I was at an all time low when I met Marina.
I had been chucked out of Uni the day before and naturally proceeded to get very drunk. I’d turned up for work still inebriated, been fired for attempting to nick £20 that I’d borrowed from Soph as I’d reached both my overdraft and credit card limits.
In fact, I owed varying amount of money to nearly all my friends. I was going to have to do a disappearing act, slope off without paying any of them back, head ‘home’ to the most boring town in the world with my tail between my legs to admit (some of) my misdemeanours to my passive-aggressive parents. I’d have to do penance and reflect on my abject failure for who knew how long. Perhaps forever.
It had all come as a bit of a shock. I was used to being able to charm my way out of trouble, but I had taken it too far to smile my way out of it. I stood numb in the middle of Soho as people bustled around me; grey and still amid the colour and raucousness.
A horrible avenging hangover was starting to take hold. Hair of the dog was the only option.
I thought that I knew all the pubs in Soho, but I had never noticed this place before. It had a long, thin frontage crammed with small, crown glass windows that completely obscured the interior. All that could be made out was a warmish glow. From the outside it looked as dingy and downbeat as I was feeling; the wooden window-frames needed repainting, as did the peeling pub-sign that swung noisily in the wind on rusty hinges; it bore a picture of a galleon struggling on stormy seas.
The pub was called The Sinking Ship.
Inside it was almost as difficult to see as it had been through the windows; the lighting in the pub was minimal in the extreme and the room was full of smoke. Apparently this venue did not consider it important to comply with the smoking ban. It was the epitome of the ‘old-man’ pub; dark, well-worn furnishings, no music, clientele mostly male and solitary, quietly minding their own business; a fug of gloom hanging in the air along with the pungent cigarette smoke.
A nondescript barman was randomly wiping things with a cloth that had seen better days while waiting for someone to order something. He nodded curtly as I approached but stayed silent, waiting impatiently for me to make up my mind.
I didn’t recognise any of the beers, so took a punt and asked for a pint of Serpentine. Then, with a sinking feeling, searched in my pocket for money, knowing already I would not find any. The barman clearly recognised the look on my face and paused halfway through pouring.
“It’s alright, sonny, I’ll shout yer,” said the man sitting to my left said, without looking at me. He was sort of collapsed in a heap on the bar.
“That’s really kind of you. Thank you,” I said
“It’s nothing,” he said, still not looking at me. “Can’t see a man in dire straits go thirsty.”
“It’s that obvious?” I asked.
“Lad, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t fucked,” the man said dully, continuing to stare at his own half-empty glass. “We’re all fucked.”
“Well… thanks anyway.”
It seemed best to leave him to his thoughts, so I took the pint of dark ale to an unoccupied table in a quiet corner. It was a strong and serious type of beer, with dangerous undercurrents; the sort of drink to drown you.
I couldn’t help noticing a couple sitting a few tables away, a man and a woman. The woman looked thoroughly out of place; she was very beautiful, if rather stylised – contrasting very dark hair against very pale skin and very red lips, dressed as though she’d been expecting to go to the Ritz. She was thoroughly pissed off. The man had his back to me, but seemed to be hanging his head in shame.
Snatches of their conversation drifted over to me. The man was a mumbler, but the woman’s irritation made certain words carry; “pathetic”, “disappointed”, “incompetence” and “unfortunate” seemed to be getting a lot of use.
“Go on, get out of my sight.”
The man left hurriedly without uttering another word, apparently relieved to be dismissed. The woman shook her head in anger and noticed me watching the scene play out. I almost flinched from the fierceness of her expression, but quickly glossed it over with my friendliest smile, turning on the charm full-beam. Her face transformed from fury to interest.
She smiled back, showing sharp white teeth. She beckoned me over to her table with a red-nailed finger.
And so it began. I stood up, already a little muzzy from yesterday’s booze, recharged by the Serpentine, and walked over to her.
She looked me up and down, inspecting me carefully. She nodded, pleased with what she saw.
“I don’t suppose you’re looking for a job? I just had to let someone go.”
“I am, actually,” I said, “but I’m not sure that you’d want me.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” she assured me. “Sit down. I’m Marina. You are?”
“Kit,” I said. I didn’t bother to explain the whole convoluted story of how I’d come by the nickname in the first place.
“It suits you. Fluffy and sweet,” she said. “But with sharp little claws, no doubt.”
“I don’t know about that,” I flustered.
“I do,” she assured me. “I’m a very good judge of character. You have hidden depths and huge potential, if channeled right. You could learn a lot from me, Kit.”
“I’m sure I could,” I said, smiling suggestively. Thankfully, she returned the smile. “I didn’t catch your name?”
“I am Marina,” she said grandly, as though pronouncing ‘I am Zeus, god of gods!’.
“A beautiful name,” I said, and managed to bite back adding to the cheese by continuing ‘for a beautiful lady’.
“I’m looking for a new assistant. It’s an interesting and varied role for a dynamic and proactive person of good character.”
“I’m afraid that I don’t have any references worth taking,” I felt it was better to admit straight-up. Marina seemed like the kind of person who would find things out one way or another. “In fact, I’ve just been sacked for thievery.”
“How much did you steal?”
“Try to steal. Twenty quid.”
“Ooh, so you’re a big time crook,” she smiled.
“Yes. A master criminal.”
“Do you always get caught in the act?”
“No. I was drunk and very unsubtle.”
“Well, you’ll need to get some practice in. It’s important that you can be seen to be drinking a great deal and still capable of subterfuge. Better start now. What’s your poison?”
