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Situation Vacant - Chapter One

by Gabbie 

Posted: 04 August 2004
Word Count: 2903

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London. Friday 18th December, Tempus Terra

“I’m sorry?”
“Regular or large?”
The words bought her back from her musings on the events of the last hour.
“Oh…regular please, and a Danish. Thanks.”

It was only ten past nine on a bitterly cold December morning in the West End but already the streets were filling with the bundled shapes of dedicated Christmas shoppers, eyes steely with determination to get this annual sacrifice to the god of material things over and done with.

She shouldered her bag and balanced the mug and plate carefully as she made her way to a sofa near the window. Shrugging her coat off she sank back into the soft leather and sipped the steaming latte.

It was still gloomy outside and she could see her reflection in the window as she watched the hunched shapes pass. God she felt weary. Weary and depressed. How could life get much worse? It was only seven days to Christmas and here she was going to interviews with patronising people who she wouldn’t normally even give the time of day to. The last hour had been hell. She recalled her feelings of anger as the woman who had interviewed her had dismissed the years of experience she had in the marketing and communications industry. Instead she had been asked what strategic models she used and which business school she had attended. This was the new world – a world that didn’t seem to want what she had to offer.

The reflection that stared back at her from the window seemed like a stranger. The features were the same. Layered brown hair, wide hazel eyes, a generous mouth - not a beautiful face but not ugly either - most people called her attractive. But it was a face drained of laughter and spirit.

Ruth Watson was thirty-nine, divorced with a ten year old son, well educated, highly experienced and out of work after a massive redundancy programme at the agency where she worked three months earlier.

She had one more appointment lined up, at ten thirty. She pulled the newspaper cutting and her ‘A to Z’ out of her bag and reread it as she sipped the last of her coffee.


Following the retirement of the incumbent in this position, we now seek the services of an outstanding communicator who combines imagination with an inherent understanding of what makes people tick.

A reasonable ability in mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology would be an advantage along with a fondness for animals.

Must be prepared to travel.

Salary and benefits according to age and aptitude.

Apply in writing, including current CV, to Thomas Dextermann & Co, PO Box 7777 London W1

If she hadn’t been so desperate she would never have applied for it. It was a small ad and didn’t give any details.

Despite her misgivings she had been surprised and pleased to hear from Thomas Dextermann the day after posting the application. He had insisted on seeing her as soon as possible and it made sense to meet today as she was already up in town. She was almost ashamed of her gratitude at being ‘wanted’.

By ten twenty five she was climbing narrow stairs to the third floor of one of a myriad of old buildings behind Oxford Street. Her misgivings returned as she took in the walls painted a dull shade of beige and the worn blue carpet. Even so, she couldn’t help but smile as she passed a plain, closed door on the second floor landing bearing the legend ‘Madame Fey’s Designs – Couture for the Fashion Conscious Woman.’ Who on earth used the word ‘couture’ in this modern, youth oriented world?

Short of breath, she stopped to gather herself together before the final flight - she was going to have to get a bit fitter. She had been gaining weight over the last few weeks – probably as a result of comfort eating.

She wondered idly what sort of customers Madame Fey had. Probably older ladies with well-hennaed hair and ancient fur coats smelling of mothballs. Just as she was about to move, the door was pulled open and she found herself under the intense scrutiny of a large busted woman with piercing black eyes in a bony face and – Ruth could hardly believe it – badly hennaed hair that stood out from her head as though she had had an electric shock.

Ruth felt a brief tingle of alarm. After a few seconds, the woman’s face relaxed and she rearranged her features into a sort of smile.
“I am so sorry if I startled you, my dear” the voice was chilly. “Are you another one for Mr Dextermann? He’s had such a lot of people running up and down these stairs, the rest of us don’t get a moment’s peace.”

Ruth didn’t think her slow climb could really be called ‘running’ but she responded automatically.

“Yes. It’s the next floor up isn’t it?

