1 Casablanca Movie Poster (original)
1 crate of 1989 Krug
1 pair of boxer shorts belonging to a member of the board (authenticated)
1 London Ritz Hotel room key
1 first edition by Ernest Hemingway (any title)
1 Orient Express blind
1 Tom Cruise autograph
1 Harrods porter’s uniform
1 Labour party membership card
1 box of Christmas crackers
1 Quaglino’s ashtray
1 piece of Berlin wall
My boss, Ollie, threw the list onto his desk and said, ‘How the fuck are we going to get our hands on a Labour Party membership card?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘but I’m on it.’
That was not entirely true. But I had time to figure something out. Half of our team had flown to Singapore to sign the deal that was going to secure our bonus, but Fergus, our legal counsel, was on the floor and had promised to sit down with me at lunchtime. I trusted Fergus. He was normal: he was married to a hairdresser and he never screamed at me.
Our trainee Tiffany had also promised to help. She was bunked up in one of the conference rooms that lined the wall on every floor of our building near the Bank of England. A recent Cambridge graduate, she’d been my ally since joining us in September. We were the same age and, like me, Tiffany had brought shame on our desk – albeit for different reasons: She was the first employee at the bank to have failed her FSA exams twice and was currently revising for her final attempt. With the Financial Services Authority, it’s three strokes and you’re out, so Tiffany was under pressure.
It didn’t make sense. The test was multiple choice and there were traders downstairs without an A-level who had laughed their way to the last x. Mentally, Tiffany was as bright as those guys. Physically, she was brighter than anyone. Every day she wore a neon-coloured skirt suit. Green, pink, yellow, with matching shoes, illuminating an office whose décor gravitated towards grey.
At 12.30, I brought her a cheese and ham sandwich and a bag of salt and vinegar crisps. Five minutes later, Fergus walked in. He sat down, cracking open an Orange Tango while scanning the treasure list.
‘I can’t see any major issues here,’ he said, ‘other than the autograph and the crackers.’
‘The crackers?’ Tiffany and I said.
‘And obviously, somebody will have to drive to Paris, if the committee are really serious about the Ferrari.’
‘They are. All items must be presented upon arrival,’ I said. ‘And I lose my job unless we win.’
‘Oh yes, I’d forgotten about that,’ said Fergus. ‘That is such shite timing. January is our busiest month.’ He rose to leave. ‘The good news is, you can tick the signed boxer shorts. I play golf with Charles Monrose. I’ll tell him it’s for charity.’
‘So far, so good,’ I said to Tiffany.
‘I can organise the stripper,’ she replied.
I didn’t even attempt not to look surprised.
‘My cousin,’ she said. ‘If there’s payment.’
‘Sure there is,’ I said.
We could have asked one of the girls from Michael Hunt, but I reckoned that’s what all the other teams would do. Keeping it in the family was more original.
‘I may also be able to supply the Harrods uniform,’ Tiffany added, ‘my dad works there.’
She pushed the list and her empty plate towards me, brushed crumbs off the table and picked up her exercise book.
Leaving the conference room, I spotted Gabriel from the Americas desk by the coffee machine and rushed across the floor. Gabriel is not only gorgeous, he’s also a gentleman. He never signs his faxes with a penis drawing and he always opens the door when he sees you standing behind the Chinese wall with a pile of reports, fumbling with your swipe card.
‘White?’ he asked.
‘Yes, please,’ I said.
He pressed the button. ‘How are you doing?’
‘I’m doing fine,’ I said.
He smiled, a little sadly. ‘I heard about your… situation.’
‘I have friends in HR.’
‘That makes you a rare specimen,’ I said.
‘Why did you do it?’ He handed me the white plastic cup of Chernobyl waste water.
Seeing that my story was already out, I had no reason not to answer his question. So I told him the truth: That’d I’d inherited so much paperwork it was impossible to get on with my job. There were piles of documents on my desk, piles underneath the desk and half a table’s worth on a trolley in one of the small conference rooms.
