‘Snakes and Ladders’
“What goes around comes around”. It’s a common enough aphorism, but God knows there is precious little evidence for a perfect karmic system of justice. It has served me well enough though, helping me suck up the slights of life in the belief that the perpetrator, the cause of my angst, would one day ‘get’ his, or hers. Taking the high ground, I used to call it. It kept me out of a few confrontations but when it failed, bloodied and bruised, whether literally or metaphorically, I took comfort from belief in a future of righteous redress. Until, that is, I met Nadine.
Nadine must have been born manipulative because even at 19, when we first met, she was already the finished article. She had all the physical and intellectual assets one could want in a woman, except one: she had no scruples. She could make you feel you were in the wrong, and even apologise for getting in her way, as she put the boot in. Fortunately for me our paths only crossed tangentially, but from time to time we had mutual friends and colleagues. I heard from them about the damage she did but never that she’d been called to account.
I first came across her at a flat warming. Three first year student friends of mine, Niki, Simon and Ella, were sharing a sunny first floor in Clapham. Nadine came along to the party with a mutual friend of theirs. Niki and Simon were a loose item, rather more loose to Simon than Niki it transpired when Nadine made a blatant play for him. She was taller, more athletic, and cleverer than Niki and it didn’t take her long to ease the heartbroken girl out of the flat and take over her room. Shortly after that she dumped Simon over some fabricated dalliance between him and Ella and, in three months from start to finish, she had the flat to herself.
By these and similar methods she clawed, inveigled or dissected, her way to an underserved first class degree (leaving her tutor’s marriage in tatters in the process) and then an MBA. By the time she was ready for the snakes and ladders of business she’d ‘hopscotched’ her way across London from flat to maisonette to house, and along the way had accumulated a rather nice Alpha Romeo Spyder, a time share in Gleneagles, a pony (stabled) and more jewellery than could be decently worn in polite company.
The infuriating thing was that Nadine didn’t need to be this way; she was actually über competent, at everything. She never climbed over someone into a qualification, a job, or a bed that she didn’t then occupy with more success and ease than the rightful incumbent. Her reasoning seemed to be that there was no point in wasting everyone’s time, especially hers, proving that she was better at, or more deserving of, something someone else already had. She just took it, used it, and then abandoned it when the next opportunity came her way, leaving someone else to pick up the pieces.
We were 5 years out of university before I saw her again. I was with my, then, girlfriend Elaine at the British Film Institute; a season of Balkan avant-garde movies. When the lights came up, there she was in the seat in front. I tapped her on the shoulder. We walked out to the foyer together, she chatting superficially in the way you do when you’re struggling to remember the name of someone you’ve met out of context. She introduced us to her companion Boris, an under-something in the Croatian embassy, before we went our separate ways. Later I heard she had a flat in Korcula and Boris had been demoted and transferred to a consulate in Bolivia.
We met a couple more times, just passing through the same airport departure lounge, or a reception somewhere, but the next occasion after that was different. I was diligently, if tediously, working my way up the ladder in a private bank. I even had a chic office on a favoured 35th floor corner in Canary Wharf. Well, to be more accurate, it was my boss Dave that had the corner office, I was next door. Anyway, one hot May I was sitting with my door open, for the illusion of cooler air, and looked up to see Nadine standing there, being introduced by Dave as his new P.A. She was casually dressed in a tailored silk blouse and slacks, but every inch the powerful corporate animal. There was just the merest flicker of recognition from her before she turned away and I knew right then that, whichever way the dice fell, poor Dave was about to land on a succession of squares with snake heads and slide right off the game board.
In a way Nadine counted me as a friend, well at least not an enemy, because I’d never had anything she wanted, nor stood between her and her next objective. Nevertheless it was prudent self-preservation that stopped me from trying to warn Dave. Instead I watched her, in the way a fascinated child watches a python in the zoo, as she undulated her way into position for her next live meal.
Her first coil was simple and subtle: a presentation to a new client went unaccountably wrong. A brochure was bound with some pages upside down, a name tag was misspelled, some annual account figures didn’t quite add up. The outsourced printers took most of the blame, but the CEO noticed the beads of sweat break out on Dave’s upper lip, and the adroit way that Nadine gathered up the loose ball and ran with it. She knew exactly what to say, and how to say it in such a way as to leave the unmistakable impression of a man out of his depth being rescued by a loyal and undervalued assistant.
The second coil wound on quickly afterwards, at a Wimbledon-week garden party for some minor-royal Saudi client. Of course there was no alcohol on offer with the post- match strawberries, but ever-attentive Nadine saw to it that, as he networked the clients, Dave’s glass of fruit punch was always topped up, but with a little hidden extra. When he was found face down in the shrubbery Nadine was tending him wearing a Royal teal-blue hijab she had secreted in her handbag. The contrast between her chaste modesty and her disarrayed drunken boss ensured that control of the account passed to her, and she was being tipped to head up the Dammam office the following year.
The only time she came even close to being exposed was when Ranjit, the night security guard, found her going through Dave’s desk and laptop. She was copying and deleting files, leaving a trail of incompetence for her coup de grâce. Ranjit was no match for Nadine and easily fell victim to her blushing embarrassment; he was “paid in kind”, then blackmailed, for his silence. And so it went on; little by little the life, and job, was squeezed out of Dave.
About 6 months later I happened to be sharing the lift with Nadine, by then my boss, when it shuddered to a stop between floors. Ordinarily being trapped in a lift with a more-than attractive predatory female would be the stuff of many a male fantasy, but the barely nascent thought was stifled by the realisation that, at last, what had gone around was about to come around in spades: Nadine was obviously very scared, and she began to unravel. This time it was her doing the sweating, her with a look of non-comprehension on her face, and her out of control as she crumpled into a corner hugging her knees and gabbling. It wasn’t hard to get her to talk about herself at any time so it only took gentle prompting, purely as a way of calming her nerves you understand, to get her to review her successful career and catalogue her victories and victims. By the time we got to the juicy details of poor Dave’s fall she was standing again, head back in full flow, assured and confident as ever.
After about an hour power to the lift was restored, and downward travel resumed. Nadine checked herself over in the mirrored wall of the lift car, adjusted her neck line, smoothed down her skirt, and flicked her hair before turning and thanking me for helping her keep calm. At the 8th floor, where she was going to a wine and canapés ‘do’ for future vice-presidents, she gave me a peck on the cheek, at the same time digging her finger nails ever-so gently into my hand to tell me, as if I needed telling, that she intended her ‘performance’ to be our little secret.
Me? I was on my way home to Elaine, but I got out of the lift as well. I thought that walking the last few floors would give me time to think, about what I should do and how it might play out, and I was right. By the time I had reached the lobby, I knew. I ran the last flights to the basement security office and Ranjit, and the recording from the in-lift CCTV camera. Despite the emergency lighting in the stranded lift, the dim images were perfectly usable, and the sound crystal clear.
Don’t you just love ‘YouTube’?
© Andrew Gold 2015