It doesn’t take long for rumours to spread in the office, or really, within the company itself. It’s just that the office staff tend to gossip among themselves, while the manufacturing sites tend to do the same. That would explain why Douglas has never heard anything about Martin in advance. The slim, good looking, slightly hapless quality manager is obviously the talk of the plant but such gossip probably only goes so far as the site based buyers, who are a law unto themselves anyway. They answer the phone with both department and site name after all. Douglas isn’t likely to get anything out of them even if he tries. They view head office with suspicion, possibly for having clean floors and a café, as far as Douglas can tell. Douglas has seen at least one of them about, infrequently, at head office, clutching a coffee cup and hunched over at a hot desk. Unfortunately, there’s no predicting when that chap will turn up, or really what he’s there for, so Douglas is completely out of luck if he wants to make enquires down that avenue. Not that he does. Not really.
Douglas does, of course, pass on the intel that Martin Crieff isn’t quite so terrible in person. Similarly, he does point out to the rest of the team that Martin has a point about a certain supplier who seems to really be trying to get out of making those parts. He gets some side-eyed glances for his trouble and the mutter that until said site visit he only ever referred to Martin as ‘that horrible man’. The genial way that he promotes Quality’s cause certainly has an effect and the rumour mill is spinning into action mere minutes after they vacate the conference room where they’ve had their catch up meeting. Douglas doesn’t pay too much attention to it or at least pretends not to. It’s late afternoon after all, and he’s going home soon, well, as soon as he makes those chase up calls for Martin. He doesn’t usually make too much use of the headset attached to his phone but, this afternoon, with a whole list of calls to make and spreadsheets to update, it makes sense to keep his hands free. Fitting the headset over his hair has been a point of contention for as long as he’s had it, ever since their team got new phones, so he’s well aware that he’s earning more than a few surprised looked when he puts it on. It’s one of the many downsides to the national obsession with open plan offices. Everyone can see everything. He’s read enough Dilbert to know that North America seem to be happy with cube farms where you’re safely tucked away from everybody else. Despite the preference for being able to see everything around you, there are, at least, dividers between opposite desks, and Douglas is luckily tucked away in a corner by the windows. He tends to pin reminders to the divider, mostly consisting of printouts of meeting minutes, with critical items highlighted, and lists of production lines. In fact, the only non-work related item on the divider in front of him is a Radio Times clipping, of an actor from some Radio 4 production, wearing a pilot’s uniform. His justification being that its industry related because of the series setting. His less publicly aired, but obvious, justification being because said actor is a pretty young thing who is rather easy on the eyes.
Two solid hours of calls later, Douglas’ shoulders feel stiff and he wants, desperately, to go get himself an espresso. He could in fact but there are just two more calls to go. Two more hastened delivery dates to update and he can send the finished spreadsheet to Martin, and, quite possibly, give himself an excuse to make a follow up call in the morning. He’s leaning back, stretching from where he’s been hunched over, when one of his colleagues taps him on the shoulder.
“Coffee?” She holds a coffee cup out to him.
“Go on, take it.” She glances over at the Radio Times clipping. “You can’t write odes to Benedict’s lips without caffeine.”
“Thank you. I wasn’t.”
“Really. I’ve been chasing up this overdue list for-“ Douglas stops and deliberately takes a sip of his coffee.
“Of course, the new favourite ginger around here.” She leans her hip against his desk, settling in. “Let’s hear about him then.”
“Let me see… he’s ginger. Was there anything else you wanted to know?”
“Very descriptive. I’ll take that information away with me then, shall I?”
“You do that. Thank you for the coffee but-“
“But you have to make those calls so you new leading man is convinced of how terrific you are.”
