Hello, I'm Charles Blain. I've only just got this job. I used to work in insurance, selling life policies door to door at local businesses. I've always wanted to be a writer of some kind, maybe a journalist or even a novelist. Not that I ever could be, of course, I'm just a glorified tea-boy, really. I'm exaggerating as usual. Here at MAX, that's Max's Magazine, I do the mail, the filing and any odd jobs that Rick Sneed, our office manager, wants doing.
I got the push from selling; couldn't get my foot in the door, so to speak, or meet any of the quotas. I'm lucky to get a job like this, what with no qualifications, except the GCE in English and Art. This place is brilliant, though, especially the women, and Max, of course. I love the arts, don't you? It beats working for a living. The people here just write about all the good things in life. Susan Smiles (I think that might be a pseudonym) is the Women's Editor; she covers the fashion scene; Jasper Potts does theatre, films and TV; Betty Grogan does literature and Sylvia Jarman does a page or two on restaurants and haute cuisine; Arthur Nesbitt does all the advertising and gets me to do a bit of canvassing, because of my sales experience, I suppose.
Before the insurance job, which I was forced into by the Job Centre, I was on the dole, bumming about on the embankment, feeding the pigeons and wishing I were dead. London's not the best place to be down and out, especially in winter. Anyway, enough of my troubles: now I'm starting out on a new life, a reformed character, so to speak.
I should tell you about how I got this job though, just a fluke really. When I got sacked by 'Secure Life' Social Security said I had to wait three months before I could apply for the dole again. Then they said it would take another three weeks by the time I got any money. After a couple of weeks with nothing coming in, mostly spent lying in bed with severe depression, I was destitute and my landlord told me I would have to get out if I couldn't come up with the rent by the weekend. He was as good as his word. He got my key off me and chucked my bits and pieces out in the street. After two days without food, except for a bun and a cuppa down at the Sally Army van, I was reduced to begging in the street.
I managed to get the odd coin, approaching travellers in the underground but soon got attacked by the local buskers or moved on by the police. Vagrancy is still an offence in England and I didn't want to spend the night in jail, although it was one way of avoiding the cold, I suppose. I could have gone to one of the flophouses but I'd heard bad stories about getting lice, mugged or even murdered. When you're on the street day and night, you soon find out the hard way that there is army of beggars out there you have to compete with.
I soon learned that I had to have something to offer; a Beatles tune on the violin or an old music hall song, or something. Lacking such talents I decided a bit of street selling would have to do. I managed to nick a few things from a busy chemist's shop in the King's Road; a safety razor, a bottle of aftershave and a packet of condoms. Trying to emulate the professional costermonger, I would jump out in front of a likely prospect and say, "Cheap razor sir, very good value at fifty pence," or " What about some nice aftershave, name your price." One bloke snatched the bottle out of my hand and dashed it in the gutter, snarling, "Get lost, stupid beggar, you ought to be locked up." I did manage to sell the condoms to some schoolboys, though.
I kept trying to sell the razor without success, until Max came along. It's hard to describe Max. When I first saw him, outside Sloan Square Station, he had on a pale grey suit with just a hint of a chalk stripe. Very expensive it looked and beautifully offset by a dazzling white shirt, obviously silk, and decorated with a subtly pink tie, identical in colour to the fresh carnation in his lapel. It's the lapels that announce the true English gentleman to the world, with those deliberately imperfect hand stitches, which only the best bespoke tailors can accomplish. How do I know? My uncle Simon was a tailor, that's how.
Max looked fortyish, with a shock of greying brown hair framing his almost too handsome features. His face was very masculine with the healthy complexion of the bon-vivant who works out, or goes on skiing holidays.
"Do I look like I need a shafe?" he said, looking askance at the razor I was brandishing under his roman nose.
"No, No," I said," stepping back before the force of his forget-me-not blue eyes, "you look fine, sorry."
"Vot I vould like to know is vy a fit young man like you is begging on de street. Vell, tell me, I demand to know."
Not receiving an immediate reply, he turned and walked away, without bothering to hear what I was struggling to say. I followed his athletic stride, scuttling along beside this tall but muscular stranger, blurting out my tale of woe.
