‘Here we go, then.’
Irene tried to ease her tension with a deep breath and glanced sideways at her competitor. She was glad that he appeared equally nervous, shuffling his feet as he winked at her. The waiting period was always the worst and Irene felt her gaze drawn to the largest of the three empty chairs on the opposite side of the table. Standing between its neighbours, the seat and arms were of green leather, while the headrest was elaborately carved with the logo of the Manning Corporation.
She allowed her eyes to drop, aware that the television cameras were running and might even now be concentrating on her face, searching for arrogance or weakness or any other emotion that would raise the viewer ratings. The lights burned above, prickling the top of Irene’s head.
‘Not long now,’ she whispered.
Kendrick nodded. ‘Good luck.’
Irene took the hand that he offered. It was large and soft, with surprising strength. ‘You too.’
A cameraman murmured in the background and somebody softly laughed. There was a hum of machinery and a faint cough from the invisible audience behind the screen. Paper rustled irritatingly. Both contestants stiffened as footsteps sounded to their left, but nobody appeared and they tried to relax, false smiles forcing away their nerves.
The table curved gently away from them, with the three empty chairs on the concave side seeming to symbolise an inner circle of acceptance. If she was successful tonight, Irene told herself, she would be a member of that inner circle. Drawing strength from the thought, she smoothed a hand over the highly polished mahogany. ‘This is Ms Manning’s own property,’ she said, ‘brought in especially for the show.’
Kendrick nodded. ‘It once belonged to John Witherspoon,’ he said softly. ‘He is meant to have drafted the Declaration of Independence on it. Imagine that. The Declaration could have sat on this very piece of wood.’ He was silent for a minute, and then grinned across to her. ‘I wonder if we will ever meet again.’
‘I hope so,’ Irene said softly. ‘You’d be a good employee.’ She smiled toward him, allowing her eyes to crinkle.
Kendrick’s bass chuckle was nearly as familiar as his grin. ‘So would you,’ he parried easily, ‘as long as you remain under control.’
‘Do you think Ms Manning is keeping us here to increase the tension?’ Irene glanced at her watch. The minute hand seemed to have been hovering between eleven and twelve for at least a half hour.
‘Undoubtedly. Watching us suffer makes for good viewing.’
Spotlights flared blindingly as a drum began to beat a staccato rhythm. Irene stiffened into attention. ‘Here we go,’ she whispered again as a door opened and three people walked in. Irene and Kendrick immediately stood as a gesture of respect. The men on the left and right exuded power and responsibility with their immaculate Giorgio Armani suits and their bulging leather briefcases, but they were inconsequential compared to the woman that walked between them.
The top of Rhondda Manning’s head barely reached the shoulder of either man, but there was no doubting who was in charge. Every step she took snapped the grey skirt against her legs, while her simple jacket clung to a gym-trim figure. Even although Irene had studied every possible detail of Rhondda Manning’s life, she still found it difficult to believe that this small woman, who dressed with such simple style and spoke so quietly, could have built up one of the largest corporate empires in the world.
When the elder of the men pulled back the central seat, Ms Manning sat with a single fluid movement. She smiled across to both candidates as music sounded softly in the background and a camera rolled into position. Completely unscented by perfume, she looked across at Irene; her eyes grey and direct and startlingly clear.
Irene swallowed the sudden nervous lump that had risen in her throat. She could feel the heat generated by Kendrick’s body, but was unable to detach her eyes from those of Ms Manning.
‘Welcome to the last episode of The Neophyte,’ Ms Manning said. Despite her wealth and success, her accent still contained the slow syllables of the Mid West. ‘Within the next thirty minutes, you will both be walking out of this show for the last time. Thirty minutes to decide your destiny. Thirty minutes.’ She allowed the words to hang as a promise and a threat as she looked at each in turn. Irene kept her expression neutral as she felt those grey eyes probing inside her.
Ms Manning continued, speaking slowly. ‘By that time I will have made my decision. I will have chosen one of you to be groomed as my successor, and the other will be on the streets.’