On my first day, Ollie had told my colleagues, AA and Gordon, to sit down with me and go over everything. AA and Gordon were two of the most ambitious young men I had ever met, both putting in fourteen hours a day and screening calls from their fiancées. They never had time for me. None of my colleagues had time for me. Sometimes when I entered the floor in the mornings, they didn’t even look up to say ‘hello’.
A few weeks after starting the job, I had stomach-ache on Sunday nights. I was nervous in the mornings and jittery throughout the day. I particularly hated the telephones. They rang all the time and I was often on two or three calls simultaneously, making it up as I went along, while the paper piles grew around me. I had to stand to see out the window.
The situation was unsustainable and, although I was ashamed of my failure, I confessed to my friend Jim in the Conran Shop one Saturday afternoon while we were looking for a glass coffee table for his new flat.
‘I wish you had come to me sooner, he said. ‘You are too thin and you smell of nicotine.’
After we’d chosen a table, some vases and a green and pink cashmere throw, Jim took me to dinner at Joe’s Café. ‘I’m saying this because I care about you,’ he said. ‘You are no longer at university. This is the real world and you cannot expect colleagues to do your work for you. You have to stop panicking at the sight of the documents and instead adopt a systematic approach.’
Jim had left school at sixteen to train as a chef and set up his own sandwich business. He now delivered to most of the Square Mile. Hence, the new two bedroom flat in Cadogan Gardens and a monthly cheque to his mother in Croydon. His advice was simple but sound and although his words hurt, they were the kick up the backside I had needed.
I decided to tackle the documents one at a time, starting with the piles on my desk. Itineraries, bills, newspaper clippings, research reports, boring old contracts, memos and directives from Compliance and HR, Wimbledon programmes with yellow post-its that said ‘thank you note, pls’ and quite a few of those ‘invitations’ that circulated our office on Thursday afternoons. Drinks at Balls Brothers or Michael Hunt after work: ‘We look forward to seeing you there’, meaning ‘it will not hurt your prospects to show that you are a social being who appreciates the company of your colleagues.’
Throughout the days, small piles of paper disappeared into the shredder and, after eight weeks, my desk was clear. Ollie and his no. 2, Hermann (a doppelgänger to Yves Saint Laurent), said I was a star and offered me a permanent contract.
After I’d passed my medical and survived three interrogations by HR, Fergus, AA and Gordon took me to lunch at Le Pont de la Tour.
For a month or so, I thrived. Free of the paper mountains, I was able to focus on learning and Ollie brought me to meetings and sent me on courses. When Gabriel wasn’t travelling, there was the bonus of what Fergus described as a Dirty-Flirty by the coffee machine. Yes, reminders arrived from the travel agent and the limousine company that ferried Ollie and Hermann around town. But when that happened, I got Ollie to sign a payment form, or – if he was in a mood – forged his signature. He never let on that he was surprised at the amount of red on the invoices.
But one evening when I was hoping to sneak out before eight to have dinner with my parents, Gordon caught me by the lift and asked where I had put the Smith & Smith articles. I had no idea what he was talking about.
‘But I placed them in the filing tray,’ he said. ‘Underneath your desk.’
‘I am not going to fire you,’ Ollie said during our one-on-one in the large conference room. ‘You’re learning and your background in stats is useful. I also take your point that the boys have not been helpful. But you’re going to have to impress if you want to keep your job. This will get out and, on top of Tiff’s fiascos, it will make our desk even more of a laughing-stock. Not to mention the fact that I will be forced to suck up to Compliance, and you know how much I hate lawyers.’
I did. Nobody could set Oliver Thomas Flintshire Gross, BSc MA (Oxon) MBA, off on one like members of the legal profession. He’d left his second wife because his mistress, vice president at another bank, had become pregnant ‘deliberately’. Dividing the family assets had not been straightforward and, on top of that, Ollie was heartbroken. One night in a cubicle at Balls Brothers, he had cried into a magnum of Bollinger and told me that he hadn’t wanted to divorce, but that Cynthia (the pregnant mistress) was ‘American and a fucking nutjob with balls of steel’.
