Peter is flying over London in his pyjamas because he is asleep, and flying naked would attract the wrong sort of attention. Being able to stay aloft by just flapping his arms is impressive, but he regards it as crucial that he does so stylishly and without embarrassment. Strenuously avoiding any fluttery flicking of the wrists, he holds his hands rigid with his fingers locked together, airtight. Tilting his thumbs downwards allows him to add forward motion to the uplift he requires.
Since Peter was a child, dreaming lucidly has been a regular night-time diversion. He can visualise environments in vivid colour, in 3D and in a resolution that audio-visual hardware cannot match. He can create virtually anything using his will alone: people, places, and scenarios of his choosing. Lucidity is easy. The hard part is controlling what happens during the dream, ensuring that events closely follow his will without wandering off down some tedious dead-end. Maintaining that control requires constant and extraordinary effort. Often, he is just too tired for that, which is why he’s asleep in the first place. Most of the time, he chooses to just let things roll, open to whatever might happen and allowing himself to be surprised at the turn of events. If things begin to turn sour or pear-shaped, instead of remaining sweet and peachy, he will summon the effort necessary to bring things back onto a more comfortable path.
The risk with applying a sudden spurt of energy to maintain a grasp on events is that it often results in waking suddenly. Then the entire dream is done, finished until the next night when he doesn’t need to wake early and can doze beyond the point at which sleep is beneficial. He can’t drink alcohol the night before, which prevents dreams from commencing in the first place, and he can’t work late on his computer or play video games because then his mind is full of light: the blue and white lights, lines and shapes emitted stealthily by the cathode ray tube. These flashes continue to dart about all night over the inside of his eyelids, a Cornea Borealis keeping his mind frustratingly occupied until he wakes in the morning.
Having all the right factors aligned doesn’t occur as often as he would like, so Peter is careful not to take too many risks while lucid. Upon realising he might be dreaming, the first thing he does is take a reality test. Holding up his hand, he looks at it, assuring himself it really is his hand, and then he attempts to pat his head. When his hand passes right through his head, he can be certain he is dreaming. So far, the test has never failed, possibly because Peter has never been drunk enough or stoned enough to try this test while he is wide awake.
Peter Florey stands in the middle of the pavement on Drury Lane. He appears lost. Irritable commuters brush past him, an obstacle to their morning rush. He could be a puzzled tourist that has taken a wrong turn looking for Covent Garden market, except he is too smartly dressed: a loose charcoal suit with wobbly pinstripes set wide apart, worn over a long-sleeved, dark marl tee and, on his feet, suede double monks. More shades of black than a coal miner at the end of his shift
He clutches an A3 portfolio case against his chest, his gaze fixed on a spindly turret on the building opposite. Ignoring the flow of passing workers, he summons courage and pats down anxiety. This interview wasn’t part of his plan, but it is necessary now, and he mustn’t fail.
A thickset man in a tracksuit top blasts Peter’s face with cigarette smoke and bumps his shoulder as he passes. Peter recoils in panic, convinced it is Karl. He gags and coughs up the foul cloud he unwittingly inhaled a moment ago. Watching the back of the man as he strides away, Peter sighs, knowing that disaster has been averted. That is not Karl… Phew.
Peter waits for his pulse to normalise and the tightness in his chest to subside. Lowering his eyes, he crosses the road and climbs a flight of stairs. In the lobby, he pauses in front of a large, frosted glass door with transparent lettering that reads,
design . media . strategy
Through the clear, bold letters, he sees vignettes of what might be a bright future. Two elegant, young women sit behind a veined marble slab wearing miniature telephone headsets. Three television screens recessed into gloss panelling play the same video showreel, all ads with no shows between.
At thirty-four, he should be used to this. Slick creative consultancy is his stock in trade. He has interviewed dozens of hungry, young wannabes, but this is the first time in a long while that he is the one to be interviewed. The Agency’s reputation has hovered out of reach in rarefied air since college, but now he has a chance to join the top echelon.
He pushes the door, and the vignettes coalesce into a panorama accompanied by a jazzy house soundtrack.
‘I’m Peter Florey,’ he announces to the good-looking receptionists who, up close, are also bored-looking, their blank, made-up faces silently asking, ‘And?’
‘I’m here to see Jay Renshaw,’ he adds before they can express their boredom in words.
