The office is divided
by corridors: this side
In the centre a common meeting ground
With its wall-size red logo
W for War
The foot soldiers tramp
through the common area
primed for hostilities
ready to do damage
and die. Metaphorically.
They know so little.
Grunts – writing exercise 2014
Let’s begin with Michael Hutchence’s death. That’s a cynical place to begin, because of course it – any “it” – began much earlier. But this is a cynical tale, so let’s start where Michael ended.
One morning late in 1997 I arrived at my Knightsbridge workplace – the office with W emblazoned above the reception desk – and the tabloids on the foyer table screamed that Michael Hutchence was dead. Found hanged behind a hotel room door. I don’t remember much of that day but I do remember getting home at about 7.30pm and crying hysterically for two hours.
Michael had been an acquaintance, possibly a friend, of mine. He was a year or so older than me and we’d arrived in Sydney at much the same time. In my first week in Sydney I saw Michael and his band, INXS, play at the bottom of a four-band bill at the Stagedoor Tavern. I say “saw”, but the Stagedoor was so crowded, so dark, I couldn’t see the stage.
I became a rock music writer, Michael became a rock star. I interviewed him when the band were unknowns, then when they achieved national fame; I hung out with him while INXS recorded their international breakthrough album Kick, I met up with him occasionally and we nattered.
I wrote him a poem, at his request:
stops at the sound of
his name called by
a stranger – then
who she is and forgets
himself: it’s you
he smiles (he always means it)
he laughs (and feels abashed)
her eyes mirror his
she is his (they always are)
they are both young
they both can
moments of belief, of the only kind
his kind. He is
kind, or he could be, this singled out
he takes her
camera and asks
Am I in there?
Someone Famous, With Girl (1985)
In 2014 I wrote a blog about Michael that stops at that poem and bears its title.
The last time I saw Michael was New Year’s Eve 1988. I was at a party at a Sydney harborside mansion. Michael was there, with model-actress Virginia Hey. I was femme’d up – stiletto heels, a satin bubble skirt, ‘90s long hair – and we exchanged formal nods. My heels sank into the lawn and mosquitoes bit my shins.
As INXS conquered the U.S. charts, and as stories about Michael’s jet-setting lifestyle cluttered the tabloids, I came to see Michael as symbolic of “success”: Michael was the one who’d made it. I envied him his home in the south of France, his London pad, his famous friends. I envied him the Good Life with the Beautiful People. Even when paparazzi ambushed him and Paula Yates that notorious Sunday morning on their weekend ‘getaway’ (as if), even as I grew anxious for his well-being, I still saw Michael as representing success, and I still saw success as luxury and celebrity.
That night, after Michael’s death, I had a nightmare that another of my rock star acquaintance-friends, a peer of Michael’s, Marc Hunter, had hanged himself too. (Marc died a few months later, of throat cancer; I didn’t know he was ill). I wore black to work the next day, and a small cross, and Liza Minnelli sad eyes, and I told my boss and another workmate about my nightmare. Michael’s death was all over the papers, or should I say, the papers were all over Michael’s death. I worked at a media planning agency, with 50 young men, two young female media planners, and four admin support staff (all female). Almost all staff were aged under 30. There were jokes about rock star deaths.
Rock star deaths proved such a hit that our Xmas Party Social Committee decided to make that the Xmas party theme: Dead Pop Stars. The 33 year old who headed up the committee announced his intention to go as Michael Hutchence, in blue face, with a rope around his neck. I said that if Dead Pop Stars was the theme, I – the marketing director – would not attend the Xmas party. The theme was amended simply to Pop Stars.
My boss told me other staff complained I was making something out of nothing. They didn’t believe I’d known Michael Hutchence. My boss told me to buck up. I decided to use the shock of Michael’s death to make changes in my life. I took to jogging around the Serpentine in Hyde Park during my lunch break, a short-lived practice.
On about my second run I emerged from the lift and stepped into the office foyer as my boss was waiting to take the lift down. I glared at him; I was embarrassed at being seen in lycra shorts.
My boss asked, “You look at me as if you hate me. But I’m the only friend you have around here.”
That, I think, is a truer beginning.
