“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” John Keats’s poetic view of autumn. I’m betting that “overcast with a wind that stings as it lances your body” wasn’t ever in the running.
I’m nursing a hangover, not a big one, but enough to make me think that the day has it in for me.
Parking spaces around Canary Wharf’s Aberdeen Quay are like gold dust. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but a broken-down Jaguar has blocked the entrance to the Avalon building’s underground car park and it doesn’t look like it will be moved any time soon. I manage to park my Mini five streets away. Fine rain seeps through my coat as I feed two hours’ worth of coins into the parking meter and start walking.
The traffic outside Avalon is at a standstill. I’m above the cars now, using one of four suspended bridges that fan out like snowy spider legs from the body of the tower. I stop to adjust my skirt and gaze up at the huge steel-and-glass building rising to a point somewhere in the low clouds above. On a sunny day, the tower sparkles greener than the emerald city; today it glowers.
A group of school children mill around the entrance, most of the little girls dry under brightly coloured umbrellas. The teacher’s clear voice echoes through the rain.
“No pushing!” she says.
It takes them an age to get through the revolving doors. I huddle in my coat until I can tag onto the back of the line. The rain breaches my collar and proceeds to send rivulets of water down my spine, moulding my clothes against my body. In the foyer the boys shake themselves like dogs, making the girls shriek in protest.
I show my pass to security and squelch down the hall to the media centre. This used to be a board room but they took out the table and put in banks of comfy sofas and a massive whiteboard; which always seems to have multi-coloured corporate buzzwords scrawled all over it. I manage to slip out of my coat, drape it over a chair and squeeze some of the moisture from my hair before the kids troop in.
“Miss Doyle?” says the teacher. She’s pushing fifty and her fuzzy chocolate brown hair springs up as she removes her plastic rain hat.
She gives a cold, damp handshake.
“Morning kids.” They turn at my unfamiliar voice; a couple of the girls giggle. No time to wonder why. “Take a seat and we’ll get started,” I say.
After a bit of muttering and shuffling, most flop on the sofas. Two end up on the floor. I face the kids, meeting their curious stares, my fingers clasped around an invisible bouquet to mask any trace of nerves. I mentally cue myself, three, two, one, and off we go.
“OK. My name is Veronica Doyle and I work for a division of Avalon. Avalon has taken over the running of the National Lottery from Camelot recently, and during this school trip you’ll get the chance to tour all our departments, ask loads of questions and get an idea of what working at Avalon is like from actual employees, like me. Also, the canteen staff are making burgers and chips today, just for you lot.”
I was expecting at least a few muted cheers. I get silence. This is a tough little crowd.
“What do you do then, make lottery tickets?” one of the boys on the floor asks.
“No, my job starts after people win.” This kid could be trouble, big and mouthy, but if I can get him on my side . . “What’s your name?”
“Liam,” he says. He can’t be more than twelve.
“Liam, what would you do if you won the lottery?”
“I’d buy stuff.” He rubs his little hands together.
“Stuff for you and your friends?”
“Nah, just stuff for me.” Liam’s back receives a couple of glares.
“What kind of stuff?”
“I’d buy a Ferrari, and loads of trainers and computer games and a private jet and an island and a distillery,” he says.
“A distillery?” The gentle throbbing in my head comes courtesy of a distillery. “Never mind. All this buying is going to get you into the papers.”
“So?” Here comes the attitude.
“They’ll want to know all about you and it’ll be fun to start with. But when they run out of facts they’ll make up stuff and suddenly it’s not fun anymore. Your friends will be happy to dish the dirt on you because you wouldn’t buy them anything. Complete strangers will send letters and turn up at your house begging for money. Scam artists and dodgy financial consultants will attempt to part you from your lottery winnings. It never stops. But I can help.”
“How?” the teacher butts in.
Have I laid it on too thick, I wonder, or is she filing me away for future reference?
“Our department is called Archimedes. Our job is to shield you from the situation I just described by turning you into a different person. We give you a new name, new address.”
“New face?” Liam asks. Clearly the kid’s seen too many spy movies.
“Only in very special cases.”
“Ooohhh,” says Liam. “Cool.”
“Wicked cool,” I say, hoping my slang hasn’t passed its sell-by date.
But Liam isn’t finished.
“How can you work for two companies at the same time?”
I get this question more and more now.
