The Crash: Chapter Four
In last week's instalment we met Jason's new PA, Gaby, and his potential new Engineering Manager, Brad. This week we spend some time getting to know them both and finding out some of the secrets of Jason's factory.
Gaby looked around at the polished horse brasses on the walls and the faded tapestry seat-cushions in mild surprise. This wasn’t the kind of place she’d expected to find recommended by a man who surrounded himself with blank walls and modern rectangular leather sofas. However, a glance at the specials board told her why it would be the lunchtime venue of choice for a man with reasonable taste – which was certainly what Jason Jackson-Jones considered himself. Brad ushered her to a table in a snug corner near the open fire, and went to the bar to fetch drinks for them both.
“So what brought you to England?” Gaby asked on his return. He paused while he set down her lemonade and his beer, and then answered slowly, “It was because of my wife. Look far enough into anything and there’s always a woman behind it, don’t you think?”
Coming from someone else, that might have sounded cynical or chauvinistic, but Brad’s matter of fact observation made Gaby laugh.
“To the power behind the throne,” she said, raising her glass. Brad clinked his bottle with her glass, took a deep slug of the drink, and then asked, “What are you eating?”
“The mozzarella and sun-dried tomato ciabatta. What about you?”
“Maybe the steak and Guinness pie. With hand-cut chips of course. Do you think they taste different depending on whether the cutter is mechanical or manual?”
“I don’t suppose so.”
“Sure I can’t tempt you to a cooked meal? Or a pudding to follow? My treat if you’re worried about your boss’s expense account.”
“No, that’s fine thanks. It’s not a good idea to eat too much at lunchtime. I need to stay awake in the office this afternoon, and it’s been a tiring few days.”
“Really? Why’s that? If you don’t mind my asking.”
Gaby stared into the flames as she answered vaguely, “I was moving over the weekend, and then I got a call out of the blue this morning asking me to come in because Jason had lost his P.A.”
“Careless of him,” Brad joked, settling back further into the thick cushions. “Did he check she wasn’t just under a pile of files?”
“No chance of that,” Gaby laughed, remembering Jason’s bare, paper-free office.
“So have you worked for JJ before, or did you just start there today?”
“And they let you out with the company credit card?”
“I’m a trustworthy person.”
“I’m sure you are. I just didn’t see Jason as a trusting one. Although maybe it’s just men he distrusts."
“Maybe,” she conceded. “What did you think of the company so far? And the job? Is it like what you’ve done before?”
“Similar I guess. I spent a year at the forge before last time I went back to the States, so it’s probably a lot like that. Hot, grimy, and hectic, but I did enjoy getting to put my MBA theories into practice.”
Brad paused as the waitress leaned across him to place Gaby’s sandwich on the low table in front of her.
“Thank you,” Gaby smiled up at the waitress, but the woman’s eyes were firmly on Brad as she straightened, giving him a lingering view of her ample cleavage.
Brad, to his credit, did an excellent job of pretending not to notice, and carried on as soon as she’d left, “Jason didn’t make this job sound the most appealing, it must be said. I mean, he carried on about the grit and grime as if he thinks I wear five hundred dollar Italian suits every day instead of just for interviews. But that’s not so bad. It’s more the fact that he seems to think everyone should jump when he says jump, even down to travelling for trade shows at ten seconds notice, and working day shifts or night more or less according to his whim.”
“I know,” Gaby agreed, wiping a stray smear of tomato off her lip. “I can see how that could get annoying. Especially if you’ve got a family waiting for you at home. I suppose I can be more flexible, and I quite like knowing that I’m working for someone who’s so dedicated to his company. After all, if he didn’t take it seriously, a lot of people would be out of jobs.”
“That’s true,” Brad conceded. “And I suppose I’m pretty used to hard work and odd hours. As a student, I didn’t exactly keep a steady nine-to-five.”