“That’s right dear. Just keep going up. Keep going up. Up, up and away.” The thin lips stretched into a humourless laugh.

This woman was weird. Ruth could think of nothing else to say and nodded as she turned away. She could feel the cold gaze following her as she continued up the stairs.

As she reached the half-landing she heard the woman speak to someone” I don’t think this is the one but we had better be-” then the door closed and the sound was cut off.

The only door on the next landing had a brass plaque stating that this was the office of T. Dextermann, Specialist Search Consultant – PLEASE RING.

She did and heard a bell somewhere in the distance.

Within seconds the door opened and a young woman smiled at Ruth.

“Hello, you must be Mrs Watson – the ten thirty appointment?” she asked. Then without waiting for an answer, she pulled the door wide and stood back. “Do come in.”

“Take a seat. Mr Dextermann will be with you in a moment.” She left Ruth sitting on a comfortable modern sofa browsing through a magazine.
A few moments later an inner door opened and a tall slim man with dark receding hair walked into the waiting area. Ruth stood and looked up into an almost feline face with startling green eyes. The skin around the eyes crinkled as he smiled and put his hand out.

“How do you do? I’m Thomas Dextermann. Thank you for coming to see me at such short notice. If you’d like to follow me we can get down to business.”

He led her into a featureless corridor.
“Just through here.” Dextermann steered her into a doorway on the right.

Like so many recruitment offices this was sparsely furnished containing a desk with a chair on each side of it and a plain wooden filing cabinet. Apart from those items the only other things in the room were a telephone and a large glass paperweight on the desk.

Dextermann settled himself behind the desk and indicated that Ruth should take the other seat. After a moment’s reflection he looked directly at her and began to speak.

“Let me explain a little about why I asked you to come to see us sooner rather than later.” He steepled his fingers and touched the tips to his lips as he considered what he would say next.
“You have responded to a deliberately obscure advertisement. This indicated that you possess a degree of curiosity and possibly a sense of adventure. Your CV also showed a broad experience, education and interests. Finally you are available immediately which is of the utmost importance to, er… my client.”

“Excuse me for interrupting,” Ruth said as he paused for breath, “but can you tell me what the job is and who is it with?”

“Ah, yes. I haven’t really explained that have I?” Dextermann leaned back in his chair and looked at her through narrowed eyes.

He really does look like a cat, especially the way he keeps staring at me, she thought.

Dextermann seemed to make up his mind about something and opened a drawer in the desk.
“Before I can explain about this job in detail there is one thing I need from you. Would you mind taking a few minutes to complete this test?” He handed her a familiar looking multiple-choice form.

Yes of course,” This must be about the tenth psychometric test she had done. She had wondered if they all gave the same results or whether she appeared to be a different person to each prospective employer depending on what she ate for breakfast.

As though he could read her thoughts Dextermann said “You may find this one slightly different from some of the others you have done, but don’t worry if you find any of the questions confusing, just tick the first answer that seems right to you. I’ll leave you alone for a few minutes. Would you like some tea or coffee?”

Ruth looked up from the form and nodded “Yes please. Coffee would be lovely.”

“Right, I’ll get Amariel to bring it to you.” Dextermann left the room.

Settling down to complete the psychometric test she found the first few questions were relatively straightforward. They were the standard type – ‘Would you rather be an airline pilot or a gardener?’ or ‘I would prefer to live in a) the middle of a forest, b) in a country town, or c) in a popular area of a city.’

The young woman brought the coffee.

“Amariel is an unusual name,” Ruth commented. “Where does it come from?”

“Oh, it’s been in my family for generations.” The girl smiled. She left Ruth to finish off the test.

For the next fifteen minutes she continued with the questions in a routine way. But then she stopped.
She reread the question she was on again and realised that she did not understand it – ‘Which Thaumatergic refraction index would you use in the resolution of a semi-completed canine bio morph translation?’