“I don’t,” I say. “Think of me as, as a footballer; the manager changes from time to time but the players stay the same.”
“You can’t play football,” Liam sneers. “You’re a girl.”
“Moving on,” I say, shaking my head at the teacher who is about to come down on Liam like a ton of bricks. “The reason I’m talking to you this morning is because I have an appointment with some recent winners in,” I glance at my watch, “roughly half an hour. My boss asked me to meet with you first.”
“What do you and the winners talk about?” the teacher—I never got her name—seems to be using this as her personal Q&A.
“I offer them our services.” I answer, talking to the kids. “We call these pitch meetings.”
A number of hands shoot up and suddenly it’s a press conference. I point at the boy whose hand went up first.
“Tall lad at the back, what’s your name?”
“What’s your question, Jack?”
“How much do you have to win to get protection?”
“Ten million plus.” His eyes widen. Another hand shoots up, a girl this time.
“I’m Amanda, Miss. Is your job fun?”
“Oh yeah,” I can’t help grinning, “I love my job. The best part is helping the winners do what they’ve always wanted.”
“Sort of like Jim’ll Fix It?” says the teacher, referencing an old TV show that none of these kids will have heard of. That triggers a bunch of questions that have nothing to do with my job.
I catch the teacher’s eye and tap my watch, mouthing “I should go.”
“Class, Miss Doyle has to leave us now.”
“Can we come with you and meet the millionaires?” Liam and Jack plead simultaneously, jumping up and down.
“Sorry boys. Someone will be in to start your tour shortly.”
Thankfully, nobody asked which parts of the job are my least favorite. Those would be pitching to potential clients and talking to school kids.
pause briefly in the foyer to check out the ‘New Arrivals at Avalon’ board. It’s best that we don’t date the competition and this gives me a good look at who to avoid.
As I make my way to reception, pockets of gawking tourists mill around, taking pictures of the glitzy interior before their tour starts. Why on earth do they come all the way out here when there are better sights to see? Buckingham Palace or St. Paul’s for instance. Or The London Eye. Or, for those wannabe James Bonds, the MI6 sandcastle, up the Thames at Vauxhall.
The receptionist, clad in dove grey and with airbrushed makeup, studies the pass I just handed her, scans the little barcode, and gets a satisfying “beep” in return.
“I will tell them you are here. You may use the lift at the end.” Her voice is soulless.
I miss the old lot—they had a buxom rosy-cheeked woman named Stephanie who called you “me duck” and never stopped smiling. The new boys—Avalon—have a different woman at the desk each time and they have faux names: Sapphire, Pearl, and—I glance at the girl’s name tag—Amethyst.
“No thanks, I need to stretch my legs. Does my pass still work for the back stairs?”
She creases her makeup in an attempt to recover the answer.
“Never mind,” I say. “Let’s try it and see.”
Avoiding the tour group again, I cross to the corner. I blew off my workout this morning so ten flights of stairs is a fair substitute.
Since my last visit they’ve stuck a fake potted palm in front of the door. I part the plastic fronds and stick my pass in the reader. There’s a pause followed by a muted clunk, and the door sighs open.
Jogging up the stairs, I review last night’s disastrous date. My colleague Beth fixed me up with a banker. We met at a place-to-be-seen wine bar and he turned out to be a complete plonker. At the end of the evening, he was so drunk he couldn’t tell the turbaned taxi driver his address. We drove around for hours in a coriander fug. Not at all keen on taking him back to my place, I threw a pretend wobbly about 50 yards from my flat and stumbled off into the night. He didn’t come after me.
I’m about to pitch our services to a pair of lottery winners waiting in the pyramid suite, nineteen floors above. By some architectural design fluke, the stairs are on the outside for the upper ten floors of our building. It’s an inside-out lighthouse. The first fire drill was legendary: some of the less lurid stories involve staff having to take Dramamine before using the stairs, others have people throwing up over the side on the way down.
According to the data Avalon e-mailed us, this couple– Marvin and Lydia Potts-have won £10 million, which is good because I’m their tenth appointment of the morning. Beth, my co-worker, would say that’s a sign. I’m just glad I didn’t draw position number twenty.
Avalon outbid Camelot for the contract to run the lottery. They’ve stuck with the Arthurian theme, which is a smart PR move. Avalon inherited us and so far they haven’t bothered us too much. Now if they could just develop a personality or even a pulse.
