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July 21, 2010

Turning Point

By James Gray

Max Harris removed a black leather glove and punched in the access code that triggered double doors of glass and brushed-steel to swing as wide open as a fake smile. He leaned his head forward and shook the collar of his trench coat with his gloved hand, anticipating and then cursing the pain in his neck and shoulders as he did so, and crossed the point of no return. He had just enough time to swing round and shoo off an imaginary flock of birds with his umbrella before the doors closed, shutting the world out and Max in. Welcome to my parlour, he thought.

“Morning, Mr. Harris,” echoed the voice of the security guard from behind the circular white counter that took centre stage under the gleaming glass and polished steel of the entrance hall.  Max thought that, viewed from the gallery high above, the reception counter looked like a Polo mint on a cathedral floor. In one seamless motion the guard swivelled from his chair, folding his newspaper in half and dropping it next to a bank of monitors. He fell into line alongside Max as he made his way to the elevators, boots creaking on the Italian slate. Nodding towards the doors through which Max had arrived, he said “Awful weather, sir.”

“No kidding,” said Max, pushing back a sleeve to look at his watch. “Twenty-fifth, this morning, please, George.”

“Big day, sir?” asked George, leaning forward to press the call button. He swiped a smart card through a vertical slot and when the red light turned green dialled in a six-digit pin followed by the number 25 and the hash symbol.

“Meeting with the big fella,” said Max.

“Say no more, sir,” said George, neither caring nor understanding.

There was a soft electronic bing, which always reminded Max of the Please fasten your seatbelt warning on aeroplanes, and George relieved Max of his umbrella. “Have a good day, Mr. Harris.” Max gave George a cursory salute and entered the elevator. With Mr. Harris safely on his way, George returned to his post and the Starcrossword.

With the code locked into the elevator system, Max could enjoy a direct flight all the way to the twenty-fifth floor without collecting any other passengers or having to worry about elevator small-talk. A promotional video for Ford Technologies ran on a loop inside the elevator, extolling the virtues of the company’s dynamic, supremely intelligent and hugely generous CEO. Max had just enough elevator time to watch a clip of his boss skydiving from a Cessna, no doubt descending on some remote African village to hand-deliver food parcels, vaccines and school supplies. He’s quite a guy, thought Max, and he looked at his watch again.

The elevator slowed to a gentle stop and Max emerged on the twenty-fifth floor. Beads of sweat immediately began to form on his brow. He ran a hand across his forehead, no longer able to distinguish between rain and sweat, and set off towards the big fella’s office, located at the far end of a long but mercifully straight corridor. It was days like these he envied the smooth surface of the oak floor on the twenty-fifth, the Monaco of floors to the heavy-going Interlagos of the carpeted fourteenth where Max’s cosy booth was located.

At the end of what Max thought of as the start-finish straight, he rapped a knuckle twice on the glass door to the office marked ‘Sebastian Ford, CEO Ford Technologies’. He could already see Sebastian “call-me-Seb” Ford seated at one end of a pristine white conference table while being served coffee by his executive assistant Kandie (with a K!). At the sound of the tapping Kandie looked up and Max admired the view as she catwalked towards him and opened the door.

“Good to see you, Maxie,” said Ford, motioning with one hand for Max to come in while he groped in his briefcase with the other. “Pull up a… Oh yeah, of course,” said Ford, and promptly cleared his throat. Kandie swept away the chair next to Ford and Max wheeled himself in beside the CEO.

Kandie strutted out of the office, leaving Max wondering why he was there.

“I expect you’re wondering why you’re here,” said Ford. Max raised an eyebrow, but said nothing, merely clasping his hands on his lap.

“Look, I know we’ve never been the best of friends, Max -” Max shifted slightly in his wheelchair and started to open his mouth, not quite knowing what was going to emerge. Ford raised a hand, “No, no – I know what you think of me. But I trust you. You’re one of the very few guys around here I can depend on, one hundred percent.”

Max looked Ford straight in the eye and gave him a look that said, “So what?” Ford had no choice but to continue his monologue.

“We’re pioneers, Max. We’ve built our entire reputation on being at the cutting edge, pushing the envelope of…”

Max stared at a spot just above Ford’s head and pictured a speech bubble, “Bla bla bla bla bla bla bla…”

“… critical, and as you know we’ve been working on this project for over a year, so you get what I’m saying, right, Max? Max?”

