’ declared Washpond.
‘Thousands of customers have complained they don’t work.’
‘I’ll organise a product recall, printing of new labels, and a standard letter for the complaints department,’ said Simon.
‘I thought you were going.’
‘Indeed I am. Thank you, Henry.’
‘Go on then.’
Simon closed the walnut door behind him, and crossed the room to his desk. He quickly summed up what needed to be done to eliminate the superfluous letter from the label, and spent the morning on the phone.
‘Yes, that’s right. Print three hundred thousand labels by tomorrow morning… I know… Yes, terrible. Quite right, they’ll be exhausted… Well, perhaps some of them might die. Don’t worry; I’ll take the responsibility… Yes, I’ll put it in writing… Good. Thank you so very much.’
And: ‘Henry Washpond wants a product recall with a difference. We’ll deliver three hundred thousand replacement cans tomorrow, and pick up the recalled ones at the same time… Yes, it is imaginative… Well, yes, possibly lunatic. But if the factories work through the night… Of course, pay double time… Yes. Thank you so much.’
- 1 -
Cathy, the Finance Director’s PA, appeared at the side of his desk. ‘Exciting, isn’t it? Did Mr Washpond really give all those instructions?’
‘Henry doesn’t always find it easy to express what he wants. Nevertheless, I manage to extrapolate.’
‘Oh Simon, you’re so clever. And so confident. I admire you, because you’re so sure of being right.’
He glanced at Cathy, amused at her generous interpretation. ‘I’m not sure at all. It may go horribly wrong. One just has a go; does one’s best.’ Simon had indeed done his best, successfully organising the replacement of all the cans overnight.
‘I didn’t ask whether you had a good weekend,’ said Cathy.
‘Brilliant, thank you.’
‘Oh lovely!’ she cried, clasping her hands. Simon gave one of his naturally rugged smiles. It was important to Cathy that her work friends had good weekends, nice holidays, and lovely lunches. On the other hand, she didn’t expect anyone to take the same interest in her, and was effusively grateful when they did. ‘The Finance Director would like to see you, if you have time,’ she said.
‘If the Finance Director demands to see me, then I shall have time.’ He tidied away the single piece of paper from the work surface, and pocketed his Yves Saint Laurent pen. He smiled at Cathy. ‘Julia probably wants to bully me into getting her a cappuccino.’
Cathy became serious, and touched his arm. ‘I could always go for you. It’s not fair that you don’t have your own secretary.’
‘You’re fabulously kind,’ he said, smiling as he headed for her boss’s office; but Simon’s smile was nothing to that of Julia Bunting.
Her smile dazzled, enchanted and disarmed. Already a beautiful woman, when she smiled, she became a film star at an Oscar ceremony. After the intial greeting, the smile dimmed slightly while he walked across the spacious office to a luxurious chair.
Simon sat down, leaned back against the soft leather, and rested one ankle on a knee, his habitual pose. Julia’s smile intensified again, as though she was amused.
‘I feel privileged by your invitation,’ he said. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘When you came in, I didn’t invite you to sit down.’
‘I wouldn’t waste a director’s time by waiting.’
‘But if I’m sending you for coffee, your sitting down would be a waste of my time.’ She sat up straight, perched on the edge of her seat, while he lounged in her visitor’s chair.
‘You have something important to talk about,’ asserted Simon. ‘I could tell from Cathy’s manner.’
- 2 -
The smile faded briefly. ‘I’m very fond of Cathy. If you mistreat her, you’ll be for it.’ The smile returned. ‘Message taken?’
‘Mistreat Cathy? I’m not for it: I’m against it. Was that what you wanted to discuss?’
‘No, of course not. Listen, I’d like to understand something.’
‘While working for Washponds? Isn’t that rather ambitious?’
‘Simon, explain to me what your role is. What are you doing for Henry Washpond? What’s the secret?’
‘Julia, that is the secret. He hasn’t told me what I’m supposed to be doing. I joined with a six month contract as an IT specialist. Then he decided I should sit outside his office, help him think through problems and act as his gofer.’
‘Why would he want an IT adviser? How did he even meet you?’ Her frown was as irresistible as her smile.
‘As you must be aware, Washponds Foods had a crisis earlier this year. Basically, it proved easy to get via the internet onto the payroll system. A friend in your IT department called me in to sort out the problem, which I did.’
‘Just like that. I admire your modesty, Simon.’
He laughed, noticing her eyes were a uniform mid blue, not the normal blotchy mix of greys. ‘I could describe my encryption algorithm at great length, Julia, but you were pleading to be told something you could understand. Do you have a maths degree?’