Douglas grins into his coffee cup as she leaves. Of course he likes Linda and they work well together, but she’s one of Herc’s old cronies, the pair of them worked together on the last major campaign back in April, so if she knows, or suspects anything, Herc will know about it too. That brings Douglas’ spirits down a notch. He doesn’t want to deal with Herc any time soon if he can help it but, he knows for a fact, all the marketing teams are back in the building this week, so Herc will be about somewhere. Still, there’s no point in worrying about it, so Douglas puts his headset back on, dials the next supplier and smiles as he goes through his greeting spiel, because it most certainly does carry in his voice. Whether or not he gets the results that he wants are less important than making it clear that he is chasing these details and trying to be proactive about resolving the situation. He briefly considers cc-ing his manager in to the e-mail that he’s going to send to Martin but then decides against it because he’s feeling a little cheeky and Martin is going to get a line or two referencing their planned date.
Chasing up the information he needs and presenting it sensibly takes far longer than Douglas had hoped for, though, admittedly, not longer than he really expected it to take. It’s gone six by the time he finally stands up from his desk to stretch. The office is deserted apart from a lone voice in the far corner, evidently on the phone to an overseas supplier, chatting away lightly in a way that Douglas recognises as closing out a deal. Douglas has done training courses aplenty about negotiation skills and reads the occasional sales technique pamphlet in his spare time so he recognises the familiar camaraderie engendered by a good deal done on all sides. Nobody is in this business to ‘win’ after all, and any buyer going into a negotiation thinking that that’s the point, is going to fail. Their industry, more than most, is a cohesive unit after all. People move from one company to another with ease, and the sales engineer you worked with to close a particularly profitable deal four years ago, could easily turn up again as your own supporting site engineer given time. The logistics of it all, the politics, the careful consideration that needs to be given to every deployment of soft skills, are part of the reason that Douglas loves his job. They’re also a good chunk of the reason that he still talks to Herc at all.
Douglas and Herc have something of a history together. A history that, in their younger days, they flaunted more than was probably wise. Douglas had been a junior buyer, thrilled with having secured a position at such a successful company, and more than a little prone to bragging about his sourcing skills. Herc had come in through the corporate graduate scheme and, emboldened by the gentle easing in that it had produced, had been fairly overt, and more than a little smug, when he’d made a play for Douglas’ attention. Somehow they’d clicked: The bolshy young buyer and the arrogant graduate. It had been more or less inevitable that they’d engaged in a, highly publicised, office romance. Looking back, what surprises Douglas more than anything else, is how it had all ended. They’d gone on holiday together a few times and the last time had been no different. They’d rented a cottage somewhere in West Country for a week and had spent their time just talking and digging through the gourmet hamper they’d brought with them. It hadn’t been a dramatic severing of ways, more like a slow petering out of the momentum that had kept them going. They’d shook hands when Herc had dropped Douglas home for the last time and that had been the end of it.
There’d been no ill-feeling between them or really much feeling at all by the end of it. Douglas respects that. Unfortunately, Herc doesn’t, which is why Douglas generally tries to avoid him. While they haven’t dated in years now, and Douglas has been through three serious relationships in the interim, Herc still behaves as if he’s Douglas’ boyfriend. He’s still prone to warning people off, being overly familiar, stepping automatically into Douglas’ personal space, and doing many of the things that Douglas would associate with a closer relationship than they’ve had in years. Not that Herc wants Douglas back. Neither of them is under any illusion that they ought to get back together and pretend that theirs is a grand romance. It’s just that Herc is annoyingly proprietary in nature and, despite the years, seems to think that he ought to be warning off everyone that comes near them. It’s why Douglas doesn’t date other office staff these days. He tried, once upon a time, and it had ended in disaster. That particular boyfriend had wound up paranoid that Douglas was still dating Herc behind his back.