Finally he stopped, and said, "Giff me de razor."
I handed it over and he put it in his pocket. After a moment's thought he took out a slim wallet of the finest leather and extracted a crisp banknote and a business card.
"See me on Monday morning, nine o'clock sharp, he said, pointing a perfectly manicured finger at the address on the card. I looked at the hundred pound note in amazement but before I could say "thank you" he had vanished into the crowded street. The card read "Maximillian Van Der Vroot, entrepreneur and Magazine proprietor, 217a Sloan Street." Anyhow, that's how I got the job here at the magazine.
Once I've opened and distributed the mail and done a bit of filing, my time's my own. I have to take care to look busy, of course, getting up now and then to look in the cabinet at some file or other, or checking to see if I've got any Email messages from the staff. Most of the time I look furtively at the women in the office, particularly Susan, who sits nearby. Today, she's wearing a skimpy blouse, despite the cold outside, and a skirt two sizes too small for her ample nether regions. Her hair is just on the red side of blonde; fiery I would call it. She has the face and figure of an ex-fashion model or movie actress, very much like Kim Catrall. A real English beauty she is; the kind that turns your brains to mush when you see her in the flesh. She's lovely, I fell in love with her right away; I could stare at her all day.
Oh God, she's getting up and coming over here. I'd better look busy and pretend I wasn't perving on her.
"Charlie, darling," she says, perching a broad buttock on the edge of my desk, "I've got to go out for a bit. Would you be a sweetie and answer my phone? I'm not expecting many calls, just take down any messages for me, will you?"
I recovered from her megawatt smile and stared at the expanse of thigh lying along my desk, at the slight bulge of bare flesh rising and falling above the lacework of her blouse, and at the moist redness of her slightly parted lips.
"Yes, Susan, of course. Will I sit at your desk?"
"Of course not, silly boy, I'll transfer my calls to your number. If a man called Jack Spencer rings, he's my Ex, tell him I'm not in this week, will you."
I feel myself flushing and my mind reeling as her expensive perfume overwhelms my senses.
"Yes," I hear myself croak, "oh, yes."
When she returns to her desk, with sinuous motions of her ample hips, I immediately reactivate the fantasy I indulge in during the midnight hour. Despite the rings on her third finger, I now know she is divorced. There's no way I could ever get inside her expensive knickers, the taut outline of which I have just glimpsed from beneath the fine material of her skirt, but I'm allowed to dream, aren't I? I've noticed that girls called Susan resemble each other. The type is quite tall and full-bodied, with exquisite white flesh, which is both firm and yielding. I become lost in a vision of Susan's naked back, curving to a narrow waist and then widening, suddenly, to the entrancing mounds of flesh below. I'm trying to decide whether it would be possible to see more from this angle when I'm jerked back to reality by the sudden clamour of my phone.
"Charles Blain, Susan's phone, I mean."
"It's Max, Vere's Susan?"
"I, I don't know exactly. She's gone out, to a meeting or something."
"Vere? Vere has she gone? She must haff told you."
"No, I'm sorry Max, she didn't say where."
"Damn," he said, slamming down the phone.
My heart starts to pound. It's not my fault if Max is upset. This is the first time I've spoken to him since the meeting in Sloan Square. It was Rick Sneed who got me started when I first arrived here, it must be two weeks ago now. I know Max has got a big office upstairs somewhere but I've never seen it. I've overheard that he hardly ever comes into the office. Apparently, he's out and about most days, hobnobbing with the rich and famous, picking up tittle-tattle about the high and mighty of the land to use in his exclusive column. He knows what's going on behind the scenes, even at Buck House; that's why we get the court circular and all those upper class mags like the Tattler and Country Life, I suppose. Rick told me there were to be no scandalous revelations in MAX, just some subtle hints about who's in love with who, who's falling out of favour with the elite and a bit of discrete satire about the inner circle that Max inhabits. It all sounded a bit tame to me and I wondered who would be interested in such stuff.
Thank God Susan's back; I can just see her taking her coat off in the lobby.
"Any Messages, Charley?"
"Just one from Max, Susan. Well, not a message really, he sounded upset that you'd gone out."
