The Crash: Chapter Six
If you've just dropped in now, you might want to flip back to chapters one, two, three, four or five. If you're up to speed with Jason's hectic life, just read on to see whether he can keep all the plates spinning...
Jason hit the alarm clock so hard it skittered off the expensive pine bedside table and fell with a soft thud onto the deep pile carpet. It was still dark enough that he couldn't see the infuriating pinkish shade of carpet, chosen by Terri, he was sure, expressly to make him feel uncomfortably out of place in their shared bedroom. The dawn was just beginning to peek around the edges of the thick burgundy curtains. Talking of burgundy, why on earth had he gone so overboard on the wine with dinner last night?
After everything that had gone off in the office yesterday, he was guaranteed to wake up in a shitty mood anyway, and thanks to the wine, he'd woken up in a shitty mood with a headache. Should have bought that personal breath-tester that was in the gadget catalogue - the last thing he needed was to get pulled over on the way to work and add another couple of points to the ones he'd already accrued speeding to get to the Hexhams pitch on time. OK, so it had been worth it. Hexhams were now one of his best customers. In fact, if Jenners cancelled as threatened, Hexhams would have his biggest remaining single order. He just hoped against hope that Hexhams hadn't got wind of the rumours of quality issues that had put the wind up Jenners. Not that it was hard to guess where they'd come from. Jenners bought a huge quantity of parts from Triple J Auto Parts, but they also had a small, long-standing order for specialist parts from the company that Nick had returned to after being escorted from the building.
Malicious little shit, Jason spat the words silently as he didn't want to wake Terri and have to face the concern in her eyes that had nearly sent him over the edge last night. In fact, it was her sudden, unexpected interest that had sent him reaching for the wine, he now recalled. In its rich flavour and numbing kindness, he'd found relief from the fear that she'd find out how close to the edge he was living, and how afraid he really was of losing everything he'd built up over the years.
How had it all gone so wrong? He used to be able to tell her things, way back when. They used to chat over the tiny peeling pine table in the corner of the kitchen/diner of their Parsons Cross home, and laugh together over the ups and downs of business. Now it seemed they'd come to depend on the business, even as Terri distanced herself from its running. And last night, of all nights, she'd suddenly rediscovered her concern. And he'd told her the truth, as far as he'd dared. He'd let her catch a glimpse of the latest in the chain of things going wrong, but he hadn't told her how afraid he was that it was a sign of worse to come. What if the rumours circulating about quality lapses weren't just vicious rumours designed by Nick to get his own back on a tough ex-employer? What if there was some truth to them? Jason had woken in the middle of the night, a single word running through his mind.
'Jesus,' was the word.
He wasn't praying, though. Nothing in the past had convinced him that there was anything to religion other than wishful thinking, and he saw no reason to change now, just because he might possibly be in a spot of bother. In fact, praying now would be the rankest hypocrisy.
No, the word wasn't a prayer. It was a memory. Of the genuine, heartfelt anger, combined with resignation, in Nick's voice as he expressed, almost to himself, his frustration with Jason's sole supplier policy. It was that feeling, more than anything else, that had convinced Jason after the event that there might be something to Nick's concerns.
And now he had possible major production issues, and an emergency meeting to conduct with Jenners, in the absence of the Engineering Manager who actually had a clue what was going on. Which reminded him, Brad's references had checked out OK, but Donna had said she was still waiting to hear back whether he was going to step up to the job or not. The guy was probably keeping Jason on tenterhooks on purpose in the hopes of negotiating a better deal, but if so, he wasn't going to bite. He'd already set out the terms to the agency, and good as Brad was, he wasn't about to make Jason change his mind.
All there was to do was get into the office and find out, but that wasn't a welcome prospect in view of the chilly air freezing his nose and his arm when he lifted it outside the covers to turn off the alarm clock. Still, Jason hadn't got where he was today by shirking unpleasant duties. He threw back his corner of the thick goose-down duvet and swung his feet to the floor.
Time to face another day. With or without a Engineering Manager.
The house hadn't warmed up yet, as the central heating had only just gurgled into action, but at least the underfloor heating in the bathroom kept him from freezing as he showered and dressed. One day he'd find time for a long, hot bath... but probably not until he retired. For now, it was a quick dunk under the shower, a scrub with some of the weird blue shower gel Terri had bought him for his birthday, and a high-speed going over with the electric razor in front of the mirror. Then out to the car. No pause for toast or coffee today. His caffeine fix would have to wait until he was in the office, and the churning in his stomach told him there was no point in eating until after his meeting with Harry Jenner.
