One hour later: Things seem to be getting slowly back to normal, sure it’s been a bit of a crazy week for everyone but already you can sense the tension steadily draining away from the office: this is what I’m thinking as I sit in the smoking room with a contented grin on my face, holding my third cigarette of the afternoon. Michael’s gone… his replacement’s a pussy cat… my job is safe… and the ridiculous sexual harassment charge is already, I’m hoping, half resolved. On reflection, I don’t actually think that I made such a bad a job of my damage limitation exercise with Elaine from the cookery project; I mean, the asking her out for lunch thing was a little foolish, admittedly, but I think I might have redeemed myself with the ‘I’m practically married’ bit. One down one to go.
Of course, my footwork is going to have to be a little fancier if I’m to emerge from my impending summit meeting with the lovely Louise with my balls intact, but I feel lucky today; the winds have changed direction and my sails are once more full of air. My plan is this: I’m going to drag Louise into a meeting room again and lay down the law this time. With Michael Dean now history I’m going to let her know exactly who’s boss. I’m going to tell in her no uncertain terms to cut out the moods and the silences and I’m going to order her to grow up and stop making my life a misery. She won’t know what’s hit her. At first sight this approach may seem a little reckless to you, but let me assure you I know what I’m doing. Don’t forget who I used to be. I didn’t get to make my Citizen Kane without bawling out a few actors over of the years. Actually, this could be quite entertaining…
I wait until gone four before I set things into motion. Louise is sitting at her desk pretending to work when I speak: “Louise,” I say. “Are you busy at the moment?”
Because I’m in the privileged position of running this project I know for a fact that she isn’t busy; moreover, Louise knows for a fact that I know for a fact that she isn’t busy.
“Yes, I am rather,” she says in a voice that for once seems not too unpleasant.
“Well I’d like a word all the same if you don’t mind,” I say assertively.
Louise stretches in her chair and looks at her watch. “Well… I’ve got this article to finish,” she murmurs, gesturing towards her computer screen. Then she says, hesitantly: “We could meet up after work if you like.”
6:15 p.m.: I’m sitting at a table in the Ship with Louise. Louise is wearing a rather fetching tight grey T-shirt that shows off her ample bosom to good effect; she’s holding a glass of white wine in her hand – I’m, of course, sticking to lager. This has been a real day of surprises but nothing could have prepared me for this moment. Louise is actually being quite civil – even though I can see that it’s still a strain for her: she’s smiling at the right moments, looking serious whenever necessary, even laughing a little from time to time. Naturally, there has to be a reason for her sudden dramatic change of heart and this is it: Louise is yet to have her fifteen minutes of reassurance with Margaret Blackmore and she’s probably already decided that she needs as many allies as she can get right now. I could be wrong, but this is my interpretation of events; it’s certainly what I would be doing myself if I were in her shoes.
Down to business: “Louise,” I announce. “I think you probably know why I wanted to speak to you again.”
“Yes,” she says simply.
I take a drag on my cigarette for dramatic effect: “I think peace is long overdue… don’t you? Whether you like it or not, we’ve got to find a way of working together.”
Louise nods her head in agreement.
“Like, I said when we spoke last week, we’ve just got to be more professional…”
“I couldn’t agree more,” says Louise.
In actual fact, Louise spends the next ten minutes doing nothing but not agreeing more: she agrees that it’s stupid for us to be at loggerheads all the time, she agrees that we’ve got to show the rest of our team a good example or anarchy will prevail, she agrees that I’m not such a bad person to work for nor she to work with, she agrees that if we got to know each other a little better we could probably become quite good pals, she agrees that we’re not so different to one another. I’d never imagined she could be so agreeable.
It is in the midst of this ocean of acquiescence that I make my final gambit. I use the bishop that has been occupying the square in the top left hand corner of the board and place Louise in a sneaky check. By now we’ve been sitting in the pub together like old friends for more than an hour and the place is beginning to fill up with people. “There’s just one more thing…” I say to Louise, whose easy smile seems to me to be becoming less and less forced with every passing moment.
“Oh?” she asks.
“Well… I just want to say… well… sorry…”
“Oh?” she says again.
“Yeah… I’m sorry if I spooked you a little last week at Sarah from personnel’s leaving do. In my clumsy way I was just trying to make things better.”
“Oh… you mean…”
Louise shrugs and flashes her teeth at me sweetly, one assumes: I’m suddenly struck by the thought that I’ve seen better looking Grand National winners. “Oh, John,” she says chirpily. “It’s not a problem… I was probably overreacting a little myself. Don’t worry about it… It’s nothing.”
“But you seemed insulted at the time.”
“Hmm… yes, I might have done… I’d had rather too much to drink myself. Don’t worry about it – I’ve forgotten all about it…”
At around half seven Dave from accounts enters the pub. At first he looks a little shocked at seeing Louise and I sitting together but he’s soon readjusting himself, taking a seat next to Louise, shooting lecherous looks at her from the corner of his eye which he never for a moment imagines that Louise can see. For a while there is a distinct possibility that he might spoil things for me but luckily Louise finishes her drink and tells us that she’s got someone to meet at seven-thirty. Before she leaves she shakes my hand solemnly and lets me know how much she appreciates my talking to her and that she’s glad we’ve sorted things out. She’s lying, of course, but this is the way that it should be.
I watch that body of hers exit and click into celebration mode. I’m still wearing my posh suit and can’t help feeling a little like James Bond. Today I’ve been sorting out the baddies one by one, my secret mission has been an overwhelming success. I buy Dave a drink and then another. I tell him about my performance today, about how I’ve sorted out Margaret Blackmore, about how I’ve sorted out Elaine the designer, about how I’ve sorted out Louise. I tell him out I’m off the hook with the harassment charge. I don’t notice it until later but Dave seems to have trouble sharing my enthusiasm. Like Louise, he’s another who is yet to receive the Margaret Blackmore reassurance treatment and has probably got his own things to worry about.