Of course staying late at the office always reminds Douglas of Herc, because he recalls being picked up from the main building in an always flashy car and whisked away to an appropriately upmarket country pub on many occasions. Even now, Douglas reflects, it would be nice to have someone pick him up and say flattering things to him on the way home. He has a car of course, but he has it for practical reasons, and a Lexus CT is far less flashy than anything that Herc will be driving. The man may be overbearing and far too familiar but he’s always had fantastic taste in luxury cars as far as Douglas is concerned. Of course that brings his thoughts round to Martin, and the fact that he drives an off-road vehicle, that looks like it’s taken off road regularly. In the sanitised, brightly lit, office, Douglas finds himself suddenly wondering if accepting that date was such a good idea after all. It doesn’t sound like they have too much in common, when he goes over what he recalls. He’s used to slightly paunchy men with soft hands and expensive taste. Martin looks like the kind of man who probably, genuinely, lives in the countryside and skins his own rabbits to make stew. Except, both Douglas’ previous girlfriends had been engineers, with blunt fingernails and a directness that made him squirm at times. It’s just that he’s never dated a man who wasn’t another office worker and then Herc had put pay to the idea of dating other men at all.
Douglas is still turning the matter over in his head, struggling with his bag, and the fact that his laptop seems to have grown heavier, when he turns down the last stretch of corridor that leads towards the main entrance. Of course he walks straight into Herc. The impact sends Douglas stumbling backwards, dangerously close to dropping both himself, and his company laptop, onto the floor. Strong hands catch hold of him and, while he lets his bag slip more sedately to the floor, its instinct that leads him to lean against Herc’s chest for some, brief, recovering seconds.
“Are you alright?”
“Fine. Just… give me a minute. I think I’ve given myself tennis elbow.”
Herc’s grip on his arms loosens but he doesn’t let go.
“You should be careful.”
Which is a curious, though typical, statement for Herc to make. They’ve known each other long enough for Douglas to detect the hint of wavering in Herc’s tone, to make him suspect that Herc isn’t talking about being mindful of where he’s going at all.
“We haven’t had dinner for a while.”
Douglas looks up then, because while it’s true, it’s also a ridiculous thing for them to be talking about. They haven’t had dinner together since they dated. Douglas makes to pull away but Herc grasp on his arms tightens again.
“Look, what’s this about?”
For a split second there’s a flicker of worry etched into Herc’s features. He looks so concerned that Douglas worries that this is the beginning of some life-shattering crisis.
“Nothing much. I just thought we could spend some time together.”
The honeyed tone that Douglas remembers is back, along with that self-assured half-smile, half-smirk. This is Herc on the make all over again, and, inconveniently, typically, just in time for someone to pass them in the corridor. It’s no wonder that everybody seems to think that they’re still dating. It’s enough to make Douglas wonder if Herc is deliberately staging it all.
“Yes, really. Why is that so hard to believe?”
“Because the last time you asked me to have dinner with you was, oh, over a decade ago.”
“Almost two now. So, how about it? Make it an anniversary present.”
“So… you’re asking me out to dinner to celebrate our break up? Really, Herc, is that the best you could come up with?”
“I would have thought it a little forward if I’d just bought you stockings instead.”
“Don’t you dare. I’d never fit into them now anyway.”
“You never did wear that… thing, with the marabou feathers, for me.”
“I couldn’t fit into that back then either.”
The memories are hard to fight down. He was younger then, slimmer, and utterly enthralled with the feel of silk and lace and another man’s touch on his skin. Though he’ll never admit it, Herc had been his first serious relationship with another man. It’s set the bar pretty high, perhaps, almost impossibly so.
“Have dinner with me tonight.”
He has a date with Martin in a mere matter of days. He’d almost kissed Martin earlier today. Conventional wisdom therefore suggests that his best recourse would be to turn Herc down. No good can come of going to dinner with an ex-boyfriend, who’s suddenly ramped up his interest, on the eve of Douglas showing interest in another man. They’d joked, back in the day, that they were each going to allow each other exceptions to their monogamy. Herc had opted for the trim, blond, thing in some cult horror series that Douglas has never seen. Douglas had wound up with the better deal and had claimed airline captains generally. Not that any of that should matter anymore. It’s not as if he’s cheating on Herc by going on a date with Martin. They haven’t been together for almost twenty years now.
“I really shouldn’t.”
“Why ever not?”
