‘And what,’ Christian asked, prodding the diary, ‘do you propose doing this afternoon?’
The diary had come to realise, over the past forty-nine and a half weeks, that rhetorical questions best remain unanswered. But then it didn’t need to cover its tracks like Jane.
‘I’ve found it’s good policy to leave a substantial chunk of time for Stobb End.’ And there were now only two and a half blank rectangles before Thursday, which happened to be chock-a-block with pencilled hieroglyphs.
‘It’s bloody well time it was off the books. This arse-brained scheme of yours for wading headfirst into the bloody country like a bull at a bloody watzit has fallen on its jacksie.’ Christian banged his fist on the open page. ‘It won’t do, you know.’ Knowing, thought the diary, wasn’t caring. Midnight 31/12 marked the end of its shift. ‘And what the hell’s going on on Thursday, for God’s sake? All these bloody arrows – what the hell’s that all about? If it’s definite it should be down in black and white.’
Jane picked up the nearest pen, which happened to be blue but would do well enough, because it was definite all right. Thursday was G-Day. G-Early-Morning, in fact. She made a note of it under the twelve pencilled beaks and black dot eyes.
He scowled. ‘GEM? What the hell’s that all about?’ If he came out with that many more times she’d have it filed under FAQs.
‘Oh, come off it, Christian. You and your -’ she tapped him playfully on the arm. It was either that or a knee in the - ‘little joke. You know full well what it’s all about.’ And at the EOD it was all about what the emperor wore when his new clothes were in the wash. And her Wos Boss wasn’t going to be the one to ask what ACRONYM stood for, not in a my, or even ten million. As long as she followed it up pdq, before Christian had time to think. Some time in the next ten minutes would do. During which time Roy came back from his first ATV. Without, from the look on his face, getting a sale, not even an OIRO.
It was only because she was intent on un-noticing Roy that she saw Christian wasn’t scowling any more. Was, in fact, almost smiling as he told Roy he was pleased to see him. Which – and it would have been so nice to have exchanged what’s-going-on looks with Roy - must be a first.
‘Now we’re all here – Jane, pop through the back and bring Tony in – we can have a get-together.’
What was this, the office party? she and Roy might have flashed to each other, back in the old days of last week. She flattened the page in her diary and started going over the G in felt tip.
‘Nip and fetch Tony, Jane.’
But Jane was half way along the E.
‘Roy, give Tony the wink.’
Which less than a week ago, thought Roy, would have made Jane’s eyebrows rise, both together, in that way they did when they swapped aye-aye glances, back in the old days.
‘Then I’ll let you all in on this little plan of mine.’
‘Does it involve mugs?’ said Roy, or just the four of us, because he might as well go through and fetch Tony and the mid-morning shot of caffeine and get it over with. Then he could get out of the office and stop not looking at Jane not looking at him.
‘This,’ said Christian, ‘isn’t the time for bloody coffee. Tony!’ and, five yells later, the door opened.
‘Kettle’s on,’ said Tony. ‘I thought -’ you must want it at 9.15 in case we’re in liquidation at half past ten.
God give me strength, muttered Christian, elbowing the potted tinsel-tree along as he lowered himself onto the front desk. No wonder everything’s fucked. Skewered at the top of the wire trunk, the seen-it-all fairy shook her wand in no great wonderment as glitter glided down to land where once had sprouted hair.
‘What we need,’ said Christian, ‘and I’ve given this a lot of thought, is something big.’ He settled himself more squarely onto the desk. ‘Something that’ll bring the punters in. Not that anyone’s saying houses aren’t still selling.’
And no-one was. Not Roy, trying to decipher – not easy at ten paces - what Jane had been so intent on writing. Not Jane, putting the cap back on the felt tip, because she really needed orange to go over the pencilled beaks and – she couldn’t be certain from this distance - there might still be an orange in the pen tub on Roy’s desk. Not Tony, listening for the kettle – he wasn’t sure, not with the door closed – because you couldn’t rely on it to switch off nowadays, it might just keep on and on until it boiled dry.
‘So, that’s pretty much it, in a nutshell. Not bad, eh?’ Christian folded his arms and beamed at them. ‘Might just do the trick.’
Here and there, between the spread-combed strands, a speck of magic dust caught the light.
‘Of course, there are a few fine points to be ironed out, like who’s going to actually stand there all day doing it.’
Roy looked at Tony – anyway, Jane was still engrossed in whatever it was she’d been writing – but it was difficult to read anything into his expression. Apart from undiluted panic, that is.
‘I think -’ Christian drummed his fingers ‘- it should be Jane.’ He slapped his hand on the desk top. The fairy didn’t move a muscle. ‘Yes. Jane – board!’