“You must’ve worked really hard to get a Harvard MBA. It’s supposed to be one of the best, isn’t it?” Gaby said, remembering seeing shelves of Harvard Business Reviews lined up along the office walls of businessmen and women she’d respected.
“Pretty hard, and I suppose smart too. You soon learn what needs doing and what’s an optional extra if you want to stay afloat.”
“I bet.” Gaby munched on her sandwich and watched and listened as Brad outlined his experience of being a Harvard student, in between bites of steak and Guinness pie.
When he’d finished, Gaby smiled. She’d enjoyed listening to his account and it had cemented her sense that he was exactly what Jason Jackson-Jones needed, whether he knew it or not.
“I do hope you’ll come and work for Triple J Auto Parts,” she said truthfully.
“If I do, it’ll be more for the P.A. than the Managing Director. I have to admit, the idea of having such a lovely colleague is appealing.” Somehow the compliment, delivered with Brad’s polished urbanity, disturbed Gaby.
“And what would your wife think of that?” she asked, more caustically than she’d intended.
“Probably about the same as I think of her having a poster of a different Brad on her wall,” he joked, and the moment of tension passed, but Gaby was sure she’d seen a flicker of something – annoyance, or maybe even pain – in his eyes.
“Which Brad would that be? Brad Awl?” she joked, and was rewarded with a second, unstrained smile.
“I’d better let you get back,” Brad suggested, and Gaby agreed, although for a moment she’d been tempted to neglect her duties a little longer.
“Well, I hope you’ll be joining us once we’ve checked out your references and so on.”
“We’ll see. I might be seeing you tomorrow. If not, I’m sure there’ll be something I need to speak to Mr Jones about before too long. Or at least his P.A.”
Gaby laughed and followed Brad out of the door, shivering a little as the chilly air hit her thin suit.
She wanted to get in out of the misty cold, but she didn't want Brad to walk out of the car park and never come back.
"No, I didn't. Thought JJ might be keeping trade secrets until I'm actually employed."
"Maybe. I don't suppose you could steal too many trade secrets just by walking around the factory."
Brad laughed. "You'd be surprised what an expert can learn from just the sound of a machine or a glance at a plan left out on a desk."
"And are you an expert?"
"Yes." It wasn't an arrogant observation, particularly, just a statement of fact, as Gaby might have stated that she was a good assistant, that she made a difference to the lives of the people she worked for, even if it was only for a short time. She wasn't a fan of the British tendency to talk down one's own abilities. There were enough other people in the world willing to do it for you, if you let them. Brad's high opinion of himself wasn't a problem. The problem was that, if it was true, and she had every reason to believe it was, JJ might well not be happy with her letting him look around. But she was sure that he needed to see what he was taking on before he could make an informed decision, and she couldn't see him as the type to take on a commitment whose nature he couldn't assess.
"Maybe I shouldn't let you back in then," she joked.
"You can trust me," he said, giving a mock sleazy grin.
"Yeah, I'm sure," she joked back. "Oh well, what have I got to lose? Come on. Donna promised me a tour this afternoon. I'm sure she won't mind taking two of us around instead of one."
She led him back inside and told Donna what she had in mind.
"Jason doesn't like non-staff being on the shop floor." Donna's eyes were nervously wide as she seemed to contemplate Jason's reaction.
"He took his visitors around this morning," Gaby said. Brad seemed to be happy to hang back and let her do the talking.
"And Brad's nearly staff. He could be coming in to manage the shop floor tomorrow. Jason can hardly expect him to manage a factory he's never even seen."
"Sign yourself back in and Donna can take us round," Gaby told Brad, and this time Donna capitulated.
Brad signed his name in the visitors’ book. Donna dug three sets of bright yellow earthing strips out of her desk drawer and asked everyone to put them on their shoes for safety. That done, she handed watch covers to Brad and Gaby, and a ring cover to Brad for his white platinum wedding ring. While they were putting them on, she dropped her own watch into her desk drawer and covered it up with a phone message pad.
