Just a Bit of Banter, Like

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The world is a wonderful, wonderful place. It is three o’clock on a standard, no thrills Thursday afternoon, and we are the rowdy suits sat in the corner of the bar.

Not that we can claim to be the only rowdy suits in the corner of this swanky establishment situated smack bang in the City of London at three o’clock on a standard, no thrills Thursday afternoon, for there are replicas of us in every corner.

Just-a-bit-of-Banter-by-Chris-WestlakeThe other tables, the outsiders, are occupied by singletons, identical men in their forties with grey suits and black spectacles, sipping from whiskeys and glancing at the Financial Times. I pull the card out of the machine and catch my reflection in the mirror across the barmaid’s shoulder, the one that stretches the full length of the bar. I’ve gained some extra padding over the years, especially on my cheeks, but there’s no denying that Nick Evans is still a lanky git; at 6’2 I still weigh less than twelve stone in my socks.

The fine fair hair is parted in a perfect straight line at one side. My moisturised skin is blemish-free. The barmaid catches me winking at myself in the mirror. Her face gives nothing away, which is probably just as well. I expertly balance the Jaeger bombs on a metallic tray and return to our table. My four drinking partners grab appreciatively at the drinks. “Thank you, boyo,” Bruce says, one eye facing left, the other eye facing right. “Look boyos, boyo has come back with drinks!”

I give the guy a friendly slap on the back. His shirt feels a 8 bit damp. The alcohol probably seeps through his pores. I know the score, though. I’m the Welsh guy of the pack and so I’m a boyo who shags sheep, my Dad is Tom Jones, my Mum is Shirley Bassey, my sister is Charlotte Church, we own a pet dragon and our garden is overflowing with daffodils. It’s all good, like. Its four minutes past three in the afternoon now and the drinks are flowing. The guards are down. The gum shields are off. There is only one way that it is going to go from here, and that’s downhill. “Seriously though, do you speak Welsh, then, Nick?”

Lawrence, or it could be Ken, ask me. I tell him what I tell everyone when I’m asked this question. I feel like a parrot reciting the lines he’s memorised. “We don’t really speak Welsh much in South Wales,” I say. “It’s spoken more in north and west Wales, you know? I do know the basics, though,” I continue. “I did it for GCSE. That was a long time ago now, though, wow it must be ten years or something. Wish I had done it for A-Level, now. But people told me and my mate, Den, to do something more useful. What was I going to do with Welsh, they asked me, get a job on Pobl Y Cwm or Scorio? So I did something useful – philosophy. I plan to learn Welsh more, though,” I tell them, whoever it is who is asking at the time, “get a book out and teach myself, like. It’s difficult though, isn’t it, when you are not living in Wales any more, and all that?”

I say the same thing, every time, without fail, and to be honest, it bores me. It seems a long, long time ago Paul and I arrived at the Lasocte offices, but thinking about it, it was only ten o’clock this morning. Paul, his hair slicked back, wearing a new slim-fit Armani suit and a fitted Paul Smith shirt. I was sporting a single-breasted Ralph Lauren suit and a black Pink shirt. Paul gave me a nod and headed to the toilet for his now customary pre-meeting warm-up routine. I imagined him psyching himself up in the mirror. Whatever he does, it always works. He came out of the toilet buzzing and ready for action, a real livewire on a mission. He 9 always starts the talking, confident as you like. I’m happy with that. I’m the right-hand man.

“Gentlemen, you know and I know that we have all met before,” he began, with a wry, calculated smile, “but just to conclude formal introductions, I am Paul Richards, Senior Account Manager at 360 Ltd. And this gentleman to my right is Nicholas Evans, also an established Account Manager at 360 Ltd. I think I speak both on behalf of myself and Nick when I thank you for accommodating us today. Nick, if you would kindly hand out the proposed agenda…”

This was my cue to do something and, frankly, I was glad, because I was getting bored. I’d heard the spiel hundreds of times before and I was just nodding my head and smiling and oohing and ahhing, exercising both my verbals and my nonverbals, all that stuff we’d covered on that course we did, but really my mind had drifted and I was thinking about what shirt and tie combination to wear tomorrow and whether, because it was a Friday, I should put on my Welsh dragon cufflinks. But now I had the proposed agenda to hand out and so I was on my feet and my mind was momentarily occupied. The three men stared intently at the sheets of paper (quality, crisp white) and for a moment I wondered whether they were genuinely interested in the content, but then I instantly dismissed the thought. Of course they weren’t interested. Our job, in a nutshell, is to manage a portfolio of clients, and to ensure that the said clients continue buying our regulated examinations, training courses and study aids; by whatever means is at your disposal.