But let’s loop back just a little, again. Let’s set it in context. First, my boss. I’ll call him Mark (not his real name). Mark was a beacon of integrity in a muddy media landscape. He advocated for transparency in media planning and buying deals. Once, I could have explained to you what that means. Now, I don’t really remember how media buying worked, if I ever did at all. Mark spoke at international conferences on media transparency, quality media planning, media futures (the digital age – the media environment that now surrounds us). He was 39, from Newcastle, handsome, married – to Annie (not her real name) – and he had two young children. Unusually for the English, he had perfect teeth, a blinding white smile. He was Mister Clean.
Then, there was me. I was Becky Sharp, as in Vanity Fair: Thackeray’s Becky. I was on the make, an out-of-towner who’d landed in London as winter fell, in mid-recession, no contacts and no money and who, appalled, clawed and clambered her way out of a lowly hole up several higher rungs towards the glamour of Park Lane. I’d walked out on workplaces where it seemed to me I’d been scorned and mistreated, out-faced people who’d tried to exploit me, slapped down what seemed like an endless array of bored married men, clients and colleagues, who seemed to assume I was cheap meat. Previous to London I’d lived for a decade in Sydney’s Kings Cross, in a lane known as Blood Alley, in honour of a gangster shoot-out in the ‘20s. I swear I had more men proposition me in London workplaces than ever propositioned me on the Golden Mile. Mad Men, indeed.
To get my current job I’d sat out of the workforce for three months, from when I first interviewed – when the managing director stared at me and said, “You really don’t care what anyone thinks of you, do you?” – till several months later, when the CEO, Mark, hired me. Now I had the title ‘Marketing Director’, a salary nearly two and a half times my starting salary in London five years before, and an office to myself with a window view through green trees towards Hyde Park, where I could watch the Regimental Changing of the Guard. Did I hold it against Mark that the process took so long? Truthfully, I did.
Mark supported and encouraged me when I bought my perfect apartment. I panicked and thought I should mail the keys back to the mortgage holder at once. Mark didn’t understand that. You have a good job, he said. You earn good money now.
I did have a good job, and I earned danger money – salaries in advertising and media agencies were high in recognition that the business was cut-throat. Time at the top could be brief. ‘Success’ was contingent on bringing in business and servicing that business so outstandingly that clients were retained, despite constant churn. Mark and I were a team focused on bringing in business. His responsibilities were infinitely more complex than mine, and he had more at stake.
… Or something about the poison of gossip, running like mercury through corridors in glamorous West End offices. I’m thinking of the First Emperor, in Ch’in, whose tomb – legend has it – is lethally protected by a moat of mercury.
Black Cat Crossing – writing exercise 2014
Mark was right. I was close to friendless in that workplace. Close to but not totally. Kate, Anna, Tara, Sarah and Robbie were kind. Notice it’s girl allies, mostly. (The male office manager was also decent.) I don’t doubt I was an affront to my male colleagues, and I was Australian. I was bolshie – aggressive and odd. I claimed to know dead rock stars.
Worse, I was 36 and lonely. I’d been so disorientingly lonely in the past few years that I’d done foolish things. Once I got off a bus outside Selfridges to follow a man in a well-cut coat because I fancied his coat, or what I thought it represented. I shadowed him some way up Oxford Street before I lost him in the winter crowds. I wondered just what I would have done if he’d stayed in sight. Would I really have propositioned him, as I’d planned to?
I’d phoned and written to a man I’d flung with in 1992 for several years after he’d moved on. Fortunately that was resolved by 1997. I’d met him at media events, twice, and we were cool. Thank you, Seumas (not his real name).
I’d formed an attachment to a man who liked me back. But this was a man who, when we first got to know each other, over champagne cocktails, told me the best thing that’d ever happened to him was meeting his wife. That man – let’s call him Amiel (not his real name) – might have been, briefly, open to an affair. But I’d told him it would be a very, very bad idea for any married man to get involved with me as I find painful to let go, and I’d make his – this hypothetical man’s – life hell.
I’d spent 10 wretched weeks living at a Cold Comfort Farm in Kent with an alcoholic depressive in conditions so unhygienic I’d had repeat bouts of food poisoning.
I tried a dating agency, and was temporarily imprisoned by a cult leader (now there’s a story!); lonely-hearts columns, and met a man who turned nasty after one date when I was out and couldn’t pick up the phone next time he rang; and going to public functions, where I met a Young Conservative who suffered what looked like anaphylactic shock when he learned I was 10 years older than him. There were others.
I bought a vibrator in a sex shop off Leicester Square and was followed out into a side street by an Irishman who whispered he could give me the “real thing”.
