My NanoWrimo — Chapter Two
While I was sitting in my office, gaping in shock and begging my father to put the catsuit back on, I could have but little clue of what was happening eight thousand miles away, in a luxurious boardroom on the top floor of an exclusive hotel in the centre of Shanghai. I don’t think this is a controversial statement: frankly, it’s those who claim I could know what was going on in that boardroom, at that time, who are labouring under the burden of having to show evidence for their proposition.
Had I been aware, though, and of a mind to share my knowledge, I’d have described the stiff-backed figure of Colonel Claudius Flintlock-Estuary, the iron-fisted chairman of Hang Gao Stilts Corporation, the world’s fourth-largest stilt construction and distribution concern. The Colonel stood at the head of the table, fists clenched into tiny, elegant balls of fury — he had long been famous for his startlingly diminutive, yet amazingly beautiful hands. Perfectly formed and with an almost preternatural gracefulness of curve and line, these were hands that could take the breath away even when tightened into the minuscule knucklebundles they were currently taking the form of. One could almost forget the fuming red face above them, such were their aesthetic opulence.
It had been these hands that allowed the Colonel to rise through the ranks of the Army. He had begun as a humble Private, battling Austrian separatists in Uruguay during the bloodiest battles of what came to be known as “The War of Confusing Adversaries”. On his first day in combat, young Claudius found himself stranded behind enemy lines, with his only defence a rifle that he was unable to operate, the gun having been designed for far larger hands. Thinking quickly, he fashioned a makeshift pistol out of bamboo and guanaco-hide, with which he killed fifteen enemy soldiers and accidentally shot off his own left ear, an action for which he won the George Cross and was promoted to Sergeant. From there he had won a lieutenant’s commission after demonstrating his ability to entertain his CO’s children with his remarkable miniature shadow puppets.
From there, of course, it had been a simple matter to progress to the rank of captain after he single-handedly destroyed a German machine-gun nest that had inexplicably been set up in the Walthamstow area of London, by using his tiny hands to reach inside the machine-gun’s internal mechanism and coat it with mayonnaise. From captain, with almost indecent speed to major, an unsurprising progression given his heroic actions at the Siege of Godalming Bowls Club, the details of which will be familiar to you all.
And so at the tender age of twenty-three, Claudius Flintlock-Estuary had become a colonel due to overwhelming popular demand, following the now-legendary Battle of Ljubljana, which had it not been for the then-major’s tireless efforts — staying up all night strangling dragonflies with his bare hands — could easily have ended with the collapse of British hegemony in Wales.
That was fifty years ago now, and the Colonel had progressed no farther up the ranks due to his decision to retire at 25 to pursue business interests: specifically, stilts. Under his canny, ruthless command, Hang Gao had risen to fourth place from its former lowly position of fifth place, and Flintlock-Estuary had no intention of letting that remorseless forward momentum slow for even a moment. It was for this reason that he was steaming with rage in the boardroom.
“LOOK at these figures!” the Colonel ranted, gesturing madly to a large pull-down chart at the front of the room. The chart was titled, “Stilts: April Quarter”, and featured a large charcoal drawing of a bear sitting on a lawnmower. At the bottom of the picture was a stick figure with a speech bubble protruding from its mouth, reading, “Numbers, n’est-ce pas?”
The men around the table hung their heads in shame. They knew that these disappointing figures were, at least in part, their fault. The Colonel had left the company in their hands while he took an exfoliating vacation, and they had dropped the ball to a massive degree.
“Explain!” the Colonel roared. “Explain yourselves!”
The board members looked at their hands. After a tense three-hour silence, one tentatively raised his hand. This was Francis Fu, the man named Stilt Magazine’s Rising Star of 2010. He was expected to do great things in stilts, and a bright future was now hanging by a knife’s fingertip. The fact that he was the first to speak illustrated the reckless bravery with which he had made his name as a major stilter.
“The problem,” Fu said evenly, “started in the warehouse.”
There was a general clamour of agreement. “The warehouse!” nodded old Charlie Baum enthusiastically. “Yes, the warehouse!” exclaimed little Jackie Mau, the hunchback of Tsingtao. Molly Greyduck, the Business Mime, vividly traced the unmistakable shape of a warehouse in the air with her fingers.
The Colonel eyed Francis Fu balefully. “What happened in the warehouse?” he asked tersely, his stunning bonsai hands clenching and unclenching ominously.
Fu cleared his throat. He knew his career — and possibly his life, if Flintlock-Estuary’s reputation for swallowing underperforming directors was well-founded — depended on the next few words out of his mouth.
Those few words, as it turned out, were, “It burned down”. Fu exhaled loudly. They were not fancy words, but for accuracy they could not be faulted. The warehouse HAD burned down, and that it had put a crimp in business performance was practically undeniable.
The news, though factually impeccable, did not please Colonel Claudius Flintlock-Estuary, who had never been as big on facts as he was on burnished brass and mindless obedience. He spluttered through his enormous blue moustache. “Burnt DOWN?” he rasped incredulously. “After all we spent on fire extinguishers? How could this HAPPEN?”
“Well,” began Fu cautiously, “You see, our major fire extinguisher spend was perhaps not as well-targeted as we might have hoped. It turned out we purchased five thousand fire extinguishers, but installed them all in the break room.”
“Also,” Old Man Baum interjected, “our warehouse staff weren’t trained in the correct use of the extinguishers, so a lot of them, when they turned the extinguishers on, just started further fires.”
“Yes,” Fu agreed, “None of us realised how flammable fire extinguishers are, and maybe that’s something to bear in mind moving forward.”
The Colonel wasn’t listening to Fu anymore. “YOU!” he roared, pointing to a tall, thin executive at the far end of the table. “You’re our vice-president in charge of extinguishers. What have YOU got to say for yourself?”
The thin executive, a young man by the name of Stimble, stood up slowly and sorrowfully. “I was off sick,” he said in a soft, pillowy voice, and then crawled under the table, where the gentle sounds of his death were soon heard drifting soothingly up into the room, easing the tension a little.
“I can see I have made some mistakes,” the Colonel boomed, steepling his pin-sized fingers. “I have left too much to my underlings, I have trusted too much in the subhuman intelligence of the worthless shower of cretinous ape-children I see before me. From now on, I am taking a much more hands-on role in the business. Hang Gao Stilts will never suffer a quarter like this,” he waved at the chart, “again, or else.”
“Or else what?” Molly Greyduck mimed.
“Or else,” the Colonel growled darkly, “heads will roll.” He pulled a rotting human head from his manbag and bowled it down the table, where it hit a telephone and split in half. The board gulped as one. The world of stilts was not the relaxing sinecure they had expected when they signed up for the Hang Gao training programme.
“Sir,” Francis Fu piped up hesitantly, “if you don’t mind me asking…where do we go from here?”
“First,” the Colonel bellowed, “rebuild the warehouse!” Murmurs of admiration were heard from around the table. It was that sort of outside-the-box thinking and aggressive entrepreneurship that had kept Flintlock-Estuary at the top so many years. “Second,” he went on, “Double the workforce! We are about to have a sudden surge in orders.”
This time the murmurs turned to gasps. “But…how…” Fu stammered.
The Colonel ignored him. “And third!” he snapped. “Third…get the chopper ready. I have a very important appointment I can’t miss…”
A smile broke out across his ruddy face. A plan was bubbling in his brain, and it was as hot as the porridge his third wife had drowned in.