A receptionist with Rachel hair and frosty lips checks a calendar. ‘Take a seat. Jay will be with you shortly.’
Peter lays his portfolio on a low glass table and perches on an armchair with black leather cushions held tight in a cage of bright chrome. Overhead, a circular ceiling is littered with glittery downlights. He picks an industry broadsheet from a stack of publications on the table and browses articles, unconsciously separating the designers he admires and envies from those he doesn’t rate.
Arriving a few minutes before the scheduled appointment is deliberate, but a five-minute wait soon turns to ten. He returns the industry rag to the stack and spots the Mirror’s headline:
ACHTUNG! SURRENDER For you Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over!
He stifles a laugh. Here’s hoping, but the Mirror might be a tad premature on this occasion.
Ten minutes drags on to twenty. Still no sign of Jay. The other receptionist glances at him, then lowers her eyes, smiling. A Winona pixie. Peter can’t help but pigeonhole women at first sight, like he separates the designers he rates from those he doesn’t. He knows he shouldn’t. Even though Winona is oblivious, it’s demeaning. Pathetic. Beyond her appearance, he doesn’t know a thing about her.
Although? Winona may have typecast him already. Dapper Designer perhaps? Or if she’s only interested in his body, it would have to be Nice Bum. Past girlfriends all complimented his buns. Handsome? Nup… they never said that. Kind was the most flattering adjective they ever applied to his face. As far as good looks go, his boils down to a nice bum and a good head of hair. Peter takes great pride in his thick, dark crown, his hairdresser taking a full hour to sculpt a flat-top using scissors alone, no razors allowed. The sheer vitality of his hair shows no sign of waning. It grows everywhere, across his chest and down most of his back. Winona might not be smiling if she knew that.
‘Jay will be with you shortly, Mr Florey,’ she says. ‘Would you like coffee or tea?’
He thought they’d never ask.
‘No, thank you.’ Peter learned years ago never to accept a drink before an important meeting, let alone an interview. It is just another hurdle in the path of success, something to be knocked over or spilt on important documents.
After another agonising wait, he overhears, ‘Yeah, of course he’s still here. What? Now? OK.’ Rachel rises onto her heels and totters around the stone monolith of a desk to Peter’s side. ‘Mr Florey, it appears Jay has been caught up in some urgent business.’ Her hands join in front of her tight pencil skirt. ‘He sincerely apologises, but now he must head to Heathrow to catch a flight. Mr Renshaw was hoping we could reschedule or… as an alternative, you could accompany him in the taxi and talk on the way.’
Peter doesn’t need to go to Heathrow, and accepting the trip to the airport will bulldoze his next appointment. What he needs is a job. He handed in his notice to West & Co., jumping ship before he was pushed.
‘Sure. That would be no trouble. I’d love to accompany Jay to Heathrow. Where’s he headed?’
‘Terminal 4.’ She must have no idea where he is flying to.
A man pushes open the frosted glass door and strides to the desk, his unfashionable presence looking out of place. Without waiting for a receptionist to acknowledge him, he declares, ‘Taxi for Mr Renshaw,’ turns and heads for the door. ‘I’m on a double yellow, love. I’ll be in the cab.’
Five minutes later, Jay appears with an assistant pulling his travel bag. He is a little overweight and has just a vestige of curly, red hair over each ear. Peter regards this man as a legend, the Godfather of Branding.
Jay leans over the desk to Winona. ‘Tracy, ask Gregor to call me when he comes in… please.’ He turns back. ‘Peter? Jay Renshaw. Apologies for this. Been one of those days. So glad you can share the cab with me.’ Jay shakes his hand, and they head for the door.
Share the cab?
Soon they are heading along Piccadilly past the Royal Academy. Banners promote the Summer Exhibition, where a parade of amateurs hangs their work in the same building as old masters, modernist dinosaurs, and the entrepreneurial Young British Artists.
Past the Ritz, Green Park looks glorious in the sunshine of a late June morning. In the gaps between the high foliage of gentle, giant plane trees, a tiny jet is heading west to their mutual destination. Below, a barrier of production line art divides the road from the park. Hawkers wait, ready to harvest the tourist footfall.
Jay slides shut the window to the driver’s compartment, sealing them into the cocoon of the cab.
‘So, Peter, tell me your story.’
Peter summarises his recent career: the eight years at West & Co., the pharmacy brand, the sandwich chain roll-out, and the online banking website.