Douglas doesn’t have a decent answer to that. He can just tell, deep down in his gut, that this is going to be a terrible idea, but he can’t find a way to rationalise that. Even if Herc is looking for a bit of easy action tonight it’s not as if Douglas can’t turn him down. He can just decline gracefully. There’s nothing to stop him from doing so and Herc is a perfect gentleman in that respect.
“I suppose it can’t hurt.”
It’s only when Herc lets go of him and steps back that Douglas remembers that Herc’s been holding him in place all this time. There’s something about that that makes Douglas wary but he doesn’t have time to consider it because Herc is talking again.
“Good man. We can take my car, I’ve got a new one. You’ll love it.”
“Oh, God. What kind of mid-life crisis are you driving around in now?”
“Aston Martin DB9 Volante. She’s an absolute beauty.”
“Hold on, my car’s in the carpark-“
“We can pick it up later.”
It all seems reasonable enough of course. They’ll go to dinner and then Herc will drop him off, and Douglas will simply go home. The fact that Herc is aware that he needs to bring Douglas back to pick up his car seems like a good indication of how the evening with play out. They’ll have dinner, talk, flirt a little and then the evening will end with them both going home to separate beds.
“By the way, I hear you’re dating another engineer again.” Herc begins as they head down the corridor.
“You heard wrong. We’ve got our first date on Friday.”
“Really? Leaving it so long. Aren’t you afraid she’ll get snapped up by somebody else at the office by then?”
“He’s not based here. And no, I’m not worried.”
“Not based- Douglas, don’t tell me you’re slumming?”
“He works at- Oh, for God’s sake, Herc. It’s Martin bloody Crieff, alright. Yes, that Martin Crieff. He asked me out today and I said yes.”
“Did he really? How very forward of him.”
“What’s that meant to mean?”
“Oh, nothing much. Just… well, you probably don’t want to be mentioning it that much.”
“Why not?” Douglas doesn’t try to hide his annoyance.
“Far be it for me to say but, well, don’t you think it a little… unprofessional of him?”
“What? No, of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with it. He asked me out: I said yes. What’s wrong with that?”
“Not the asking you part. It’s just, under the circumstances, I can’t imagine it would be looked on very kindly if anyone were to- well, that’s neither here nor there. No one could possibly question your professionalism.”
Except they could. Not officially. Douglas has done nothing that isn’t above board, but he can see where Herc’s going with this line of argument. It could, potentially, look very awkward for the both of them if word got around that Douglas had swanned into the plant for a meeting and had come away with a boyfriend. Not that Martin’s hands would be much cleaner. It’s just that with Douglas’ reputation the blame would fall squarely on his shoulders as far as the office gossips were concerned.
“I’m still going.” Douglas mutters, half inaudibly.
“Of course. Of course. Wasn’t suggesting otherwise.” Herc’s unspoken objection hangs in the air between them.
“Oh, don’t mind me. You know what I’m like.”
“Thank you, Douglas. I always try to keep an open mind in regards to how I’m coming across.”
“Of course you do.”
Maybe going to dinner isn’t such a great idea at all. Douglas certainly doesn’t want to spend the evening worrying about Herc’s suggestion of perceived unprofessional conduct. He comes to a stop and it takes Herc a moment to realise that Douglas is no longer beside him.
“Look, Herc, not that this isn’t a lovely idea but…”
“I’m sorry. I’ve upset you by saying all that.”
“No. No, you’re quite right. It’s something I should have considered.”
“Don’t. If we let ‘should’ get in the way all the time nobody would ever get anything done.”
“Perhaps you’re right.”
“Come on, let me buy you dinner, to make it up to you.”
Of course, with Herc, nothing ever goes to plan. Herc does drop Douglas off at the office to pick up his car at the end of the evening, and Douglas does get to go home to his own bed, but nothing is quite that simple. In fact, while Douglas has accomplished all the technical points of his plan for the evening he’s failed spectacularly in one major respect. And all the marketing jargon in the world can’t make the fact that he had sex with his ex-boyfriend, in his car, in a lay-by, mere days before his date with another man, sound like it was a good idea.