She flinched. ‘Well -’ no more than usual, when the Wos Boss was unloading another Not Bad Plan. Which this time seemed to involve -
‘Jane, standing there in full view, maybe in one of those cutesy Santa girl suits... short little skirt, with fur round her -’
‘Hold it right there, Christian. No way -’
‘You’ll be the one holding it, love, so to speak. I can see you now... high-heeled boots, thick leather belt with a big shiny buckle, cheeky little cap and a furry pom-pom dangling -’
‘Christian, let’s get one thing straight. Whatever you have in mind -’ and she really wasn’t in any doubt, just a bit hazy about one or two details, like – ‘What the heck is this about?’
‘Well, it’s no good just sticking a board up on its own, no-one’ll give it a second glance. Whereas when you’re holding it, dressed, as I say, in -’
‘Yes, I think we get the picture,’ said Roy. He certainly did, though Tony’s sights were on the door to the back room. Probably waiting to make his escape – well, no-one was going anywhere till a few things were made clear, like – ‘What’s this board, where’s it going to be and – why? Because I don’t think that Jane should have to -’
‘Because Jane,’ said Jane, ‘isn’t.’ And Roy needn’t think she needed his help, though it had, she supposed, been nice of him. Nice-ish, anyway.
Christian sighed. It was a big sigh, almost desk rattling, though it was his heaving himself upright that knocked the fairy askew. Bloody women. He reached up and rammed the centre spike further up its cardboard skirt.
‘Shut up, you bunch of whingers, and listen. What’s going to happen is...’ they, the great house-buying public, were going to see Jane – okay, they’d talk about the get-up later – and read her board as they drove past – yeah, all right, she was going to have to be some place where the traffic slowed down, like... a roundabout, good idea, Tony - and then they’d drop by, or, better still, phone – because one of them, say Tony, could look into getting one of those numbers where the firm gets a cut - to make an appointment to view – no, not “or a free valuation,” Tony, God knows Up Yours had enough bloody houses on the books - and then they’d be entered in the grand prize draw, free, gratis and for nothing – which might well be the case, because if the winner wished to have their name withheld who was to know any different?
‘But what if,’ said Tony, ‘they don’t?’
Christian patted his shoulder. ‘You’ve a lot to learn about this business, lad.’
Like, thought Roy, exactly how overdrawn it is. ‘Okay, if we are going ahead with this scheme - your scheme, you should get all the credit, Christian, if it’s a success -’ or the thirty days without the option if it’s not, because, aside from the non-existent prize, ‘are you sure it wouldn’t be contravening some by-law to have Jane by the side of the road in a drop dead outfit? Bit of a distraction for drivers, I’d have thought.’
‘Well, one of you can keep watch for patrolling pandas. Tony -’
‘I’ll do it,’ said Roy. ‘Tony’ll be needed here to answer the phone, and deal with anyone who calls in. You could be in fancy dress, as well, mate. Maybe one of Santa’s elves. You too, Christian – fair’s fair, if Jane’s got to. I’d need to keep a low profile, obviously, but you could really go to town. I can see you as -’
‘Don’t push it, lad. Anyway, we’ve no money to splash around on damn fool costumes.’
‘Exactly,’ said Jane. ‘If I do this – and if I do, it’s on the understanding that: a) this month’s bonus will be forthcoming, unlike the previous two, and b) I wear nothing more than a Santa hat.’ And realising what she’d just said wouldn’t be at all funny if she didn’t catch Roy’s eye, so she did, because, what the heck, it all might be: c) a big laugh.
‘Actually, Christian,’ said Tony, ‘there’s no need to buy so much as a hat. It just so happens I have a Santa outfit.’
Which, of course, Roy couldn’t let pass without flashing a glance at Jane, who, of course, was flashing right back.
‘It’s got everything,’ Tony went on. ‘The padded jacket, with a proper hood, the baggy trousers, the welly-boots, the mittens. It’s even got the sack.’
‘Don’t put ideas into my head, lad,’ said Christian, sinking back onto the desk.
‘The welly-boots’ll probably be too big for Jane, though,’ Tony was saying, mainly to the tree. ‘Maybe she should deal with the phone calls and me and Roy could... ’
Behind Christian’s sprawling rear, the fairy smiled down. That glitter dust dotted over the glistening scalp might take some shifting.
‘It’s okay, Tony,’ said Jane. ‘I’ve got my own wellies.’
At which point all the lights went out.
‘Oh, God!’ shouted Tony. He flung open the back door and a corridorful of steam slapped him in the face. Almost exactly like a wet blanket.