At the halfway point a tide of Aramis wafts down the stairs; the guy trailing in its wake wears Armani and a hangdog expression. He was one of the ‘slickies’ on the ‘New Arrivals board’ downstairs. Part of the next intake of whiz kids at Oxford and Oxford, public relations firm of the rich and infamous. If I had a choice I wouldn’t prod him with a ten-foot pole, but we’re blocking each other’s paths.
“You’re Jon Perkins,” I say, looking at him. From this angle I can see right up his nose. He looks down it at me while he tries to remember my name. Finally he says, “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
In your dreams mate, in your dreams.
“I’m Nikki Doyle,” I say, my eyes watering from his aftershave.
“Are you next in the arena?” Slick man, oily words. I wonder if I’ll have time to nip home for a quick shower before going into the office.
“Are they that bad?”
“The femme didn’t say a word,” says Perkins. He’s younger than me but his speech would do my granddad proud. “The breadwinner turned me down flat,” he continues. “They won’t be taking advantage of our services. Their loss.”
“If you’re next then you must be with that Archimedes lot.” He looks at me like an extra zero suddenly spotted on a cheque. “My brother was at University with the boss of your little outfit.”
“How nice for him.”
During the exchange I’ve been edging around him and now I’m on the upward stair I can’t resist a dig. “I’ve got more chance of landing this couple than you.”
“Pray tell why?” he says.
“Because,” (I leave off the “you patronizing little git,”) “we’re not desperate to sign them up.”
His face closes down, and he and his expensive tailoring stride down the stairs.
“Oh, and for a PR guy your language isn’t very ‘street,’” I call after him.
“Fuck you,” floats back up to me.
I reach the tenth floor without seeing anyone else and nip into the ladies to do a quick makeup check before the meeting. Good job too. My so-called waterproof mascara is all over my face. Never mind panda eyes, more like panda cheeks. No wonder those kids were staring at me.
There’s a crash from the stall at the far end. I whirl around as Madelaine, Avalon’s Guest Executive Services, person emerges.
“Oh, did I make you jump?” she asks.
Loud noises never used to bother me. I grew up around shotguns—it’s a countryside thing. But last summer I walked in on a bank robbery. Since then I’ve been in therapy and though we’re making progress, unexpected bangs still tend to startle me.
“No,” I lie, balling into my fist the mascara-smeared tissue I just used. With my back to her, I pull in a breath and hold it for a count of ten, letting the air out slowly through my nose.
Madelaine and I have little in common apart from being blonde. I am neither frosty nor Swedish and while I think that PC is something you use to connect to the Internet, Madelaine has less tact than I do.
“I don’t know why you’re still milking the victim routine,” she says. “That robbery was, what, six months ago? Old news.”
“Have you ever looked down the barrels of a sawed-off shotgun?”
“No.” Madelaine busies herself washing her hands.
“Ever seen a man shot dead in front of you?” I want to ask as she dries her hands and checks her lipstick, running her tongue over her pearly teeth.
We’ve had culture clashes like this before. For a Swede she’s very Teutonic and although she’s picked up most of the slang of London she just observes life, she doesn’t empathize with it. Even Fred, our rumpled resident office Casanova, calls her “the ice maiden” and I guess he should know.
“Where’s Freddie?” she asks, following me into the corridor and over to the lift.
I sense a slight thaw.
Paula Longhurst is an English transplant to Salt Lake City, Utah. She has had many jobs, including civil servant and IT office manager but her twin passions are reading and writing. Since 2006 she has combined these two in her work as a bookseller at The King’s English Bookshop (where she’ll be happy to sell you a good twisty mystery or two). She has also independently published four novels and one novella through Open Flame Press (in conjunction with Ingram Spark) they are: Case of Espionage (2017), Shot of Treason (2018), Robust Revenge (2019) Rollover (2020) and Thunderball (2021)
When not working as a bookseller she pays it forward helping up-and-coming writers however she can. Her YouTube channel (englishrosesloverain) is a plethora of book reviews along with some Ingram Spark tutorials and how-tos for independent authors and in 2019 she taught a class on ‘Generating the Perfect Murder Mystery’ at the local First Pages Writer’s Conference in Salt Lake City. She is also a member of the League of Utah Writers’ Usual Suspects Chapter.
Paula currently lives in Salt Lake City, with husband Chris and Daisy the cat.
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