Irene contained the nervous shudder. Her memory still held the words ‘on the streets, on the streets,’ that the audience was encouraged to chant every time one of the candidates was rejected. Then would followed the Walk of Pain, when the loser had to discard their Manning Corporation green jacket and pass through the audience as they left the studio. Nobody was permitted to leave by the back door, for the millions of television viewers loved to view the loser’s anguish.
After enduring so much to reach the final, Irene could not bear the thought of undergoing that ritual humiliation. She must win.
‘First we will review your progress,’ the younger of the two men said. Laying his brief case on the table, he clicked it open and slid out a thick file of notes. ‘Kendrick Dontell,’ he smoothed out the syllables. ‘You are a graduate of Harvard Business School and have worked in the New York Stock Exchange for three years. You have performed admirably in each task that you have been set, working honestly and diligently to overcome every difficulty.’ He looked up, unexpectedly friendly. ‘Harvard, eh? You will have stood underneath the Johnston Gate then?’
‘Many times, sir,’ Kendrick confirmed. The Johnston Gate, with its red brick columns and ironwork archway, was the first gate ever erected at Harvard and had been a popular meeting place for his class. He smiled as the man nodded.
‘I have too, Kendrick. That’s where I met my wife.’
Kendrick’s smile broadened. ‘So did I,’ he said.
Irene glanced at Ms Manning, uncomfortable at this display of college bonding in which she could not participate.
Ms Manning may have caught her unease. ‘Carry on, Peter,’ she ordered, softly. ‘The clock is ticking. Twenty eight minutes.’
Twenty-eight minutes; the words resonated through Irene’s mind. In twenty-eight minutes she would know her future.
‘You have been asked to perform a number of tasks, Kendrick, each one escalating in difficulty,’ Peter continued.
‘You managed a small shop, coped with a kindergarten school, which you found easy given your two children,’ again the men exchanged empathetic smiles, ‘promoted a newly published book, organised a visit to the Manning Corporation from a foreign diplomat and finally created a new security system for the Manning Museum here in New York City.’
Irene hated the smug look that crept over Kendrick’s face as he nodded to acknowledge each success.
‘Indeed, you only have to successfully complete only one last task, Kendrick, and you will have proved yourself the perfect neophyte.’ Peter closed the file and glanced toward Ms Manning.
‘And now you, Irene.’ Ms Manning nodded encouragement across the table. She raised an eyebrow to the older man on her right. ‘Proceed, Charles.’
‘Irene Armstrong, you have also proved yourself,’ Charles spoke with an attractive Tennessee drawl. ‘After a difficult childhood, you financed yourself into North Carolina State University, from where you successfully graduated. You entered the business world, rising to become head of department in a New York financial house. Since entering for The Neophyte you have taken charge of a busy travel agency, created a new web site for the Manning Corporation’s Youth Programme, welcomed a French trade delegation to Houston’s Manning Shopping Mall and tested the fire and security system in the Boston Manning Hotel.’
Far more aware of Ms Manning’s scrutiny than of the cameras, Irene kept her face expressionless, acknowledging the applause with a nod.
‘And you also have to prove yourself in our final task, Irene, before you can take your place as Ms Manning’s neophyte,’ Charles paused for a significant moment, ‘or take a walk on the streets.’
‘On the streets,’ somebody from the unseen audience shouted, and others joined in, chanting the three-word mantra that would signify failure to one of the two remaining candidates.
Ms Manning waited until the noise faded before she spoke in her habitual low, soft voice, clearly enunciating each syllable. ‘The last task we set was slightly different. It was also the most controversial of them all.’ She raised the tension with a long pause. Unlike each previous episode of the show, no details of the hopeful neophyte’s assignment had been released and everybody present waited to hear what would be said next.
‘The task seemed quite simple,’ Ms Manning said, ‘you were to find out all that you could about your opponent, and tell me why that person should not be given the position as neophyte.’
There was a gasp from the audience as Irene and Kendrick looked at each other. Kendrick raised his eyebrows, but the smugness was back. Irene knew that Ms Manning had been fostering competition, setting the contenders against each other in a mini duplication of corporate life. Now she felt the hammering of her heart as she wondered what skeletons Kendrick had discovered. She saw Peter and Charles each produce a file from their respective brief case and hand it to Ms Manning. Both files were identical, with the white Manning Corporation logo embossed on a dark green background, except that one was thicker than the other.
