Today we present the 6th Place winner of the Becoming Writer Anniversary Contest.
Grayson was forever moaning. He would sit at his window seat in our offices in Covent Garden, sipping lapsang from his permanent-staffer’s mug, and have a right good whinge. “I used to be an adjective, now I’m a noun.”
It drove most people mad, but I quite liked him. Perhaps it was his white blonde hair and seaglass eyes, or perhaps I was angling for one of those mugs myself.
“Don’t encourage him, Irene,” my colleague, Bing, said, in the Ladies toilets at work. “He could whine for England.”
She passed me her Lancome eyeliner. A freebie, I saw instantly, the small size that came with the mascara gift set, not the full size one that cost twenty quid. Bing was a permie too, but still on the lowest rung. I applied a heavy smear of black around my lower lid and, on a whim, ended in a cat flick: we contractors can wear our make up how we want. “He’s got a point. We used to be illustrators, artists, writers, inventors. Now we are all just non-technical resource, all just creatives.”
“Suck it up,” said Bing.
“Right. Because ‘creative’ as a noun was invented by people who weren’t.”
Post-work drinks was a regular thing, despite the massive burden this placed on all of our budgets. A round of drinks at London prices – you could rent a small flat for the same amount, providing you didn’t mind Lewisham. Of course in Lewisham, no offence, you wouldn’t be celebrating the win of the largest single piece of work our firm had ever pitched for. It was the Wolf contract, the ultimate prize, the design and delivery of their winter campaign for the following year – across all products, fragrance, skincare, clothing, jewellery. They wanted a full concept workup! We handed over those debit cards and slurped down Japanese ale like there was no tomorrow.
“I can already see it,” said Bing. The whole team was hunched round a miniature table in the pub opposite work. “Delicate detailing, lace and frost mixed together, swirling over the product, against a steampunk black background…strength and fragility…”
“That was their last year’s strapline,” I said, and Grayson looked at me.
“All right, cleverknickers, what’s your idea?”
I looked out of the window. It was hard to picture winter, on this mild April evening. Even in London nature leaked out: nesting swallows and pink cherry blossom and a sense of swelling potential. “I don’t know,” I said, but I was lying.
The account managers, sorry, ‘commercials’ were all over the new project, of course. Under their supervision the work was parcelled up and divided by cost and importance among our teams. As a contractor, I got the shite end of the deal: finishing, offering alternative colouring. Polishing other people’s work. I could do it, of course, but it filled my days with high-pressure yet unsatisfying busyness. At lunch I would walk out in the pretence of fetching sandwiches for others, and wander around Covent Garden and down towards Charing Cross, and take photographs.
Although it was April, the light was harsh: this was London, and no matter how many tables you put on pavements, London will never look like Italy. I liked that, the fact that movies shot in the UK always look like movies shot in the UK, because it’s always so bloody overcast. And this worked now in my favour. I snapped away at the corners of nineteenth century buildings with the sky bleak above them; I grabbed shots of black painted railings and the fluting on Nelson’s Column and the depressing grey light sheening the Thames.
Grayson wrinkled his nose at the deli sandwiches I plonked on his desk. “Crayfish and rocket again?”
“Oh my god,” I said. “You are so London.” I looked at his screen. “Still working on Wolf fragrances?”
He rolled his eyes. “It’s a world of frost and sparkle.” He hesitated. “Come for a drink tonight.”
“Will I get let off fetching your sandwiches tomorrow if I say yes?”
His eyes, the colour of pond ice, were wary. “Yes.”
“Then yes. Not the usual place though.”
“No.” We were striking a deal, agreeing secrecy, right here in the office under everyone’s nose. Fraternisation was encouraged to get the commercially-viable ideas going, discouraged to prevent emotional meltdown when there were deadlines to meet.
“Text me at half six,” I said, and went back to my polishing.
“What did you talk about? To Grayson?” Bing wanted to know. We were back in the Ladies loos, notionally applying makeup but actually just taking a break from Wolf. Their first-concepts deadline was almost due.
“It was a date,” I said. “The usual date stuff.”
“His favourite colour. Your home town.”
“My god,” I said, “what kind of dates do you go on?”
She grimaced. “I’ve forgotten.”
I patted her shoulder. “So had I, but it was nice to remember.” Before she could react with any kind of squeal, I added, “Top secret, OK? I don’t need the hassle and something tells me Grayson’s ego is more delicate than it looks.” She nodded. “Oh, by the way, I’ve got a thing at lunch today. I won’t be popping out for the sarnies.”
The light was perfect. That is, the light was shabby, grainy, six o’clock in the morning light, even though it was one pm. In London you can taste the grit in the air, and today’s silvery glint reminded you with every breath.
I tracked Grayson to the deli. His route took him down Longacre and all the way towards Trafalgar Square, a ridiculous distance for a sandwich, but he really was addicted to those crayfish and rocket. Traffic was bad. He frequently had to stop and wait at junctions, and every time he did I took his picture.
I took two hundred shots in the time he spent fetching his lunch, and when I got home, at least ten of them were brilliant. I stared at his sharp profile, the pale skin, and those unusual eyes. He really was beautiful, and if he fell in love with me I might not protest. Of course, it wouldn’t last once he knew what I’d done.
I shook my head. My tiny flat in Lewisham might be scruffy, no offence Lewisham, but it had all I needed for full project research and, importantly, pitch development. I pulled up the shots from all my previous lunchtime walks and set to work.
The commercials came back shattered, and called us creatives into the board room for the post-disaster meeting. The Wolf project was over. Our concept had failed. Too last year, too seen it before, too trying too hard.
Bing pressed her knuckles to her mouth and ran from the room. The concept had been hers, admittedly, but the whole creative team had taken it on board. Mine had been the only dissenting voice and naturally as a contractor I was disregarded.
But then the catastrophe grew worse. Our firm had been ousted, ousted by an independent with a concept so fresh and dazzling that Wolf were prepared to tear up contracts, pay off our firm and switch teams without so much as a lawsuit. The glory and also the pile of money we dreamed of would now be going elsewhere.
I stood at the back, leaning against the wall with my arms folded. I was about to be booted, as a massive stream of income had just been lost.
The commercial at the front started talking about lessons to be learned, but Grayson turned around and lay his gaze on me. Even across a room full of overwrought failures, his magnetism made me shiver. He blinked, made some sarcastic, typical-sounding comment, and stalked from the room. As he passed me he tapped my elbow, and I turned and followed him away.
“Show me,” he said, in the metallic light by his view of the city.
I held my breath as he swiped through the images on my tablet.
He handed me back the device, and picked up his coat. He began hunting for his phone, pocketed it, and said, “Let’s go. Let’s go before anyone here gets sent these pictures.”
In the lift on the way down, he said, “If it had been anyone but you…”
I smiled. “It could only have been you. Your face. You are the winter wolf. No matter what time of year. I had to show them, I had to pitch it to them, I had to -“
He kissed me.
I said, “You’ll lose your job if you come with me.”
He shrugged. “You know I hated it anyway.”
The lift doors opened and we stepped out into the mild May afternoon, breathing grit and freedom.