Her mind was playing tricks on her. She looked again but the words stayed the same. She looked at the multiple choice answers a) 74, b) 125, or c) 182. Still none the wiser she waved the pen over the paper and randomly selected and answered ‘c)’. The questions became odder– ‘I would rather be a) an oak tree b) a beech tree or c) a pine tree’. Throwing caution to the winds she opted for being a beech tree. The next question made her giggle to herself – ‘I prefer the company of a) human beings b) animals or c) paratalents.’ What, she mused, was a ‘paratalent?’ With a sense of mischief she ticked c).

She reached the end of the questionnaire and put the pen down.

Sitting back from the desk she relaxed and gazed around the room. There was really nothing interesting to look at so she thought again about the test questions and was struck by a sharp sense of unreality. Had she really answered those questions? Reaching for the test paper to check, she heard the door handle turning.

Thomas Dextermann walked rapidly over to the desk, retrieved the questionnaire before she could look at it again and called through the open door.
“Amariel, can you analyse this for me and let me have the results as quickly as you can.” Amariel came in and took the paper out with her, quietly closing the door behind her.

Thomas Dextermann turned to Ruth. “I hope you didn’t find that too puzzling.”
“Well, actually… ” she began. Dextermann put a hand up to stop her in mid sentence. “Let’s just wait for the results shall we? I think you’ll be surprised at what we can tell about you from this test. Now, I’d like to discuss the terms and conditions of this position. What sort of package are you looking for?” He settled back in his chair and looked directly at her.

She took a deep breath and mentioned the package she had been on previously and which she wanted to match.
As she spoke she looked at the man in front of her and felt drawn to the intense gaze of his eyes. Her first reaction was to feel uncomfortable under such a probing stare, but a small voice in her mind reassured her. This was a man who she could tell anything to. He would understand and share the burden she carried. He would help her. All she had to do was be honest with him…. She began to tell him of her situation. She felt as though she were standing beside herself listening to all the cares and worries she carried with her being poured out to this stranger and she couldn’t help herself, couldn’t stop the flow of words.

She told him how she needed to feel that she still had a future that involved meeting ambitions and improving her lifestyle rather than retrenching into what could easily become a slide into eventual retirement. How she worried constantly about Will, her son, since she and his father had divorced. How he seemed to be all right on the surface, but how she saw the sadness in his eyes a few times, and knew that deep down he was pining for the good times they had all had. She spoke of her efforts to keep as much of his world intact as she could, to give him a sense of security, because the one thing he wanted most was the one thing she couldn’t give him – the family they had once been.

Eventually she ran out of words and had the oddest feeling that she was coming out of a dream as she looked again at the quiet man sitting opposite her.

“Thank you for being so open with me Mrs Watson, however with regard to the package you are seeking, I think we could offer you something comparable.” Dextermann named a figure that was at least fifty percent above what she had been expecting.

“That is a very generous amount, Mr Dextermann, but I still don’t know what the position is and what I would have to do to earn that sort of money.” Ruth felt uneasy and was getting annoyed that he wouldn’t be more specific about the job. She didn’t even know where it was located.

“I can’t tell you a great deal about it just yet. I would like to see the results of your test first and then we will see. My client in this matter wishes to keep details of the role confidential until we find a suitable candidate. It makes my job very difficult, but I have no option – I’m sure you understand.”

Ruth began to feel uneasy again. She could feel the beginning of a dull pain around her eyes– as though she had a sinus headache about to start. Irritation bubbled to the surface.

“If this job is so secretive then it is not the sort of thing I would want to be doing.”

Her words surprised both herself and Thomas Dextermann. She got up from the chair and gathered up her bag. Her sense that something was terribly wrong was growing by the minute. She could swear that she could feel the hairs on back of her neck standing on end.

“Thank you for seeing me. It has been very interesting, but I don’t think I should waste your time any further.” She felt an overwhelming urge to leave.

“Please, Mrs Watson, don’t go. I will tell you what this is all about as soon as I can. For reasons that I can’t explain yet I have to wait for the results of the test you have just sat before I can give you the information you want. Bear with me, please, Amariel will have the results any moment now.”