There is no avoiding the Excel spreadsheets and the presentations, detailing all the facts and figures, and then there is all the regular contact by phone and email. But it also means keeping the clients sweet; and how you do so is pretty much up to you. For us two, it means giving them such a crazy time that the client will justify staying with you for a multitude of reasons, but in reality because they just don’t want to miss out on any of the fun. “Gentlemen, we all know that, with the current difficult climate, organisations have needed to make adjustments, and some have them have been difficult and some have been 10 brutal. However, I am sure you will agree that amongst the doom and gloom, hidden away somewhere, there is opportunity. You may need to look hard, and sometimes it may need to be created, but the opportunity is there. Now, only the smartest organisations will locate this opportunity, but I am absolutely adamant…”

Paul paused for a moment, leant forward so that his elbows pressed against the table, then twisted his head elaborately from left to right, “…no, I am certain, that working closely together, both 360 Ltd and Lasocte can become stronger, more efficient and, ultimately, even more prosperous…” It was proper, liberating, invigorating text-book stuff that would probably have given our big boss man, Max Vaughan, a semi, but I was still having difficulty concentrating, possibly because I’d heard the same speech last week when we visited Aratica. I was thinking about the programme on TV I watched last night about the prejudice ‘little people’ are subjected to, and I remembered the time Den pulled a short bird in Swansea and I gave him a shed load of abuse. Were my actions honourable, I ask myself, or maybe, possibly, a bit harsh? Mind you, I reminded myself, it was only ‘banter’ and ‘banter’ has no limitations… “…If you are with us, gentlemen,” Paul continued, becoming more and more elevated, “I promise you that you are in for one hell of a ride…” And three hours later, in the bar, not the boardroom, we are still talking about rides.

“Paul says that your woman is a great ride, taffy,” Bruce says. Lawrence slams his drink down on the table and whisky spills over the edge of the glass and he bursts into a fit of hysterics and the others join in, eyes watering, legs excitedly crossing and uncrossing. Our three clients are Bruce, Lawrence and Ken from Lasocte, but they might just as well be Dwayne, John and Adam from Aratica or Tony, David and Mike from UCES. They are just different names, different faces, really. The ongoing joke is that my girlfriend, Katie, gets around the track more times than Mo Farrah. I don’t mind. The thing is, I know that it’s a compliment, really. They all fancy her. 11 See, whichever way you look at it, Katie is a stunner. She is a trophy bird, and that suits me just fine. Katie has been on my arm for six months now, and she is good as gold. She is well fit mate, one of them quips (Ken? Lawrence?), but then I’ve only seen her from behind.

I’ve heard it all before. Different people, same jokes. The drink is starting to give me a warm glow. My face feels like it is melting. We move onto a bar on Lower Thames Street, then another at Tower Hill. Two more drinks and we are pounding the pavements again. We lose Ken. He gives us all a big hug, tells us that his missus is at home waiting for him, that she gets moody when she doesn’t get her fill of six inches, the randy woman. I’m thinking that six inches might be pushing it a bit. His eyes are bloodshot and his thinning hair is sticking up at one side. I suspect that his missus will have a headache tonight. The light is fading. The offices are closing. I sit upright in the corner of the bar, lips painted into a permanent smile. I’m floating on a cloud. The world is moving around me, but I stay still, watching from above.

The rest of the group are talking – no – shouting, getting louder and louder with every syllable that they utter – but I’m not listening. Only certain words register. Words and phrases I hear and use every day of the week. Touching base. Thinking outside the box. You know the ones. I long to stand up and shout to the whole bar that the world is a wonderful, wonderful place! But my legs feel heavy, they feel lazy. They feel so, so different from the rest of me, which is peacefully drifting, floating… The drinks keep coming, out of my control, against my will. I barely finish the one that I’m on when another is delivered, just like that. I press my hands down against the table, pull myself to my feet. I stumble into one suit, then another. They seem to be everywhere, getting in my way, blocking my path, all looking exactly the same. I reach my destination. I press my head against the cold, tiled wall.

This is the life, I think. I sit back down next to Paul, but I’m thinking of Katie. She looked beautiful this morning in her pinstriped black 12 suit, long blonde hair tied back behind her neck. Smiled at me and planted a warm, wet kiss on my lips. Wished me all the best for the meeting. The image is just a hazy blur, but I can still feel that kiss on my lips, that wonderful taste. I turn to Paul, with his swanky suit and trendy haircut. The lad took me under his wing when I joined 360 Ltd. He only started about six months before me but already he seemed so advanced, so senior. He has always looked after me, Paul. I decide here and now that I love the guy. He is the brother that I never had. I reach out and give him a kiss on the cheek. He raises his eyebrows, Roger Moore style, which is one of his traits, and somewhere in the background I hear Lawrence and Bruce laughing.

At some point Lawrence leaves, goes somewhere other than here. We are down to the three musketeers. I get to my feet (holding onto the table) and announce that I’m getting a round of shots in. I wish that I had a trumpet in my hand that I could blow into. It all deflates instantly, though. Paul gives me a hug and says count him out, sorry feller; that he needs to go too. Says he has a hot date. I bet he does. That smooth bastard gets all the chicks. I tell him to give her one for me. He tells me not to worry, he will give her two. There is no ongoing joke with Paul, I realise. He is too cool for any of that. He swaggers towards the door and, as if for good measure, catches the eye of a few hard bodies on his way out. Now it is just two of us. Batman and Robin, Cagney and Lacey, Laurel and Hardy, the Chuckle brothers; whatever you want to call us, we are the last ones standing. Just me and my new best mate, Bruce. That is his name, isn’t it? Bruce is talking, but God knows what about. His lips are moving. There is sound. I nod my head, up and down. Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir. I start to say something but realise that the words make no sense, that I’m not even sure what I’m trying to say, and I’m not even sure why I’m bothering saying it.

I know what I am thinking but the same words won’t translate from my mind into my mouth. I shrug my shoulders and think, fuck it. Bruce says that he is going to the bar. I understand. That is a language that I know all too well.

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