"There. Ready to go," she announced, and led the way through the sound-proofed double doors at the back of reception.
The corridor that faced the trio was a strange no-man’s land between the smart, shiny marble and plush carpet public face of the reception area, and the clunky, clattery, metal and plastic shop floor. Brad and Gaby stepped aside to let Donna lead the way along the corridor, and punch in the code for entry to the secure shop floor.
Inside, it was a strain to hear anything, so they spoke little as they walked around from one machine to another. Occasionally Brad asked Donna something, but he had to lean so close to her that Gaby could make out neither his questions nor her responses.
One machine in particular seemed to interest him. It stretched from the floor almost to the ceiling, two stories higher. Inside the hulking green shell, something grey and heavy clunked inexorably up and down. To Gaby, it looked almost evil - something Blake would have written about belonging in a dark satanic mill - but Brad brightened visibly as he studied the small blinking red lights on the front and watched two boiler-suited men checking and moving the boxes it produced. He picked out a few pieces from one of the boxes, ran a finger over one edge, and asked a question of the elder of the two men. The grey-haired man frowned and shook his head, and shouted a response which against the harsh sounds of the factory still sounded little more than a whisper.
Brad frowned, shook his head, asked something else, and then got another inaudible response.
He made another remark, still looking unusually serious, and then the man beckoned to him and led him back towards the door by which they’d all entered. Gaby looked at Donna, who looked back at her, shrugged, then joined the procession. They must have looked for all the world like a mother duck with her ducklings making their way in order across the factory floor. The sight of not one, but two, smartly dressed women drew eyes to their progress, but if there were any comments, they were lost amidst the din of machines.
After a walk that seemed longer with each deafening second that passed, as the air became thicker with the scent of something metallic and Gaby's shoulders tensed at the thought of the hammering that the steel was taking, they reached the door by which they'd entered. Compared to reception, the blank corridor had seemed bare and shoddy, but compared to the inferno they'd just left, it felt like a haven of luxurious tranquillity.
Gaby was glad she'd never had to work permanently in an environment like that, and hoped she never would.
Coming in, Brad had been eager and chatty, but now he seemed distant and preoccupied, following without a murmur as Donna led them off a side door, into the canteen, and showed them where the catering team posted the weekly menu. She then pointed them in the direction of the toilets and storerooms, and finally led the way back to reception.
"Interesting?" Gaby asked Brad as they removed the earthing strips from their shoes and returned watch and ring covers, and Donna unlocked her drawer and fished out her watch.
"Very," he answered, still sounding abstracted.
"What was all that about with those two guys?" Gaby asked, wondering whether that was what was absorbing his attention.
"The ones on the big machine," Gaby said, to a smothered laugh from Donna, who had no doubt observed that there were at least a dozen big machines on the shop floor, most of them operated by two guys.
The description was sufficient for Brad, however.
"Oh, that. There are some issues with the steel quality and JJ doesn't seem keen to sort them out."
"That's not good, is it?"
"Not good might be an understatement," Brad said darkly, then, with a flicker of his eyes towards Donna and a nod towards the small conference room where his interview had been conducted, he suggested wordlessly that they take the conversation elsewhere.
"Thanks, Donna," Gaby smiled at the receptionist. "Brad and I are just having a quick word in the small meeting room, if anyone needs me."
She followed Brad through the door, took one of the huge leather seats, and waited.
Brad didn't take long to fill her in.
"The steel they're using isn't good enough for all the jobs they're making it do. It's ok for the sheets and hinges, but the springs undergo more tension and they're getting a very high failure rate, but not yet high enough for Jason to want to do anything about it, because better steel's more expensive."
"Well, surely that's his decision," Gaby said, but she could feel the tension and knew that there was more to it than that. Brad was seriously worried, and his next remark explained why.
"If they're failing that high in the factory, there's a good chance more could fail in use. Which could mean deaths on the road."