Ruth wavered. She felt that strange sense of unreality and unease intensifying. This time it was like a physical jolt. Her head was pounding. She felt sick. She had to leave. Amariel opened the door and was about to come in. With a muttered apology Ruth pushed past her and ran into the reception area.

She stumbled down the stairs, the only thought in her mind was to get into the street and away from… something.

Bursting through the street door out into the fresh air, she nearly knocked over a harassed mother pushing a double buggy. A quick apology and she walked as quickly as she could towards Bond Street tube station leaving the woman to hush her frightened children.. The further she got away from the offices of Mr Thomas Dextermann the better she began to feel. She was short of breath again but right now all she wanted was to find a safe place to stop.

At the tube station she felt quite normal again. What on earth she had she been thinking of – what did she mean ‘safe place?’ What had happened to her in that office? She had felt fine until she finished the test and spoke to Dextermann. Feeling embarrassed she entered the station. She was disappointed in herself. The job was intriguing and it had sounded as though she might be a good candidate from what Thomas Dextermann had said. Well, she had blown her chance now.

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Comments by other Members

Hamburger Yogi & PBW at 04:51 on 05 August 2004  Report this post

The 'how to' books often warn about taking up the introduction to a story with descriptions and internalisations for your main character - they can lose the reader's interest. They say (and I tend to agree) that one should begin in the middle of something, preferably with a good hook to grab the reader's attention.

My thoughts were it might be wiser to condense a lot of your initial paragraphs, or 'shoot' with a small hook within the first few lines. Backstory, physical appearances, could come a bit later.

I don't know if you agree with such things - there could be good reasons for not using them - but I mention it because I noticed it immediately. For me, it makes the pace a bit slow. My critics tell me to cut, and now I find myself wanting to say the same thing to you. Easier said than done. But it is not that difficult to come up with some quirky events to catch the reader and fasten the pace. When your MC meets Mr Dexterman, for example, what if one of her earrings falls to the floor or even she burps?! Tension evoked by events will up the interest value.

The English is fine - a pleasant flow free of grammar hiccups and free of non sequiturs - I imagine you combed your text quite thoroughly with this in mind.

Hamburger Yogi

Nell at 08:23 on 05 August 2004  Report this post
Gabbie, I began to read this, but felt sure I'd read and commented before. Have you deleted the original version and uploaded a revised one?

Gabbie at 14:59 on 08 August 2004  Report this post

Yes this is a rewrite on tha material you commented on earlier. I have tried to more showing rather than telling and to bring the earlier chapters into line with the easier style I managed to achieve later in the book.


Nell at 17:03 on 11 August 2004  Report this post
Hi Gabbie,

I remember reading the first version, but it's difficult to know how you've changed it without comparing the two. like HY I feel that there's still slightly too much detail put across as telling rather than showing. Possibly you could give the reader those details of her life not as statements (eg. Ruth Watson was thirty-nine, divorced with a ten year old son, well educated, highly experienced and out of work after a massive redundancy programme at the agency where she worked three months earlier...) but as spoken dialogue with Dexterman in the section where she opens up to him. Or perhaps show them later on - leave the reader wanting to find out about her? There's a lot of detailed progression from one happening to the next as well, things like the opening of doors etc that could be suggested instead of stated, or shown in a slightly different more subtle way. I'm not sure I'm making sense here, and it might be easier to rewrite a section to show you what I mean, although I don't really like to do that. Also I'm beginning to feel that my comments are inappropriate to the responses you've requested. IMO this doesn't need a lot of work; what I'd suggest is that you experiment with being reckless with the editing and see what happens. I know how difficult it is to alter writing that you've spent a lot of time and thought on but you'll still have the original to return to if it all goes pear-shaped, and you've an intriguing start here - it just needs sharpening up.


Gabbie at 17:40 on 11 August 2004  Report this post
Thanks Nell.

Good useful advice - I'll have another go


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