“Absolutely,” said Max. He could tell by the look on Ford’s face that he was expecting some kind of response. “So, what you’re saying is…”

“What I’m saying is if we have to put back the launch date again, we’re screwed. Our investors are running out of patience, Max.” Ford reached into his briefcase and pulled out a press release issued by Tyrell Systems which had gone out the night before. He placed the single sheet of A4 flat on the table, twisting it round with his thumb and forefinger so that Max could read it, and tapped on it twice. “This is our technology, Max. I don’t know how, but – ” Ford shook his head and raised his eyes to the ceiling. Max thought he was about to burst into tears, but then he continued. “Somehow Tyrell have managed to leapfrog an entire generation.” Ford pushed back his chair, putting one hand on his hip and clapping the other to his forehead. “Christ, they’re on Blu-ray while we’re still grinning about Betamax.”

Max was well aware of the implications. As CFO he had access to the figures and despite all the outward appearances of a thriving company, the future of Ford Technologies was well and truly pinned to the success of its latest innovation. Not even another wave of redundancies would keep them afloat if their rivals over at Tyrell got the jump on them. Two years ago, Max had fired so many staff in the space of a week he’d earned himself the nickname Davros – exterminate, exterminate – and although he hated it, he could certainly handle a few insults. He’d handled worse.

“How long before…”

“I dunno, couple of weeks, a month at a push,” said Ford. “We need to come up with something pretty special before the investors pull the plug. I’m getting together with the development boys this afternoon. Meantime I want to know what our options are, financially.”

“I can knock something up by tomorrow, have a report on your desk first thing,” said Max, aware it would take him no more than a couple of hours.

“And take a look at the HR records, will you? I want to know who’s come and gone in the last eighteen months. And get on to Clarke, Clarke and Chamberlain, I want our non-competition clause tightened up, we’re paying those guys enough.” Ford held the door open for Max, and Max took his cue. “Just keep your ear to the ground, okay?”

Max rode the elevator down to the fourteenth floor. Ploughing across the cadaver-grey carpet he thought of the gyroscopic iBOT he’d seen on TV, the wheelchair that stands up, balances and can even climb stairs. Max arrived back at his booth and opened the bottom draw of his roll container. He pulled out a small bottle of pills, unscrewed the lid and dumped two into the palm of his hand. Unable to find a bottle of mineral water, he swallowed them both dry.

Ford was right about one thing; they’d never been the best of friends. When Max first joined the company some ten years previously he’d had little direct contact with Sebastian Ford and had been impressed by his entrepreneurial spirit, his ambition and his unorthodox way of doing business. Sebastian Ford had seemed like a popular guy and Max had revered him almost like some kind of celebrity. One of the reasons Max had taken the job was because Ford Technologies had just been awarded millions of dollars in venture capital; this was a company on the up and up. The future was bright indeed.

Max sat at his desk, ignoring the warbling phones and the voices that merged into one monotonous drone and surrounded him like prison chatter. He put his head back, closed his eyes and ran both hands through his hair, clasping his fingers behind his neck. He reflected on his own ambitions and aspirations when he’d joined Ford Technologies in what now seemed like another life. Someone else’s life. He had been debt-free and pulling in a decent wage for the first time since graduating. At their current market value his stock options had been worth a small fortune. And, of course, it had been before the accident.

Max’s mind shifted, as it tended to on days like these, to Mandy, one more in a long list of regrets. He remembered how she’d come down on the train to visit him for the weekend after he’d taken the job with Ford and moved out to the city. How she’d seemed so unimpressed, not only with his new apartment, although she had conceded it was ‘adequate’, but also with his choice of career. You could do so much better, she’d said. How they’d barely spoken, let alone touched one another, the entire weekend. By the time Monday morning had come around nothing and yet everything had been said.

As Max now stared at the white ceiling, images of Mandy flickered past as if in a silent home movie, only this was no happy memory. He could see her blonde hair tied back in a pony tail, crisp white blouse and navy blue skirt, tottering off to catch an early morning train and struggling to drag the wheels of a Samsonite carry-on across the cobbled pavement. Max remembered the finality of the moment she’d pressed the ring into his palm and curled his fingers around it, and the relief he had felt with that last peck on the cheek had shocked him. Max had wrestled for a brief moment with his conscience, part of him wanting to run after her and hold her tight one last time, but the anticipation of a new life about to begin had been too strong. Max felt a weight lift as the last remnant of his old life walked into the distance and he’d all but sprinted to the office that morning.

Somewhere a phone rang, jolting Max back to corporate life. He spent the rest of the morning preparing figures for the report Ford had asked him to put together. Despite Ford’s dramatics, it was a routine job for Max and he took it in his stride. When he was finished, Max sat back in his chair, confident that he had everything covered. He rubbed his eyes, shook his head, and went back to staring at the ceiling.