To the brief rolling of a drum, Ms Manning opened the thinner file, lifted a printed sheet of paper from the top and scanned it briefly. ‘This is a summary of Irene’s investigation into Kendrick,’ she explained. ‘But before I begin, is there anything in your past that you wish to keep hidden, Kendrick?’ The smile was deceitfully benign.
‘Absolutely nothing,’ Kendrick said. He glanced at Irene. ‘Anybody is free to investigate my life.’
Ms Manning nodded. ‘Let us see, Kendrick.’ She scanned the summary with one flick of her eyes. ‘Straight A grades at school, top of your year at Harvard and a prime performer at the Stock Exchange.’
That smug look was back on Kendrick’s face as he nodded. Irene began to hate him anew, for the Ivy League Club was strong in the corporate world. Despite spending an entire two weeks probing Kendrick’s life, she had found nothing untoward. She had hired a private investigator, had Kendrick followed, questioned his work colleagues and fellow students all the way back to infancy, with no success. The man seemed impenetrable, a veritable saint.
‘You married Selia three years ago, Kendrick, and have two children, a boy named John and a girl named Ruth.’ Ms Manning put down the paper and closed the file. ‘You have never transgressed the laws of the United States in any particular, with not even a parking fine against you, and your teachers, lecturers, family and neighbours all acclaim you with great praise.’ She smiled, ‘Kendrick, you are a pillar of the community.’
Kendrick ducked his head modestly as Ms Manning lifted the second, thicker, file and turned her attention to Irene.
‘A mixed bag at school, Irene, and a slight blemish when you took some unofficial time off, which is not surprising given your impoverished family background. You recovered commendably well, and attended North Carolina State University, which you financed by working long hours at Wal-Mart, among other places.’
Irene nodded. She felt the colour rise to her cheeks as there was a slight stir in the audience. She knew that it was part of the American Dream for a poor girl to work her way to success, but also knew that the United States could be as elite-conscious as any other nation in the world. She hoped that Kendrick had not been over efficient in checking all her previous work places.
‘After an initial rocky period, you hit a run of top grades, and have worked in a number of positions since, usually rising to the top of whatever tree you chose to climb. Latterly you were head of department in a leading financial business. You are single, but have a partner named Patrick McKim. He is a fascinating man, but not the subject of this competition.’ Miss Manning let the words hang as she shuffled the papers a little before she selected a single yellow sheet.
Irene leaned forward. She could nearly feel the triumph radiating from the man sitting next to her.
‘Kendrick has unearthed some interesting facts about you, Irene. For instance, there was a job in Raleigh when you accumulated a number of parking fines.’ Miss Manning raised both eyebrows as she stared into the camera, playing to the audience. ‘And there was the night you seem to have spent in a police cell?’
Irene could hear the audible sigh from the audience as they sensed her chances slipping away. Kendrick shifted in his seat, not sure whether to be proud of his investigative success or embarrassed at this public denouncement of his rival. He looked across to her, as if to apologise. Aware that Ms Manning appreciated a fighter, Irene hit back.
‘I was certainly in a police cell, Ms Manning, but only for shelter. I was returning home from the University and had run out of money. The police offered to help.’
Ms Manning allowed her eyebrows to drop. ‘So I understand.’ She replaced the yellow sheet of paper and closed the file. ‘So now I have to make a decision. Now I have to choose one neophyte and order the unsuccessful candidate to go on the streets.’
The audience had been waiting expectantly for those words. ‘On the streets!’ they echoed, chanting in choreographed enjoyment.
Kendrick straightened in his seat. His glance at Irene might have included sympathy.
Ms Manning continued. ‘I have watched you both over the last few months, I have viewed hundreds of hours of video tape, read your files and interviewed you personally, but now I must pronounce the final decision.’ When she leaned back, Ms Manning’s immaculately styled hair barely touched the carved logo on the headrest. She looked from one candidate to the other, pressed the tips of her fingers together and smiled.
‘It’s a big decision, choosing a successor. Who do I want? What do I want?’ She sighed. ‘I want somebody who is expert at business, so my Corporation does not go down the pan.