When I’d finished my sad tale, Gabriel said that he’d always thought there was too much paper in the office.
Back at the desk, there was a fax from Hermann, signed BSD. The deal was in the bag and the gang had already landed at Frankfurt Airport. ‘ETA Heathrow 6pm. Arrange car at Term 3 and table tonight at Mike Hunt.’
In the afternoon, I took a cab to Berry Brothers to order the champagne and walked to the rare bookshop in Mayfair where Ollie’s old school chum was waiting with the vintage poster and The Old Man and the Sea. ‘I don’t care how much it costs,’ Ollie had said when he handed me his credit card. ‘The less I am worth, the less ex-Mrs Gross will get.’
Afterwards, I took myself for an early bite at Quaglino’s, sliding an ashtray into my pocket on my way out.
On Wednesday, Tiffany and I were alone on the desk until eleven am. Tiffany handed me a green Harrods uniform on a dry cleaner’s hanger and confirmed the booking of her cousin, the stripper. Then she picked up the list and said, ‘How the heck did you manage a piece of Berlin wall?’
‘I played my only joker,’ I said.
Who would have thought that a mate on the wrong side of the iron curtain would one day come in this handy? But I had Ursula who’d been my penfriend in the eighties.
Back then, ordinary East Germans were not permitted to travel, however, on rare occasions, friends from outside were allowed to visit. It involved a lot of paperwork and a lot of waiting but, aged fifteen, I had ventured behind the barbed wire – a traumatising experience although it did leave me with one of the best memories of my life: The looks on Ursula and her siblings’ faces when they unwrapped the Adidas sneakers I’d smuggled in. A few years later, in 1989, Ursula had been amongst the protesters who tore down the Berlin Wall, and for my eighteenth birthday she had presented me with the brick.
‘You can’t part with that – ever,’ said Tiffany. ‘It’s a piece of history.’
‘I won’t,’ I said. ‘Hermann isn’t giving his F40 away either, is he? We’re ticking boxes.’
In the afternoon, Ollie sent AA and me to The Ritz to sort out the room key. It rained and the traffic was at a standstill, so we took the Central Line and changed at Holborn. It was a short ride but the longest time I’d ever spent alone with AA. Word was that he was the reason my predecessors had left during their first week in the job. I wasn’t surprised. It’s something in his demeanour.
Check-in went smoothly, the only issue being that I hated that the receptionist thought AA and I were together, although that was the intention. Ollie had said that it would be more plausible for a couple rather than a single girl to book a weekend in this fine establishment. Especially if, after a day, the staff were to fear she had gone missing.
‘I want to go up there and mess things up a bit so it looks as if we’re actually staying,’ I said.
‘Sure,’ said AA and followed me up the carpeted staircase.
We’d been upgraded to a corner suite with a view of Green Park and a living room that was larger than my flat. The surroundings made a change from the damp London streets, and I wished I could have settled on the sofa watching videos while ordering scones and hot chocolate.
‘Couldn’t you just live here?’ I said.
I opened one of the wardrobes and fell in love with a padded silk coat hanger. It was navy blue with a satin bow in the middle. I removed it from the rail and stroked the fabric. When I closed the wardrobe and turned around, AA was naked from the waist down.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
‘I thought we were going to have sex.’
‘We are not,’ I said. I should have turned away, but I was too shocked to move.
‘Why all this talk about messing up the room, then?’ He started putting on his strawberry-printed boxer shorts.
‘Goodbye AA,’ I said, sticking the hanger inside my new Max Mara coat.
Back in the corridor I took a deep breath, nodding at a maid who passed with her trolley. She and I both heard AA shout ‘prick tease’ as the door closed behind me.
He must have realised he was in the wrong because, later that day, AA dumped a Labour Party membership card on my desk. ‘I need that back,’ he said, ‘friend of a friend.’ He picked up the list from my desk. ‘What are you going to do about the blind and the autograph?’
