The course didn’t improve, but it didn’t get any worse at least. You learnt a technique for dealing with it: you just went into a special mental zone where you pretended to be someone else. You created something close to an out of body experience where you, Sarah Smith, watched from a distance while some other mug went through humiliating group exercises. It wasn’t you who had to mime out your vision for a fictional business while the rest of the group shouted ‘rubbish!’ at you, in an attempt to recreate the feeling of being a visionary leader in an unsupportive environment. It wasn’t you who had to make a bridge out of bits of A4 – and cross it – in a lame effort at team building. And it definitely wasn’t you who submitted to a bizarre line dancing exercise at the end of the last day.

Alice greets you with a glass of wine and a sympathetic smile. She knew from your texts that it had been a difficult week. Working in media she sometimes finds it hard to grasp the realities of corporate life.

‘Was it really that bad?’

You nod. ‘Worse.’

‘Tell me more about the thing where you had to pretend to be an elephant?’

You re-enact the ‘energiser’ where you had to run around the room like an elephant, to howls of laughter from Alice.

‘I don’t know, that sounds like fun.’

‘It’d be fun if you were doing it at a party with your drunken mates. Stone cold sober in a Travelodge in Grantham with a load of corporate numpties it is so so so not fun.’

‘Well you’ve been very brave. I just hope it was worth it.’

The reward for your stoicism came in the form of a certificate, confirming that you had completed the International Leadership Programme induction course, which you pin with mock pride to your desk. You’re also emailed a password for the ILP microsite. There you can surf the list of rotations, see what you’ve missed out on and what is still up for grabs. New York, Paris, Singapore, Dubai – the list goes on. The ritual humiliation of the course has opened up these cities to you. Yes, you think, it was worth it.

Over dinner at Simon’s you share your leadership course horror stories.

‘So when are you off? And where do they send you first?’ Simon asks, topping up your wine glass.

‘Oh it’s not quite that simple. I have to apply for a rotation first. There are a couple coming up in September but I’m not keen on them. Johannesburg and Antwerp...’

‘South Africa would be amazing,’ says Charlie.

You pull a face. ‘Cape Town would be amazing. But I’m not sure how nice a place Jo’burg is to live. They give you a driver with the job, for security. I find that a bit off putting.’

‘I find that kinda sexy,’ Simon smirks. ‘A driver. A big shiny car to whisk you from the boardroom to a glamorous bar. Mmmm.’

‘No, not for me, thank you very much. I want Paris, or San Francisco. Somewhere with a bit of culture, you know? New York would be amazing but I think you have to be really rated to get that one.’

‘But you are rated, aren’t you?’ Charlie asks, supportive as ever.

Alice gives you a knowing look as Charlie tucks into a second helping of pasta. She’s insisting on the theory that he’s still a little in love with you. You shake your head at her.

‘Given that they stuck me on the course about a week before it started, I’m not sure I was top of their list. No, I’m up against some proper hardcore corporate types. You have to kind of market yourself for the good rotations.’

Alice is puzzled. ‘What do you mean, market yourself?’

‘You know, network, go to meetings you’re not interested in just because the right people are there. Get in touch with people in the offices you want to work with to ‘share best practice’, all of that shite.’

‘Oh god,’ says Simon, looking really serious. ‘You’re lost to us already.’

‘What? No I’m not!’

‘You are, love. You just made speech marks in the air with your fingers.’ He re-enacts it for you, saying ‘best practice’ in a high pitched voice. ‘All we can see of you is your fabulous arse as you climb the corporate ladder and wave good bye.’

‘Fuck off,’ you say. ‘Suffice to say I’ll be sticking around a little longer. I’ve got to start getting people to take me seriously before I can go anywhere.’

‘Good luck with that,’ says Alice, who knows the sickie-chucking side of you too well to take you seriously.

Bored of all this career talk, Simon changes the subject. He boasts about a recent sexual adventure with a daytime TV host, and makes you guess who it was. Not being a big daytime TV watcher you’re non-plussed, but Alice guesses and is impressed. Then the conversation turns to Charlie. He’s been on a second date with some girl he met at Nita and Jay’s engagement party. You smile and add your own contribution to the ‘perfect 3rd date’ debate, all cool about it, like the good friends you have become.

On the inside, though, you’re smarting a little. Everyone knows the perfect third date ends in the bedroom. Damn it. You didn’t think Charlie would get to that before you did. Have you let your career ruin your love life already?!

You console yourself with the thought of life in San Francisco, where your English accent would be exotic, and you’d have a city full of fresh talent to explore. You set your sights on the rotation there. It’s perfect: no language barrier, it starts in January so you can have Christmas at home, and since it’s really a regional job rather than an international one it should be easier to get than, say, New York or Paris. It’s what you might call a lifestyle job rather than a career one. Probably right up your street.

So you start to do the self-promotion thing. You get in touch with Chip Heyer, who runs the San Francisco office, to let him know you’re going to apply for the post. You suggest that, regardless of your application, you share some learnings from a recent direct mail campaign with his marketing team. It’s a big old slice of bullshit pie and he eats it right up, responding with enthusiasm and setting up a call so you can talk further. So far so good.