After a couple of minutes Max pulled out his cell phone. He scrolled through his address book and hit the call button. “Hello, Dr. Singh? Max Harris speaking. Can we meet? What, two o’clock today?” Max looked at his watch. “Alright, sure, the sooner the better. The Starbucks on the corner of Wood Street, yes, I know it. See you there, bye.”

Max grabbed a USB memory stick from a drawer and plugged it into his PC. He peered over the top of the partition that enclosed his booth and then glanced casually to his left and right before grabbing the mouse and browsing to a directory on his private drive. He selected the files he wanted and copied them over, ejected the external drive and slipped the USB stick into his pocket. Then he activated the password-protected screensaver.

Max felt a hefty slap on his back and nearly jumped out of his wheelchair. It was Jovial Joe from marketing. Max rolled his eyes but before he could say anything Joe was off. “Max, mate, there’s a group of us going to Fernando’s for lunch if you fancy it.” Joe stood with his hands in his pockets, shirt sleeves rolled to the elbow and a pair of Oakley sunglasses perched on his head, grinning and waiting for an answer.

“No, no thanks,” said Max, “I already have plans.”

“Oh, come on, Max.” Joe paused. “Tanya’s coming,” he said, raising his eyebrows and slapping Max on the back again.

“Will you stop with the Tanya shit. I’m not interested. She only wants to be able to brag about sleeping with a guy in a wheelchair.”

“Who cares?” said Joe, raising his hands and chuckling. Joe turned on his heels and began heading for the elevators.

“Wait,” said Max, pulling out his wallet. He took out a couple of twenties and handed them to Joe. “Have a couple of rounds on me.”

“Nice one,” said Joe. Mid way down the corridor Joe turned around, flashed his Tom Cruise grin and fired two imaginary pistols at Max. “If you change your mind…” And he was gone.

Max allowed himself a good hour for the journey to Starbucks on Wood Street and emerged from the Ford Technologies building at precisely one in the afternoon. Although there was still a chill in the air, the sun had started to peer through the clouds and the birds were in full song. He took a deep breath, the rain having done much to wash away the stench of car fumes, and listened to the swoosh of passing traffic, amplified by the waterlogged roads. He was just far enough away from the edge of the pavement to avoid being splashed by a car as it tore through a puddle.

Max was in no mood to drive and decided to hail a taxi, which he would charge to the company. He detested driving these days and considered it a necessary evil. It wasn’t so much the crawling at snail-pace through the city centre, battling through rush-hour traffic twice a day, always arriving late or having to circle the block five times looking for a parking space. What he had yet to come to terms with was the constant reminder he faced whenever he got behind the wheel of his specially adapted Mercedes, with the automatic transmission and hand controls for the accelerator and brake.

A taxi drew up and the cab driver helped Max with his wheelchair. “Starbucks on Wood Street, please,” said Max. The cabbie flicked a switch on the metre and Max added, “No rush.” The driver’s attempts to engage Max in conversation were met with disinterested grunts from the rear seat. Max stared out of the near-side window and watched the passers by, each jogger, cyclist, pedestrian, street vendor and beggar caught up in their own worlds. The taxi pulled up at a set of traffic lights and Max watched a little boy on the pavement, no more than four or five years old, standing with his mother and holding an empty lolly pop stick in the air. The boy was crying as if his arm had been severed, staring at the smashed orange ice lolly lying in several pieces on the pavement. “Get over it, kid,” said Max, shaking his head and smirking. “It gets much worse.”

By one forty-five Max was on the other side of town. He got out a block before Wood Street and paid the driver, adding a generous tip and making sure to get a receipt. By the time he rolled into Starbucks it was five minutes to two, and Max looked around for Dr. Singh. First to arrive, Max waited in line for his overpriced cappuccino, then found a table by the window which overlooked Wood Street. At precisely two o’clock Dr. Singh arrived; Max was impressed by his punctuality.

Dr. Singh spotted Max straight away and waved a newspaper in the air as he negotiated his way through a crowd of students who had pulled several tables together. “Max,” he said, holding out a hand and smiling. “Good to see you.” Dr. Singh slid into the chair opposite Max. “I take it you’ve given our offer some thought?”

“Yes, I have, Dr. Singh,” said Max.

“Please, call me Balbir.”

Max pulled the USB stick from his pocket and handed it to Dr. Singh. “I brought what you asked for,” said Max. “It’s all there, and if you need any more information I’ll be happy to provide it.”

“Excellent. I’ve already spoken to my people. Once they read this, it’ll be no more than a formality. You’ve made the right decision, Max.”