"Christ, trust him to come into the office when I'm not here," she said, turning paler than her usual peaches and cream. She gave her hair a flick and rushed out into the lobby, as if drawn from afar by Max's magnetic presence.
Not long after, Susan returned, red faced and crying. She went to her desk and just sat there, working her way through a box of tissues, sobbing every now and then. No one went over to comfort her. I just sat paralysed with longing, wondering what Max could have done to upset her so much. I considered calling a taxi and taking her home myself, hoping to comfort her in her own home, since mine would be out of the question.
Before I could pluck up enough courage to go over and offer my services, the glass doors swung open and Max strode into the office looking grim. He was an inspired speaker, I had to give him that, even if he had upset Susan, but his message didn't go down too well.
"Ladies and gentleman. You know how important it is in dese early days to maintain de highest standards of professionalism, both as to behaviour in de vorkplace and to de contents of our vunderful magazine. It's vital dat our first issue makes an outstanding impression, since all de vorld will be votching and vaiting for us to fall."
This was when I realised that MAX had not yet appeared on the newsstands let alone on the coffee tables of the rich and famous.
"Vun mistake, Vun vord out off place, Vun article giving offence to de arbiters of taste and we're finished. You know we are relying on our exclusiff advertisers for funding; and dey will not settle deir accounts if de magazine is a flop. It's unfortunate ve have to go trough dis temporary cash flow hiatus, but dat's de nature of new ventures, I'm afraid. I vont you all to share in de financial success of Max, but before dis can happen ve must stretch every fibre of our being to bring dis about."
I felt a bit guilty about the lack of exercise my fibres had received over the last fortnight but even more fearful that my first monthly pay cheque might not be forthcoming. I was grateful to Max for the original handout, but that had long since gone on advance rent and a few mouthfuls of second-rate food.
"I call upon you all to be patient and rally round de flag. Let's make dis de best magazine launch effer." With these remarks, he swept out.
When he had gone back to his office or driven off somewhere in his Bentley, there was a general gathering of the clan and a lot of muttering about 'broken contracts'.
"Jesus, I can't work like this," Jasper Potts shouted, waving his arms about. "It's months since I've had an advance: who does he think is paying for my theatre tickets, the ballet, the opera or my lunches with agents and managers?"
"Don't you dare speak about Max like that," Sylvia Jarman said, raising her voice, "where would you be without him. You're just some cheap hack Max took pity on."
She was a young, ash blond with a slim figure, which now quivered with indignation.
"Well, my dear, we all know how you got the job, don't we," Jasper replied waspishly.
"How dare you speak to me like that, you pathetic little queer. What would you know about a real man like Max?"
""More than you might think, dearie."
"For God's sake stop bickering," Betty said, "Max is our only chance; without him where would any of us be?"
The third member of Max's female troupe was short and dark, with a neat figure and a pretty mouth painted with purple lipstick. If I hadn't been in love with Susan, I would probably be mooning after her.
The next week passed without major upsets, but my workload increased as the printing deadline approached. The office seemed to be filled with new faces, photographers, models, the odd celebrity, graphic designers and printers. My time was taken up with receiving supplies, ready for next week's print run. The supplies were stored in the basement at the rear of the premises. I hadn't realised that there was an editing studio and print shop below stairs, where recently employed Morlocks were busy setting up and testing their machines, while the Eloi played about upstairs.
I learned from Rick that Max had convinced the bank to increase our overdraft facility, so we could finance the first production run. I was relieved and asked him about my pay. He acted cagey and suggested I could have a small advance from petty cash if I was really hard pressed.
Things were a bit of a mess downstairs and Rick was worried about supplies going missing, especially computer equipment. He asked me to stay behind and check on deliveries against our inventory records. He said it would be a disaster if the print-run failed because some crucial supplies were missing or not delivered. I was a bit pissed off, being kept behind and in doubt if I would ever be paid. I was really hoping to catch Susan on her way home, for a quick cup of coffee and a meaningful chat, but she had already left by the time I went downstairs, clipboard in hand.
When I reached the basement and put the key in the door, I found it was already unlocked. The computer room was at the front and the larger print room next door. At the back was the storeroom where I was headed. There were no lights on except for the winking eyes of the computer terminals. Suspicious now, I crept into the darkness of the print room and listened. I thought I heard a scuffling sound in the storeroom and went immediately on the alert, thinking a robbery might already be in progress.