“A pint of something?”
“Oh dear. We’ll have to start with the basics, then. Some of the circles you’ll be mixing in are very refined.”
It clearly wasn’t the kind of place that did table service, but somehow Marina managed to summon the barman over to take her order.
“Two martinis. Your best gin. With olives.”
He looked as though he were about to say this was impossible, but Marina gave him a little look with an ever-so-slightly arched eyebrow to suggest that he would discover that it was, in fact, possible to do as she said. He nodded and disappeared.
“How did you make him agree?” I asked, impressed.
Marina smiled very widely indeed.
“Magic,” she purred.
He returned surprisingly quickly with two awkwardly-shaped cocktail glasses with flared tops, seemingly designed to promote the spillage of drinks, filled almost to the brim with clear liquid, each garnished with an olive on a stick. It seemed so unlikely that the Sinking Ship would be equipped with such accoutrements, but clearly it was.
“To new friends,” Marina toasted.
“New friends,” I agreed, clinking glasses and taking a sip of what turned out to be more or less pure gin. I tried not to wince from shock at the strength of the alcohol.
I wondered what time it was. Too early to be drinking neat gin, surely.
“This is turning into a very strange day,” I said.
“Yes,” she agreed. “Isn’t it marvellous? Now; tell me all about yourself.”
And I told her, pretty much everything – it all came flooding out as we sipped first one martini and then Marina magically ordered us another. Maybe it was the stress of the last few days, building up to my dramatic fall from grace, or maybe a consequence of the drink, but it came pouring out in waves of confessions and anecdotes about nights out on the town, rhapsodies on the joy of living in a big city full of people from everywhere and endless possibilities.
“Essentially, you enjoyed yourself too much,” Marina concluded. “You’re more of a nigh owl than a book worm.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“And now you are free from the shackles of lectures and seminars,” she smiled. “I think you’re well suited to the vacant position.”
“You’re serious about offering me a job?”
“I’m serious about offering you a job.”
“But…” I said.
My head was cloudy from gin, making it difficult to crystallise thoughts. I had a vague though insistent feeling that what Marina was offering was not what was expected of me by the wider world… you were supposed to get a degree, do unpaid internships, fight for a job you didn’t really want…
“It would mean you definitely get to stay in London,” Marina said. “What’s the alternative?”
“Go back to the most boring town in the world. Moulder in shame. Pay penance for eternity. Try to get a job in Tescos.”
“You think they’d hire a thief?”
I shrugged uncomfortably.
“Kit, darling, you must understand this from the beginning. If you ever steal anything from me, I will cut your balls off.”
Her expression was deadly serious.
“Do you understand?”
I nodded quickly.
“What would the job involve exactly?”
“To do what I want, when I want, without asking questions. You’ll be well paid and get to see some of the most exclusive parts of London and meet some very interesting people. You will be my right-hand man and trusted ally. You will watch my back; I will watch yours. There will be the best food and drink you’ve ever experienced. Sometimes flirting will be called for. I can tell that you’ll be good at that.”
“Like a whore?” I asked doubtfully.
“There’s no shame in selling yourself, Kit, so long as you know your true value and get a good deal. I am an expert negotiator, as, in time, with my tutelage, will you be.”
“When you say ‘ask no questions’?”
“I mean exactly that. I’ll tell you as much as you need to know. You need to trust me. I will never put you in harms way. You will be protected while working for me. It will be an education no-one else could offer you.You will learn from me. You will love it. I know you will. What do you say?”
“Yes,” I found myself saying, looking into her shining dark eyes. “Yes please.”
“Good boy. Let’s make it official.”
She produced some papers from somewhere, handed them over to me along with a heavy pen.
“What’s this?” I asked dumbly.
“Your contract, of course,” she said smoothly. “Have a read.”
I didn’t really think about how she had managed to be so well prepared at the time; my head was too full of gin. The contract was hard to focus on, but I did my best. Most of it seemed to be vaguely like other employment contracts I’d had for part-time jobs. Other parts, less so.
“Additional duties as required…” I read aloud. “Confidentiality clause… paternity leave… termination… the employer may terminate the contract immediately in cases of gross misconduct or by giving a months’ notice for each complete year of service… what constitutes gross misconduct?”
“Fucking things up.”
“Don’t fuck things up,” Marina said seriously.
“Ok,” I agreed hastily. Re-focussing on the blurry page; “The employee must give a months’ notice plus an additional month for each year of service. In the interests of confidentiality and competition, the former employee will be banished from Greater London for a term of no less than seven years. Banished?”
“They’re standard terms in this industry,” Marina said crisply.
“What happens if you break the terms?”
“Don’t find out,” Marina advised.
“This contract shall become null and void on the employee encountering serious injury or death in the fulfilment of his duties,” I read in bemusement.
“Fairly generous,” Marina suggested.
“Can I take this away to read through carefully before signing?” I asked hopefully.
Marina looked at me silently for what felt like a very long time.
“No,” she said eventually. “This is a one time offer. Take it or leave it.”
Go back home, to boredom, grief and reprimands, up to my eyeballs in debt… or excitement, drinking, London…
Of course I signed.
Marina smiled kindly, taking the contract and somehow making it vanish about her personage.
“The first lesson I’m going to impart is that you must never, ever sign anything when under the influence of alcohol or any other intoxicating substance.”
“Let’s get out of here and find somewhere classier to celebrate our happy union.”
Marina took my hand and led me out into the night.