Somebody who will fight for what he,’ Ms Manning’s eyes focussed on Kendrick, and then slid across to Irene, ‘or she, believes. I want somebody who can identify a failing but potentially successful company, buy it and turn it around. I want somebody honest and incredibly hard working. I want a fighter.’ She shook her head solemnly, ‘I want somebody similar to me.’
The audience cheered, as Ms Manning had certainly intended. Irene felt herself smiling and knew that Kendrick was doing exactly the same. Ms Manning had that effect on people.
She had the power of manipulation.
Ms Manning sat up straight and nodded into the nearest camera. There was a hush as the great screens rolled slowly back so that the appearance of a boardroom altered into the television studio that it in fact was. Now only a few yards of space and coils of television cable separated the contestants from the audience. Irene was suddenly conscious that hundreds of pairs of eyes were fixed on her back. The cameras had been intrusive but impersonal, machines rather than people, but now she fancied that she could hear the breathing of each individual among the crowd, she could nearly smell the cologne and after shave with which they had doused themselves.
‘I have come to a decision.’ Ms Manning leaned back in her chair, allowing her head to rest just beneath the Manning logo. Even then, Irene could admire the perfect set of her hair and the manicured nails that lay in line with the arm rests. The overhead lights gleamed on the ruby that was central to the single ring encircling her forefinger. There was a matching ruby on the antique necklace around her neck.
Irene could not look at Kendrick, although she was very aware of his suddenly shallow breathing. The audience had receded to unimportance.
‘Within the next two minutes,’ Miss Manning addressed the contestants, ‘one of you will be my neophyte and the other will be on the streets.’ This time the audience did not chant the programme slogan. ‘How do you feel, Kendrick?’
There was a moment’s hesitation before Kendrick replied. ‘I feel good,’ he said. ‘I feel real good.’
Ms Manning nodded. ‘And you, Irene?’
‘Confident,’ Irene lied. She nodded vigorously. ‘Yes. I will be your neophyte.’
The hush deepened as Ms Manning stood, as she always did before imparting momentous decisions. Three cameras focussed on her, while one concentrated on each of the contestants.
‘This contest has been close,’ Ms Manning’s accent became more pronounced as she came to the climax of the programme. ‘And I am left with two excellent candidates. One has sailed through life on the crest of a wave of constant success; the other has struggled through adversity to achieve her present position. Both are examples of the American Dream, and the two are hard to separate.’
Irene heard the drums begin their insistent roll as Ms Manning stepped back, preparatory to sweeping her hand round in her trademark gesture that would destroy the dreams of one contestant and recreate the life of the other. The person Ms Manning selected would be virtually guaranteed wealth, power and success; the person she rejected would have to accept very public failure. Ms Manning was the human oxymoron between two extremes; her pronouncement was incontestable.
‘So I have come to a provisional decision. In business it is sometimes better to hedge one’s bets, to allow things to take their own course until muddied waters clear.’ Her arm swung in a complete half circle until her forefinger pointed directly at Kendrick. The ruby gleamed like blood. ‘In this instance I have decided that Kendrick shall be my neophyte, for an interim period of one year. If he makes a success of things in that time, which I have no doubt that he will, then he shall retain the position.’
The arm retracted then thrust out toward Irene. ‘In the meantime, Irene, you must go on the streets!’
The finger dominated Irene’s conscious vision. She could see the immaculate nail with the arc of the cuticle, and each individual crease around the knuckles. For one moment her entire life centred on that single digit, and then the audience began the chant that had become a catchphrase throughout America.
‘On the streets! On the streets!’
Irene sat in disbelief, swamped by the baying. She could feel Kendrick standing beside her, could sense the triumph in his smile as he accepted the congratulations of Ms Manning and her senior managers before he turned to her, hand extended.
‘On the streets! On the streets!’
Tears prickled in her eyes as Irene faced Ms Manning. She shook her head. She had planned and striven and had dedicated her entire life to winning this competition. Now she was a failure; the world would remember her not as the contestant who had nearly succeeded, but as the woman who had failed in front of millions.