I’d had one-night stands with a few – a very few – men who were what I considered sluts: men who were promiscuous and single, or reckless with their relationships. None of them men I worked with.
I’d formed a crush not long after starting in my current job, on the man who headed the Social Committee. That’s right, the one who wanted to be Dead Michael in Blue Face. My first week, some colleagues had drinks after work and as he’d said good-bye he’d touched my cheek then kissed me. I was touched-starved. That was all it took. His private office was one up from my private office. One afternoon I went to his office, talked shop, and my hand had momentarily touched his knee. He’d looked shocked.
Down the line, I heard the office gossip was that I’d stroked his penis. Apparently that – direct quote – is what he’d told them. I was also told by a director, to my face, that I was having an affair with Mark. Colleagues froze me out of social contact. The one time I went to the pub with workmates at the table where I sat a colleague jutted his jaw at me and challenged, “Mark’s wife is a really nice person.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I replied. “Mark is a really nice person. Of course he has a really nice wife.”
I didn’t get it.
I went to a corporate event – Robbie Williams performing in Hyde Park – and sat behind the actress Felicity Kendall, beside Mark and his family. Mark’s wife got up and walked away, taking the children. Mark followed. I went to the bar. People I’d worked with previously stared at me and sniggered. I still didn’t get it.
I should have got it. I was not blameless. Somewhere after “I’m your only friend in this place” and me buying my apartment, Mark and I became close. I think this is because we were both, essentially, at risk. The agency was working on an extended pitch, a new business pitch that absorbed six months of effort. We had a major client which was merging with other companies to form a megacorporation. Our part of the business up for grabs was valued at, from memory, close on UKP100 million. It mattered. If we could win this business, it would vindicate Mark’s business strategy: quality bespoke planning, over what we in the business called “gorillas with calculators” – media buying leveraged on high volumes.
If we didn’t win this business, Mark was out.
It would be fair I think to say Mark was the target, the mark, and I was collateral damage. Mark had his enemies, certainly. I’d picked up a few of my own, on a petty spite level. The more under threat we felt, the closer we became. But never that close.
There was a very brief period where I felt as if I were romantically in love with Mark and he might have been mildly infatuated with me. But Mark was a man who loved his wife and kids and I wanted to protect him. I was careless in letting my feelings show. I was careless in words I said that could be construed wrongly.
I have a few memories, and I value them:
Mark offering me a CD of classic torch songs he’d got as a freebie from a client. Me declining it. Him nudging the CD off his desk into a bin. “Oh well,” he said.
Me sitting in a stalled train, thinking about Mark, floating away in a golden gauze reverie. The man seated opposite waking me by asking, “What are you thinking?” Me smiling wordlessly and shaking my head.
Meeting Mark on a railway station platform. Walking towards him. Romantic movie style.
Mark detouring on our way back from presenting to a prospective client in Surrey, showing me the Porsche showroom where his dream Boxster awaited. (It’s still waiting.)
Mark stretched out on the leather sofa in our office, his ankles crossed, his hands behind his head. “No one would believe it of me,” he smiled.
You know where this is headed. We didn’t win the business. The gorillas beat us out. That morning, the entire staff waited in the open plan section of the office and watched Mark through the glass of his ‘private’ office as he waited for the phone call. You’ve heard the expression “still as statues”? We were statues. We waited hours. Then the phone rang, Mark picked up the phone, a brief conversation, he put down the receiver. Then he kicked his desk bin, the one where our love songs were trashed, and he kicked it, hard.
Mark exited that day. That week, a new junior employee was moved into my previously private office and I walked out. The managing director, Robbie, and one of Mark’s allies, Tara, came to my apartment to talk me into returning. I lay on my sofa and looked out the window at the green leaves of a tall tree. It couldn’t work.
Robbie “had a word” with corporate senior management to arrange for me to have a more generous severance payment than my contract specified. I think he persuaded them a pay-out would pre-empt legal action on my part. Legal action had not occurred to me. I’m grateful to Robbie for trying to make things better. I spent a large part of the pay-out on designer fashion purchased at the West End boutique where I took a casual job. The rest formed the core of my pension fund, my superannuation, such as it is.
Last week I heard a radio discussion about personal sledges on the fo♣otball field. I sent a text: LOL you think appalling things aren’t said in corporate environments? Vicious gossip is used as a weapon.
The radio team read that twice: Vicious gossip is used as a weapon.
W for War.