Then I heard a woman's voice begin to moan. "Oh, Christ. Yes, yes, do what you want with me. I love you so much. Oh, God, it's so good I can't bear it."
The thrashing noise became louder, interspersed with gutteral male cries in some foreign language. I felt sick at the thought that it must be Susan, but the voice was younger, almost certainly Sylvia's, but I couldn't be sure. I would have to make some excuse to Rick in the morning, saying I couldn't find the key or something.
The date for the print run had been set for Thursday and things got so busy that Rick didn't even mention the stock take; presumably because he thought I'd done it. It was all hands to the pumps; finalising and checking articles, making sure every detail was correct. To make matters worse, there was even a sealed section, whose contents were not disclosed to either the reader or to us. The only ones who knew anything were the printers and Max himself. The price was another bone of contention. Max insisted that it had to be ten guineas, to show it was a cut above the competition. If nothing else, it was a clever stunt to get the readers to pay the V.A.T.
Thursday finally came round and the presses began to roll. A security guard had been posted at the entrance to the basement and we were all forbidden to go into the print room. Around three o'clock, after a tense wait, Max came into the office, brandishing the first copy of MAX. It was big and glossy and certainly looked like it was worth ten guineas. The front cover showed the elegant figure of a man about town, standing beneath a big neon sign that read 'MAX' in electric blue. It was the kind of visual pun that appealed to Max, or so Arthur Nesbitt said at the time.
"Ladies and gentlemen, congratulations! At dis wery moment our magazine is being shipped for distribution both in England and abroad and will be awailable tomorrow morning at high-class newsagents and bookstores. I haff arranged for your monthly salaries to be paid into your bank accounts tomorrow morning. I'm sorry dat I haff to leave you now but I've a press conference to attend."
With a cheery wave of the magazine and shouts of joy and clapping from us, he waved goodbye and left the office.
That was the last time any of us saw Max. When we turned up on Friday, everything had been stripped bare overnight. All the office furniture, fittings and computers were gone. Down stairs it was the same; all the graphic design equipment, and printers had been cleared out. Rick rushed upstairs to Max's office, but nothing remained, not even the carpet.
The wailing began in earnest when it was discovered that no money had been deposited in our bank accounts.
"Jasper Pots strode up and down the boards repeating, "Dirty swine, rotten bastard."
Worst of all for me, Susan had not turned up and there was no reply when I tried her home number. I had to assume she had done a bunk with Max.
I couldn't really grasp what had happened. I'd seen the vans myself, through the window, collecting bales of magazines, so they must be on the street by now. I rushed to the nearest newsstand but they had never heard of MAX. By the time I'd checked out Smiths and a couple more newsagents in Sloan Street and the King's Road, I became convinced that all was lost.
I returned to the office with a heavy heart to see if the others had had better luck, but by the time I got there the place was deserted. I went down to the basement to see if I could find any clues but there were only a few empty cardboard boxes and the detritus of the hurried evacuation. I searched for anything that would explain my predicament but found nothing. Finally, I wandered out to the loading bay and found that the steel roller door had been left open. Among the litter of wood shavings and cardboard, I spied the glossy cover of the magazine. It was little compensation for losing my job but I kept it as a souvenir. I wondered if I could sell it outside the station for ten guineas, or even more since it was a unique first edition.
Not wanting to go home to my lonely bed-sitter, I went to the nearest coffee shop and treated myself to a cappuccino and a piece of cheesecake, breaking into my last five quid.
I sat alone at a glass-covered table and sipped my coffee, leafing through the heavily printed pages of the magazine. It was the usual stuff; adverts for shoes and watches that only the very rich could afford; snobby gossip about princes without principalities looking for beautiful wives.
The sealed section was very thick but I managed to rip open the plastic with the cake fork. At first I thought it was just a big advert for American Express but on closer inspection it turned out to be twenty pages of $1,000 dollar bills, printed five to a page.
I had just received my first paycheck from Max, $100,000. My rent was overdue, so I wondered, frantically, where I could get a guillotine at that time in the evening.