She folded her arms. ‘A first at Queens College, Cambridge.’
‘Not bad. Nearly as prestigious as my first at Imperial College, London.’
‘While the project was under way, Henry made me sit with the secretaries outside his office, so he could be in hourly touch with progress. And delay it. Once the payroll problem was cured, Henry started consulting me about other decisions, and refused to let me move back to the computer department.’ Simon smoothed a slight crease in his shirt sleeve.
Julia cocked her head, narrowed her eyes, and said briskly: ‘You’ve attended three board meetings.’
‘Correct. That’s the thing about mathematicians: we can count.’
She laughed. ‘When was the last time you were sacked?’
‘Next Friday. Henry’s done nothing about renewing my contract.’
Julia was aghast. ‘I’ll make sure it happens. Do you want a rate increase?’
‘Most of all, I’d like to return to a role developing IT systems.’
‘No, Simon. You’re the sensible one at the board table. Apart from me, that is. Henry needs you. We need you.’
- 3 -
Simon laughed again. ‘The other directors eye me suspiciously, wishing I’d go away.’
‘Exactly. That’s why I need you.’ Her strange, bright eyes pleaded with him, whether seriously or in jest he couldn’t tell. ‘Simon, you do want to work with me, don’t you?’
He clung to the arms of his chair. He often dreamed of Julia, but rarely of working with her. He recovered his balance. ‘You aren’t asking me to become an accountant?’
She sighed theatrically. ‘Thank you for explaining your position. You may go now. I have no further use for you.’
He rose slowly, wondering how old Julia was. She looked early thirties; might possibly be thirty five. Astonishingly young to become a director on the main board. As he opened the door, Julia called: ‘Simon,’ and he stopped. ‘Are you still here?’ She turned the back of one hand towards him and flicked it in dismissal. He chuckled and walked back towards his telephone in the outer office.
He was entertained by Julia’s questions about his role. He had plans to resolve his unsatisfactory work situation. On the other hand, he had no plans for a liaison with her secretary Cathy, although he might consider the possibility now Julia had raised it. The truth was, he’d been wondering about his relationships with women. There were rather too many; even a mathematician couldn’t count them, and the ladies lacked a little in refinement and delicacy. There was undoubtedly some potential for improvement in that area of his life.
His phone rang before he could call the transport manager about shipping out three hundred thousand cans of beans. ‘Hello Simon, this is Veronica Baggott, Mr Washpond’s secretary.’ She was barely ten paces away, and he could hear her without the phone. ‘Mr Washpond has asked if you would kindly join him in his office.’
Simon entered without knocking, as usual. ‘Hi Henry,’ he said. ‘Would you like an update on the product recall?’
Washpond appeared not to hear. ‘That corrosive chemist!’ he screamed. ‘That frogmouthed pharmacist! That pusillanimous poltroon! I’ll kill him, do you hear? I’ll kill him!’
‘Calm down, Henry. What’s friend Vladimir MacBean done now?’
‘Nothing new, but I can’t stand him! What’s more, he’s due to come up to propose two new products. I’m not leaving my idiot managers to decide whether to launch them. I insist on tasting them myself.’
‘Quite right, Henry. While you’re doing that, I’ll go and ring the transport manager about the product recall.’
‘Not now, not now, there are other pebbles to fry. I need you in here. I can’t face that chemical spillage of a man on my own.’
‘OK, Henry. Not sure I can add much.’
‘You never do. Sit there, that’s all.’
‘Of course, Henry.’
- 4 -
‘Don’t just sit there. Go and tell that Baggott woman to call him up.’
Simon stepped outside and smiled at the chief executive’s secretary. Ten years before, Washpond had found her really attractive in her interview suit. The Tibetan shawl and plaits were less flattering. She looked up eagerly at Simon. ‘A fine young man like you shouldn’t have to put up with Washpond’s hassle,’ she said. ‘Would you like a yak-extract anti-stress potion, Simon?’
He declined tactfully, not knowing where in the yak it had been extracted from, and asked her to call Vladimir MacBean.
Veronica’s professional secretary voice oozed like treacle pouring over the edge of the desk. ‘Nothing would be a greater pleasure than to do as you ask, Simon,’ she gushed, keying a number. Then she snapped: ‘You, MacBean! Get up here immediately. Washpond wants you.’
Simon checked that the stripes on his shirt were perfectly vertical, and headed back into Washpond’s office, averting his eyes from the pictures of fish fingers and burgers which adorned the wall.
- 5 -