11th November 2020
Part One. London. August 1991 – September 1992
Everything came to a head for Richard Marshall that summer.
The University course and campus life was nowhere near as exciting as he had been expecting; no budding life-long friendships, merely uninspiring inoffensive exchanges with fellow students. The lectures either confused or bored him. Indeed, as the year progressed, he felt the only reason he went at all, was to get away from the bed-sit.
The bed-sit. Another way life was cheating him. The landlord, a rather over-familiar sort, had oversold it, telling him what was going to happen, what improvements were going to be made, how the washing machine would “soon” be repaired and Richard had believed all of it. But one point irritated him beyond all others.
When he had been shown the house, he had glimpsed a very attractive girl hanging her washing in the garden, said washing consisting solely, it seemed, of black lingerie. He didn’t know that it was her last week in the house and that she would be gone before he arrived.
A suitable metaphor of his luck. No wild student parties, no hot flat-mates running around in skimpy underwear.
The house was home to a bleak collection of loners and misfits: a recently divorced teacher, a prudish secretary, a Danish student, unbelievably arrogant, and a girl about whom he knew little and wished to know even less. Unfortunately her boyfriend had semi-officially moved in and tended to walk around the house singing, “Arsenal, Arsenal.”
Richard had to move and to do that, he needed money. To do anything in London, he needed money, so that made the decision easier; he wouldn’t go back for the second year of the Physics degree, but would take some time out, get a job, save up.
Initially, he went to a temp agency and got some unskilled factory work, then unskilled kitchen work, then progressed to a record store, for the Christmas rush, subsequently onto a bigger branch in the new year, then to a provisions shop in the West End. He moved to a better bed-sit, bigger room, less tenants. He enjoyed being able to buy food other than dried beans, and had signaled his new affluence with five different types of deodorant.
One day he was in Fordham Books & Tapes, looking at the well-stocked Physics Department, and began a conversation with the elegant Finnish lady who worked there. He jokingly asked about a job and she told him that with his background in physics and a university education, he had a good chance, providing he applied before the post-study student onslaught.
Thus, at the beginning of June 1992, having passed the perfunctory interview, Richard was offered a place in either the Physics or Medicine departments and, unsurprisingly, choose the former. On his first day he was directed to his new post; the Theology Department.
That gave him plenty of scope for jokes, but they, like the work, soon got tired. He was alone in the small top floor corner of the immense five-floor store, and found himself dealing not with quiet vicars or genteel old ladies, but obnoxious occultists who cursed him for not stocking out-of-print diabolical texts or people proclaiming that they would be paying in US Dollars, as printed on the back cover. Every second customer demanded a discount because they were buying Bibles and how dare he profit off the prophets. Richard became very familiar with camels and needles.
Evidently, working in a bookshop in the West End would be no picnic. The threats of assault, the atmosphere of barely repressed anger and frustration and the constant alerts for shoplifters and pickpockets made for an unpleasant environment. Something had to done.
Richard, at first, dressed the part, turning up in a suit, causing no end of amusement among the other staff who were very causally dressed. He toned down, by degree, but still chose to wear a smart shirt and more often than not, a tie, though now it was more for irony than fashion. It also helped in the playing of pranks.
By mid August, there was no pretence that this was in any way a serious job. It paid a weekly wage, but staff were mostly on temporary contracts. This created an attitude where as long as staff did the minimum required, which most of them did, they would be left alone to do as they pleased.
Richard had been a fan of Mark Twain, more specifically Tom Sawyer and how he wouldn’t just sit back, like Huck Finn, and allow things to happen, but would instigate them. He must follow the same approach.
At first, he left his department, which was hardly a hub of activity, to talk to other members of staff. Philosophy was next door, but the staff were too pretentious, as if it were they who had actually written the books, so Richard peregrinated further, eventually covering most of the five floors. He would go up to the desks and ask the staff if everything was ‘OK ?’ Afterwards, he would explain that he was doing the regulation ‘OK check’. The foreign staff seemed to respond better to this than the British who mainly just looked at him and shook their heads.
One night, after clocking out, an unpleasant, heavily-built man, working in Military, got out of the staff lift, letting the door swing back into young Charlotte (who was in classics), giving her a hefty blow to the head. Charlotte was one of several women that Richard liked and had frequently yet innocently flirted with, when their lunch breaks coincided.
Richard, who comprised the third person in the lift, had just cause to caress Charlotte’s head and plant a gentle kiss there. Unfortunately she had a second job to get to and therefore couldn’t go for a drink, to help ‘numb the pain’.
A few days later, and for several weeks thereafter, the villain of the piece received, among the usual delivery of books on uniforms, weaponry and famous battles, various self-help books on dealing with obesity, addressed to him, personally. Ordering books was just a phone call and a Department number away.
The next step was harassing new staff with instructions to meet him half an hour before work in the office, on the following Friday, for the informal Arabic lessons.
Four months into his contract, having already decided that he needed at least another year to save up before continuing his degree, Richard saw that there was a new intake of staff. He checked out the fresh victims, deciding that the two women were not suitable at all, but that the lanky lost-looking lad in Technical was a prime target. He went to the first floor, ostensibly to borrow a Hoover, but more to get background information. After a brief chat with Angela, he went over to the desk where Simon and Ben were engaged in one of their inane conversations.
“What’s the new guy’s name ?”
“Dirk,” offered Simon.
“No it ain’t, it’s Chris Somingkkk.”
“Well, which one is it ?”
“What you going to do this time ? Arabic ?” asked Ben.
“No, got something a little more … you’ll see. So, who is he ?”
“Yeah, Ben’s right, Chris’s his moniker. Friday’s best, no Angela.”
“Friday ? Right. You’ll both be here ? Good. Just follow my lead. No giggling.”
That lunchtime, Richard went out and bought a specimen jar from a nearby chemists.