Cock of the Walk

cock-of-the-walkPenny looked at me with that adoration that embarrassed me so much. “Darling Charlie, I love you. You are so strong, so good-looking, and so successful; you are everything a girl could wish for,” she said.

“Come here my lovely, my lovely gorgeous Penny,” I said, and gave her a big, almost rib-crushing hug.

She laughed: “Take it easy Charlie, there’s plenty of time for that later, we’ve got work to do.”

“Yes, of course.” I pulled away reluctantly. “OK, you know what’s best my love.”

She sensed my disappointment. “What’s up anyway, you’ve been very distracted today? Is everything all right?”

“Just things on my mind, that’s all. Just the usual.”

“Is it the business? I thought it was going all right.”

“No, I just haven’t slept very well lately, that’s all.”

“Poor love.”

The truth is, I have had a lot on my mind lately and it does have a lot to do with the business. I know everything looks fine on the outside but I’ve had nagging doubts lately, as if something bad is going to happen, nothing specific, just a feeling.

“I’ve been having nightmares,” I said, immediately regretting opening my big gob.

Penny was gorgeous, a red-blooded man’s dream girl, but she was very unforgiving of any weakness, if you know what I mean. Fair enough, she didn’t have to stay with me, she could have her pick; all she had to do was whistle. It was hard keeping things together to keep her happy, but she was worth it.

“What do you mean, nightmares?” she asked, already I could sense her drawing away from me.

“No, not nightmares, more like vivid dreams. It’s nothing, honestly.”

“No, come on, you’ve got to tell me now. What sort of dreams?”

“It’s quite funny really, I suppose. I am tiny, like a mouse. There’s this creature, it’s like an animal I’ve never seen before, a bit like a wolf, a bit like a dog, a bit like a cat; anyway, it’s got big teeth, dripping with blood, and paws the size of dinner plates, with dirty claws, each one as long as a man’s finger and as thick as a stick of Brighton rock, with ends as sharp as your mother’s tongue.”

I laughed but she just gave me that narrow-eyed disapproving look of hers; it made my spine shiver.

The phone rang, thank god.

~

I had the dream again that night; I woke up in a cold sweat. According to the digital display on the alarm clock it was exactly 3:33 am. I got out of bed straight away and crept out of the room as quietly as I could. I went downstairs and made myself a cup of tea. I needed to distract myself so I opened the briefcase and went over all the things I’d have to deal with when I would arrive for work five hours later. With a bit of luck, things would be better by the end of the working day.

If my business was a child, I’d have been had up for neglect long ago; the truth was, I wasn’t very good at it. I’d always imagined myself as a kind of executive type of businessman, not the hands-on, work-all-the-hours-god-sends lunatic I’d had to become to keep the business operating at its maximum efficiency. I’d imagined myself on the golf course or on the yacht, taking the odd mobile phone call and making quick brilliant decisions that justified my five hundred grand a year income as the owner of a nationwide chain of high-class, high street confectionery shops. Instead, there I was, supervising a group of seven women, clucking away as they stuffed Charlie’s Chocolate Easter Eggs into cheap cardboard boxes, while I, the great Charlie, scrabbled about underneath the conveyor belt, knee-deep in melted chocolate and machine oil. Still, never mind, things would be better by the end of that day. Things were going to change, that was certain.

I managed to get back to bed without disturbing her, but I looked a mess at breakfast.

She yanked my head up by the chin and stared into my eyes. “Now, listen here Charlie boy, you’ve got to stop letting yourself have those stupid dreams. It’s a sign of weakness. It means you’re not facing up to your problems. Come on man, show some guts for once in your life. You can do anything.”

I was too shocked to speak, of course she was right, I had been avoiding my responsibilities for quite a while, taking my eye off the ball, so to speak; that’s why I was in secret talks with Egg-Berts, the largest independent manufacturer of seasonal chocolate goods in the whole of the UK as far as I knew. I was expecting a pretty sum from the merger, and they’d promised to keep me on to run the factory and at a salary that amounted to as much as I took out of the business anyway – without all the headwork.

~

Penny was on her usual run to the bank, I’d made sure of that. Two of them turned up in a brand new chocolate brown Citroen, one of those funny looking ones that remind you of a French farm vehicle from the Second World War, as if they’re built from an old shed. It was just after nine and it looked like they meant business by the way they strode towards the entrance, neat brown leather folders under their arms, smiling comfortably with each other, like two halves of the same grapefruit.

They introduced themselves; there was Ray, a man barely in his thirties but with the self-assurance of a surgeon in a training hospital, and then there was Niamh, a woman, even younger, thin Scandinavian features and perfect white teeth that had a hypnotic quality. Charm personified.

At first I was captivated and found myself agreeing to everything they said, without really taking any of it in. I found my hand hovering over the signature box on the contract before I snapped out of it. I asked for more time, but then they just turned nasty and told me that we already had a verbal contract anyway; there was nothing I could do about it – I had to sign.

I nearly gave in but something inside stopped me, I suddenly realised what a completely useless and lazy dope I’d been. I thought about Penny, I mean she wasn’t stupid, quite a clever woman in fact, if it wasn’t for her I’d never have got the business started in the first place, it was her who gave me my motivation in life, gave me the self-confidence to know that I was big enough and strong enough to do anything – if I put my mind to it. Then there was that dream, the one with that strange, dangerous beast.

I looked up at Ray and Niamh and narrowed my eyes to look as menacing as I could.

“Sorry,” I said, “it’s off, it’s time to go.”

They looked at each other with puzzled expressions, shook their heads, and laughed at me.

“You heard me,” I shouted, shaking with fear and adrenalin. “Get lost.”

They drew back, startled. By now all the workers in the factory had downed tools and were standing outside the Perspex partition to my office, staring silently. At their front, leading and protecting them like a mother hen, was Penny, looking as serene and as beautiful as ever. She should have been in the bank but she must have worked out what I was up to – she was clever like that. She smiled at me, her own perfect white teeth sparkling, and nodded almost imperceptibly – that was enough.

I looked back at the two interlopers, with their smug smoothness, and I saw in their faces the looks of predators cheated of their prey.

“Goodbye now,” I said calmly.

They were my monsters. They’d been stalking me like a cat stalks a mouse, but I was no mouse – not any longer.

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