‘You fought well, Irene,’ Kendrick’s soft voice caressed her and his deep brown eyes held only sympathy. ‘Shake now; show the world that you can lose as graciously as you win.’ When she hesitated, he leaned closer, whispering ‘if you don’t, you’ll regret it later.’
Recognising good advice, Irene blinked back the tears and took Kendrick’s hand. She would have loved to squeeze hard, to make him wince, but there was a worldwide audience watching. ‘Congratulations, Kendrick,’ she said as brightly as she could. ‘You will be a worthy neophyte. You will be just fine.’
‘Well said!’ Ms Manning had been watching closely, but now transferred her entire attention to Kendrick.
Irene suddenly realised that she was already pushed out of the picture. Technicians hustled past her as they wheeled cameras toward the successful neophyte. Two men guided her into a cluttered dressing room as Kendrick took his place on the table beside Ms Manning. She felt swift hands remove the green jacket from her shoulders, heard whispered words of sympathy as a camera focussed on her face. She forced a smile, as if indifferent that her chance of replacing one of the richest women in the world had just been replaced by a life branded by failure.
‘You have to make the walk now,’ a denim-clad technician whispered, and encouraged her with a gentle shove between the shoulder blades.
The audience continued to chant ‘on the streets’ as Irene followed the marked route, but she ignored the anonymity of faces, knowing that although some pitied her, most were gleeful, enjoying her discomfiture. The voices merged into a single bawl of derision, individual personalities into a crowd that cried failure, but she blinked away the burning tears and held her head high. Only when a doorman ushered her out of the studio did the noise abate. The corridor seemed to stretch into a bleak distance.
‘You did great to get so far,’ the doorman said, soothingly. He was middle aged and bald, with pouched eyes.
Irene shook her head. ‘I failed,’ she said.
‘You’ll be back,’ the doorman said, adding earnest words of sympathy that were lost on her. Kendrick was the lion of the hour but she was only an also-ran, somebody to be moved quickly out of the vision of a society that worshipped only success.
Away from the cameras, Irene allowed the emotion to take control as she surveyed her aborted dreams. With one sentence Ms Manning had changed her life-plan from triumph to survival, from riches to unemployment. She was indeed on the streets. She felt the prickle of a tear that she was too late to prevent from coursing slowly down her cheek. God, but she hoped there were no cameras waiting for her outside. All she needed was for the world to remember her as the failed contestant with panda eyes and smudged mascara.
Keeping one hand on her arm, the doorman guided her along the corridor in which various people hurried, some giving her curious glances and others completely disregarding her. After weeks in the public eye, to be ignored was the deepest pain of all.
The studio was only one of a dozen within the huge communications building, but eventually Irene stumbled out into 48th Street and the bitter rain of a New York fall. There was a limousine waiting to take her home and a film crew asking more questions. She lifted her face, allowing the rain to take the blame for any inadequacies of her make up.
‘How do you feel?’
‘It sucks, I mean, truly sucks! I should have won!’
The camera moved closer, but the soundman shook his head, ‘sorry, Irene, I did not get that. Could you repeat it, please?’ He looked eager, aware that he had lost something sensational, but sense had returned to Irene.
‘I said all congratulations to Kendrick. He is a worthy winner and I am sure he will do well.’ She forced another smile, aware that her jaws were aching, reiterated her praise of Kendrick and said that she was proud to have come so far. She felt sick as the lights reflected on the wet streets of the city.
The questions continued.
‘What will you do with your life?’
‘Where will you go now?’
‘Did you find the show a positive experience?’
Irene shook her head. ‘Failure can never be a positive experience,’ she said as the truth broke through her professional façade. ‘And what will I do with my life? Does it matter? Anything else will be second best to this opportunity!’
The reporter drew back, alarmed at the venom in Irene’s face.
‘Let me out,’ Irene demanded. ‘I’ll walk from here. Let me out!’
‘But the interview?’
‘Your interview sucks!’ Thrusting open the door, she pushed past the camera crew, straightened her back and strode around the nearest corner. She did not know in which direction she was walking, only that she had to escape from the media. Only in constant movement could she find solace, and there was no better city in which to hide.