‘Why do you want to join the Agency?’ asks Jay.
‘Well, you have a well-deserved reputation for constant invention, you are a masterly curator of talent, and you attract the best clientele.’
‘But we would expect you to find new clients, your own clients.’
‘Naturally.’ Peter pitches to Jay what he can bring to the Agency: proven expertise in retail innovation and contacts in exciting tech sector start-ups. ‘My clients will be thrilled that I’ve joined the Agency and what that means for them.’
‘Higher fees!’ Jay laughs. ‘West & Co. do great work. You’ve been there for years, and as you say, you have built up quite a position. Why leave all that behind?’
Peter watches as Beauchamp Place flies past the window. He can’t tell Jay the truth.
‘It’s time to move on. I’ve learnt all I can at West & Co., and yes, I’m an associate managing some exceptional accounts, but I’m ready for the next level, and that opportunity doesn’t exist at Wests. I regard the Agency as the pinnacle—’
‘Hold the flattery right there. What is it you are looking for long-term?’ asks Jay.
‘My goal is to make director and gain some equity in the business to which I intend to devote my working life.’ Peter expects to achieve that in the short term but doesn’t want to come across as avaricious, so he leaves it at that.
‘You want to do good work, get rich, earn respect, be well-liked?’
‘Yes, of course. All three.’
‘Four. That was four things.’ There is a wry smile on Jay’s face.
‘Well, you know, I’m not fussed whether people like me or not,’ Peter continues, eager to appear unflustered. ‘Often, one has to be tough. Make difficult decisions. No doubt I’ll make a few enemies here and there.’ He craves respect and is convinced that success brings respect.
The taxi passes Fuller’s brewery and careers around the Hogarth Roundabout beneath the rickety temporary flyover that has been there forever. Jay’s hefty body slews left, his shoulder pushing against Peter until Jay grasps the grab handle and rights himself. They laugh it off together, and the mood lightens. They exchange industry anecdotes about people they both know and the silly fuckups they have seen them make. Peter’s revelation on the Natural History Museum logo has Jay laughing hysterically.
‘Once you see it as a zebra’s arse, you can never see it as anything else.’
‘Anything butt that ever again, huh?’
The taxi turns off the M4 towards the airport, and Peter realises he has not yet shown his portfolio to Jay.
‘Would you like to see my work?’
‘I don’t think that will be necessary. I’ve observed your progress since we met at the 1993 awards.’ Peter is surprised Jay remembers this: it was only the briefest of introductions.
‘You could be a great asset to the Agency, and I’d like to make you an offer, but first, there’s something you should know before deciding to accept.’ Jay turns to face him, and Peter feels the heat of eye contact with The Godfather. ‘The Agency is results-driven. We have the highest expectations, and from someone at your level, we anticipate immediate results. There is a three-month probationary period, and you must have a major account signed up by then. Otherwise, I’m afraid, it’s adiós.’
At the terminal, Jay staggers out of the cab, pokes his head in the front window and fumbles for his wallet. His cheeks are puffed-out red and sweat glistens on his temple.
‘Jay, don’t worry, I’ll get this one,’ offers Peter, always eager to please successful people.
‘Cheers, Peter. I’ll be in touch!’ Jay is gone in a flash of grey flannel.
‘Where to, gov? Covent Garden?’ asks the cabbie.
The meter has passed sixty quid, and Peter can’t stomach the thought of being hit a further sixty on top of that. ‘Hatton Cross tube, please.’
He gets out at the nearby tube station and pays the driver. The empty taxi U-turns and heads back to Terminal 4, its orange eye seeking out another fare.
Realising he has forgotten to phone and cancel his next appointment, Peter whips out his mobile and checks his voicemail. The time scheduled for the meeting with his architect has well and truly passed, but she’s left a voicemail.
‘Peter, it’s Anna. Are you coming? If not, please call me: it’s urgent. We have a problem… um, another problem. I’ll be on-site for a few hours if you can still make it.’ The calm posh tones of the voice he usually finds so soothing are not enough to stop the tightness in his chest from returning.
Peter spends the next hour on the Piccadilly Line, stopping at every single station on the way back to central London. Will he accept Jay’s offer? Without another option on the horizon, he can’t refuse. But just three fucking months? Three short months to hook a top-tier client.