The car was usually his haven of peace - apart from the occasional call - but today he couldn't relax, even after putting Enya in the CD player. It didn't help when he got to the edge of town and discovered they'd coned off one lane to change the gas main. That would mean jams for at least a week, or driving the long way round. Why on earth couldn't they have put up warning signs beforehand? He inched forward, the car's powerful engine grumbling at the pathetic pace he was keeping up, and checked his watch every three seconds. Not that he needed to look at his watch, with the dashboard clock ticking away the slow, painful seconds in front of his eyes, but somehow he felt the need to keep checking, just in case his watch told a different story.
Five minutes ticked by and he had moved past a dress shop and two estate agencies. At ten minutes he'd made it to Sainsbury's local, and by fifteen he was in front of Costa and seriously considering getting out to buy a coffee, since as far as he could tell the traffic was moving even slower than the queue in the overcrowded shop. But finally, the inching became a slow walking pace, and then the cars began to outstrip the dog-walkers on the pavement, and at last he was driving again and the queue was behind him. But his heart rate was racing faster than the engine as he realised that he was ten minutes away from the time of the meeting that would decide whether his next year of business was a breeze or a struggle... and fifteen minutes away from the office.
He cursed himself for agreeing to a breakfast meeting. He couldn't even ask Donna to make the guests comfortable while they waited for him, because she wouldn't be in until halfway through the meeting. More from desperation than any real expectation of success, he voice-dialled his own number, and was shocked when a human voice answered.
"You're in early," was his response to Gaby.
"I wasn't sure what time you wanted me to start, so I thought I'd best be here in good time. Anyway, I'm always an early bird and I get more done when the office is quiet."
"Thank you," Jason was sure she'd be able to hear his relief. "Listen, I've got some important visitors coming at eight, and I've been held up in traffic. Could you take them through to the board room and get them coffees?"
"Thanks," Jason said, for the second time in almost as many seconds, and disconnected the call.
"Whew," he breathed out a sigh of relief. Thank heavens for Gaby. He couldn't imagine Lucy having been in that early. And if she had been, she'd probably have been on the phone booking a nail appointment when he rang in.
Gaby, when he arrived, was sitting in the boardroom, making smooth small talk with Harry and whatever junior he'd brought this week. Jason couldn't understand why Harry always felt the need to bring along some flunky who barely spoke and just sat and scribbled. If he needed notes that much, why didn't he just use a voice recorder?
"Hello, Harry," Jason greeted him. Then he added, "Oh, thanks," in Gaby's direction as he noticed a strong coffee waiting for him at the vacant seat. She'd learned his preferred beverage already? Impressive.
"So, thanks for agreeing to see me today. And for coming over here. Of course I'd have been happy to come to you." He realised that he was babbling nervously in a way he hadn't since his earliest pitch meetings, and bit his tongue to stop the flow of chatter. Since when did he, JJ of Triple J Auto Parts, hardened Managing Director and youngest ever Chairman of APMA, get nervous in meetings? Since his biggest customer threatened to leave, he answered himself.
"It's good to meet your new assistant," Harry smiled, and Jason couldn't for the life of him tell whether Harry was being genuine, or making a snide observation about the frequency with which his assistants changed. He'd always prided himself on being good at reading people, but today his ability seemed to have deserted him, along with his famed bravado.
When Gaby smiled back at the lanky, grey-haired guest, and answered, "It's good to meet you both too," Jason came to the belated conclusion that the rapport between the two was genuine, and so had Harry's answer been. Gaby's wide smile included Jason as she went on, "Harry tells me you two have met before, when you went round the factory."
Jason looked at the gawky young man in the corner and thought back over the factory tour. He had a vague memory of being introduced to someone who looked too young to be working at all, and told he was the manager of something-or-other. At the time it had struck him as odd, but not so odd that the name had stuck in his memory. He thought hard and at last a vague recollection came to him.
"Dave. Yes. Good to see you again."
"Damian," Gaby corrected. At which point light dawned on Jason. He'd heard Harry mention the name a dozen times or more. In fact, a dozen times or more in every meeting they'd ever had. Damian was away at uni. Damian had graduated. Damian had come back to join his proud father in the family firm.
And Jason had firmly ignored the heir apparent, until prompted by his secretary to notice him. And then got his name wrong. If he wanted to win back Jenners' business, he was going the worst possible way about it.
"Can I just go out and come in and start over?" Jason asked, with his most charming smile, but of course he wasn't joking. If only he could wipe out the past five minutes. Or, even better, the past twenty-four hours.