‘Hermann’s helping with the blind,’ I said. ‘He’s agreed to take his wife for a long weekend on the Orient Express and asked to view the facilities. He reckons he can rip out a blind if the staff allow him a few minutes to inspect the carriage. He’ll say it was an accident and pay for a new one, so nobody gets into trouble. As for Tom Cruise – that’s not happening.’
‘Should be OK, even so,’ said AA. ‘You’ve done well.’
The following evening, we all met in the car park to see off Hermann and Gordon in Hermann’s Ferrari with Hermann’s Victorian whip, the champagne, the crackers and the poster rolled up in a tube with a decent stash of cocaine wrappers inside it.
‘I don’t get it,’ said Tiffany, looking from side to side. ‘How can a Ferrari be considered to be a treasure when there are so many of them?’
‘It’s the commitment to the drive,’ said Ollie. ‘They’re asking us to demonstrate that we’re prepared to put in actual effort.’
The rest of us flew out from Heathrow on Friday morning. After taking breakfast in the lounge, we stopped at WH Smith on our way to the gate. Tiffany discovered a poster rack and soon pulled out a full-size headshot of Tom Cruise with his signature splashed across his torso.
I found the boys by the Car and Boat section (placed on the shelf below the lads’ mags) and pulled at Ollie’s woolly sleeve.
‘Come with me,’ I said.
Ollie stared at the poster Tiffany was holding up. ‘We’ll be laughed out of town if we show up with that piece of shit,’ he said, adjusting his glasses. ‘Christ, are his shoulders pointing downward?’
‘We’re buying it but we’re not showing up with it.’ I said. ‘I can copy the signature when we’re settled at the Plaza Athénée.’
Ollie said it was my luck he’d always thought ‘ethics’ was a suburb of Heraklion.
At the hotel, the boys let Tiffany and me have the only room our team had been allocated that had a view of the Eiffel Tower. Although it annoyed them, I insisted we leave for La Défense early and that we take the fast train rather than taxis.
‘We’re not going to lose this contest because you like to cut things to the wire,’ I said.
We were ninety minutes early, but I hadn’t been to La Défense before and, although others sniffed at it, calling it ‘modern’ and ‘futuristic’, like they did Canary Wharf, I liked it. With its open spaces, illusion of fresh air and a new Grande Arche, La Défense cleansed my soul.
We found a bar and became, as AA put it, ‘vaguely lubricated’ (the phrase gave association to condoms and, spoken by AA, it crept me out). But I forgot about that as soon as we arrived at the venue. The restaurant with double-height ceilings had views of the city, the waiters and waitresses were serving champagne on trays that shimmered in the light from the chandeliers. At the back of the dining room, tables with team numbers awaited our treasures.
We were the fifth team to present. By then, everyone was jolly and the marble surfaces in the cloakrooms were covered in a thin layer of powder. The entire floor cheered when Hermann demonstrated the whip on AA while Fergus and Gordon arranged the smaller items on the display table. So far, only one other team had produced a Berlin wall piece and, as far as I could tell, theirs might as well have come from a building site in Saffron Walden. Its authenticity was impossible to verify. I hoped the same would apply to my Tom Cruise autograph. Although I had done a reasonable job, I wasn’t sure how it would hold up against the real thing.
‘I guess we’re on,’ said Tiffany, whose cousin was getting changed in the cloakroom. I nodded.
During the next fifteen minutes, Ollie and I smoked two Silk Cuts each while we watched Team Four’s stripper walk the room accumulating fifty-pound notes in the usual places. ‘I knew I’d seen her before,’ said Ollie. ‘It’s Judy! She’s worked at Mike Hunt’s for years.’ He looked disappointed. As for me, I was getting nervous. Tiffany had been gone too long. I was about to run out and check on her when the automatic doors opened.
It was a moment to remember, for two reasons: One, nothing turns heads like red latex. Two, Gabriel sent me an air kiss from across the room.
‘Who’s the red Batman with Tiffany?’ Asked Ollie.
‘Her cousin William,’ I said. ‘Our treasure number one.’
Penelope Greenback is a pseudonym.
‘Treasure Hunt 1994’ will feature in a forthcoming anthology edited by BF Jones.