Your luck appears to be in, as Chip Heyer happens to be in London in a few weeks, on business. He’s going to move to New York for a bigger role in the spring – but you’re sure he’d still have an influence on whether you’d get the San Fran rotation. Anyway, he’ll be a useful person to know. You start to copy him in on random bits of ‘best practice’ and self-promotion emails about your amazing achievements to your senior management team. Wingnut makes a habit of stopping by your desk and asking how things are going. You think people are really starting to take you seriously. Well, everyone except Joan who mimes vomiting as Wingnut walks away. Ah well, you’ll leave Joan behind some day soon. Onwards and upwards!

It’s unseasonably cold, and you’d rather be in comfy trousers and a cosy little top, but Chip Heyer arrives today, so you wear your new fitted dress with the pencil skirt, and high high heels. You want to look superhot and career minded too, so the Miss Moneypenny look is a good way to go. Judging by the appreciative looks you get on the tube you have made a good move.

‘Hi!’ booms a potato faced guy who appeared out of nowhere.

You close down Popbitch immediately and swivel on your chair to give him your best smile. ‘Hi!’ you say, brightly.

‘I’m sorry to trouble you but I wonder if you could help me. I’m looking for Sarah Smith? I think she sits around here somewhere?’

‘That’s me. You must be Chip.’ You stand up to shake hands, taking in his pleat-fronted chinos and allowing him to take in your foxy dress.

It is indeed Chip, and he’s everything the name and background would suggest. Unashamedly cheesy, completely lacking in irony, super-polite, and massively into corporate life. This much you learn over the course of your hour long meeting. You think it goes pretty well for you, although that American thing of being really nice and enthusiastic makes him hard to read. Still, you get across all the skills you wanted to convey.

Later that day Chip swings by your desk again. His dinner engagement fell through, and he wonders if you’d like to go for a bite to eat to talk about San Francicso. He wants to tell you all about what a great place it is to live. You take this to be a good sign, and text Alice to ask her to tape Heroes. Dinner with Chip might be quite amusing, should be useful networking, and it will certainly be expense-able, so you’d be daft to turn it town.

Conforming to Californian stereotype, Chip sips rather than swigs his wine. You’re a glass ahead of him by the time your finish your starters. He’s waxing lyrical about the ocean, as he calls it, and the walks. His wife and kids love it. Your eyes flick involuntarily to his left hand. No wedding ring, you thought he wasn’t wearing one. Men who don’t wear wedding rings are suspect, in your view. As he bangs on about you tuck into your salad (it’s the sort of dress you can’t overeat in) and order another glass of wine.

‘So I guess we’re gonna miss all that when we move to New York. The kids are gonna miss the outdoor life.’

You nod, ‘Yes, it’ll be hard to get outdoor space in New York, I guess.’

‘Yeah, that’s right. And my wife wants to find a place right in the city, you know, not out in the suburbs. She figures we might as well make the most of the cultural opportunities, get right into the heart of it, you know?’

‘Yeah, absolutely.’

He shrugs, and pulls a hangdog expression. ‘Personally I’d be as happy to be out in New Jersey, get a place with a nice big back yard. But it’s not just about me.’

‘Family life, eh?’

‘That’s right. How about you? You got any family?’

‘God no!’ you say, laughing at the thought. ‘No, I’m pretty much without responsibilities to be honest. Which is great as it means I can up sticks and go anywhere.’

‘Right. Young and single,’ says Chip, looking you up and down with undisguised interest. ‘I envy you your freedom.’

You say nothing, but smile back at him. You’re starting to wonder whether this could be more than just a career opportunity. Despite his talk of wife and kids, he’s acting like a man who’s alone in the city and looking for some trouble. And if he was – and you did... – surely it’d help your prospects of that San Francisco job? You reprimand yourself for this thought, and turn the conversation back to work.

Chip only surveys the pudding menu briefly before discarding it.

‘I’ve gotta keep myself in shape,’ he says, patting his stomach.

You think he’s in pretty good shape as it is, from what you can tell by his rather loose shirt. You sweep your eyes across his broad shoulders and chest, and look again at his hands – great big farmer’s hands they are – to remind yourself that although he’s married, he’s the type that doesn’t advertise it with a ring.

‘But hey,’ Chip says, leaning towards you. ‘Don’t let me stop you indulging yourself. I’ll happily sit back and watch and wait while you enjoy something sweet, if you’d like.’

You smile spontaneously at the innuendo in his voice. ‘That’s okay,’ you say, ‘I’m full, thanks.’

Sitting back in your chair you look him in the eye and lick your lips. You are a little tipsy, but you know exactly what you’re doing. And so, it would seem, does Chip.

‘How about a coffee?’ he suggests.

You nod, slowly.

‘We could always go to my hotel and grab one there. They have a great little lounge – really English, I love it – and the coffee is excellent.’

You know you’re not going to be drinking coffee in the hotel lounge. What’s really on offer is a little tour of his hotel bed. The chance to have sex with someone other than Charlie for the first time in years. A little pillow talk that could help secure that San Fran rotation. Or, the possibility of looking like a bit of a slapper, being basically a source of shame for Chip, and jeopardising your career prospects in the process. It could be fun, but it’s a bit of a risk.

Well?

One last choice

 

If you go along with the hotel suggestion, go to Chapter Seven XXI to face the consequences

If you insist on having your coffees in the restaurant, go to Chapter Seven XXII to face the consequences