“I have a few loose ends to tie up first, though,” said Max.

“Of course, of course. Do what you have to do and give me a call in a couple of days,” said Dr. Singh. He held up the USB stick and said, “I’ll pass this on right away. But as I said, it’s a mere formality. Let’s meet again once I’ve finalised things and then we can talk about the specifics.”

Max and Dr. Singh chatted for a couple of minutes and then Max looked at his watch. “I’m afraid I need to get back to the office,” he said. “Tie up those loose ends.” And with that, Max parted company from Dr. Singh. As he passed in front of the coffee shop he noticed that Dr. Singh, still sat at the window table, had pulled out a cell phone, no doubt already setting the wheels in motion. Max exhaled heavily, and hailed another cab.

Back on the fourteenth floor Max printed out his report for Ford. He placed the pages inside a blue wallet folder and set it to one side on his desk. Then he printed out another single page of A4, folded it neatly into three and slid it into a white, business letter-sized envelope, which he placed in his inside jacket pocket. Right, let’s do this, thought Max.

Max emerged on the twenty-fifth floor for the second time that day, wheeled himself down the corridor and tapped on Ford’s door. The blinds were down, so Max was unable to see whether Ford was home. After a few more seconds he tapped again, this time a little louder. The door swung open and Kandie tottered out, straightening her glasses. “Mr. Harris,” she said, and sped off down the corridor, heels clicking on the wooden floor like the banging of two coconut halves.

Max caught the door before it closed shut and entered Ford’s office. “Hate to disturb you,” he said. “Especially at such a crucial moment.”

Ford, straightening his tie, stood behind his desk and cleared his throat. “No, just, just, you know. Business stuff.”

Max smiled. “Brought that report you wanted.”

“Fast work,” said Ford. “What did you find out?”

Ford sat down again and Max wheeled himself towards Ford’s desk. He tossed the wallet folder in front of him. “Firstly,” said Max, holding a thumb in the air, “don’t be so fucking paranoid. Nobody’s out to get you. Nobody’s selling trade secrets. Tyrell Systems are number one on the market for the simple reason they’re doing a far, far better job than we are.”

Ford sat back in his executive leather chair, open-mouthed.

“Secondly,” said Max, flicking out his index finger, “you should never have brought in those wankers from Germany to run product development. We were never a company and they should never have jumped on the bandwagon. It’s poor management that’s run this company into the ground and you don’t need any report to tell you that.”

Max added his middle finger to the mix. “Thirdly, we expanded far too quickly while trying to move into markets which just weren’t interested.”

Ford ran a hand through his hair and stared at Max.

“And fourthly,” said Max, struggling to coordinate his ring finger without looking like he was trying to mimic Mr. Spock, “And fourthly, I don’t even like you very much!” Max reached into his inside pocket, pulled out the white envelope and threw it at Ford. “Consider my resignation tendered.” Max wheeled himself around, deciding to make a swift exit while he was still ahead. He stopped for a second in front of the door, then briefly closed his eyes and let his head drop. “Could you, er…”

“Oh, yes, sure,” said Ford, jumping to his feet and opening the door for Max. And with that, Max was gone, smiling to himself all the way down the corridor.

Five weeks later on a gloriously sunny day, Max parked his wheelchair on the pavement in front of his old apartment block and handed the keys back to the agent.

“We’re sorry to see you go, Mr. Harris,” said the agent. “You’ve been an exemplary tenant.”

“Well, it’s time for a new start,” said Max. They shook hands and Max watched the agent, suited and booted, enter the building. Max was dressed in an old yellow t-shirt, jeans and Morten Harket-style leather bangles and he’d never felt more at ease. Balbir Singh loaded the last of Max’s belongings into the back of a six-year-old Toyota pickup. Max already loved it more than he’d ever loved his Merc and although it, too, had been specially adapted to cope with Max’s disability, it felt like slipping on a favourite old shirt every time he sat behind the wheel.

“Ready?” asked Balbir. Max drew a deep breath and nodded. “Don’t worry, you’re perfect for the job. My bosses at the foundation loved your CV and credentials, by the way. You have so much to offer and they believe in you as much as I do.”

“Sure,” said Max. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“Come on, it’s a long journey to camp and those kids can’t wait to meet you.”

The Disability Sport Summer Camp was just the first of many assignments to come. Max smiled at himself in the rear view mirror and, despite three days’ growth, thought he looked a full ten years younger. He turned the key in the ignition and said, “I can’t wait either.”

Copyright – 2010 James Gray

All Rights Reserved

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