“COME on, Jay, you’re my best guy! If anyone can increase sales and distribution over there, it’s you,” Simon said across his desk. “This is coming from the head of worldwide sales, and you know how Charles expects results. I have to put you on it.”
“Simon, you know better than to pull that kind of thing with me,” I said with a cocked smile.
“Pull what?” he replied, looking innocent.
“The ‘you’re my best guy’ routine.”
“Jay, you know your figures trounce every other sales manager in the company. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Plus, if your figures rocket with this job, you’ll be squarely in line for my position when I eventually get promoted to Charles’s job.”
“I don’t want your job, Simon. There are always five other people trying to take it while you’re still in the position.”
“Which is why I want you eventually to take over from me. You’re not a backstabbing bastard like some of these other fools. Besides, none of their sales compare to yours.”
“But there’s a good chance that my sales average will drop if you send me to Bahrain. Simon, you’re talking about heading to the Middle East during Ramadan. Arabs aren’t the biggest beer drinkers in the first place. Asking me to promote our beer during a time of fasting is going to be nearly impossible.”
“Well, it’s not the locals we’re interested in this time. We’re after the bar owners.” Simon slid an A4 piece of paper across the desk that was loaded with numbers and graphs. “With the third Gulf war about to kick off, there are tens of thousands of US, British, and other coalition forces flooding into the area and onto their bases. That’s not including the Australians and French that are already there. Bahrain is now essentially the holding room for these guys before they are deployed to Afghanistan and Iran.” Simon leaned back into his chair. “And no one knows how long this will go on for. The fact is, it’s hot out there, and those soldiers are going to be bored and uptight. They are going to drink. We want them drinking Side Line beer.”
“But surely there’s a risk that this could be short term.”
“That’s what they said about Iraq, and look how long that went on for. Besides, the company has hired some marketing specialists who have suggested that in a few years Bahrain will be developed into a holiday destination like Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Apparently they already have a dozen resorts planned, with more to follow. Side Line sees it as a growth market, and they want to get in there before anyone else does.”
“For how long do you want me there?” I asked while scanning the projected quarterly sales for the area.
“A week should do it.”
“Handsome, if you reach the figures by the fourth quarter.”
I looked down again at the figure and blew a whistle of uncertainty. I wasn’t entirely sure whether this would work, but the idea of a week surrounded by military men was more than appealing.
“Okay, but I’m taking my squad with me.”
THE “squad” was a group of six young promotions girls in their early twenties that I had personally selected and hired to accompany me to events coordinated by the company’s promotions department. Side Line was marketed as a beer for sports bars, appealing to the younger drinkers and sports fans, so the girls had to fit the brand and the demographic. While their personalities had earned them the positions, I would be lying if I said that their physical attributes hadn’t helped. I knew that I had to assemble a group that would appeal to as many different tastes as possible. And since this was a beer company, it was mostly men that we were targeting.
Emma, the youngest of the squad, was barely twenty years old and had the blonde hair and innocent smile that could disarm almost any older man instantly. She may have seen an awful lot in the year since she joined the company, but she still showed some naïveté that made you want to hug her to soak up the sweetness—or shake her until the stupidity was exorcised from her head.
Siobhan was a twenty-three-year-old, porcelain-skinned redhead from Ireland, who could just about charm the last breath from your body. But with that charm also came the fiery stereotype.
Tara, also twenty-three, was a beautiful, tall black girl with abs that most men would kill for. She wore a collection of clip-on weaves that could change her appearance from runway Tyra Banks to Brixton homegirl in a matter of minutes. And her mood could change just as quickly.
Nikki and Natasha were twenty-four-year-old twins, whose stunning brunette hair bounced off their shoulders in large curls. With luxurious locks, and probably far too many hours in the mirror, they had developed a repertoire of poses that looked completely natural and unrehearsed. Men went crazy at the sight of them.
Rounding off the squad was Leilana, or “Lei,” an Asian beauty, whose family hailed from Thailand. She had the mouth of a south London girl in private, but, with her long, straight black hair, she could pull off the shy giggle and squeak that made men fawn over her. She may have been the oldest of the girls, at twenty-five, but she had the look of a modern teenage geisha. Overall, they were a great group of girls, who were in the job for the money and a giggle. But if they ever became too much of a handful, I could always turn to my assistant, Jackie, for help.
I SAT in Stompers, the premier gay wine bar and restaurant in London’s Soho district, and waited for Jackie to arrive for lunch to discuss the details of our upcoming trip. Jackie had a habit of being just late enough to make an entrance, but never late enough that you could scorn her for tardiness. I looked down at my silver-banded watch, a gift my parents gave me on my eighteenth birthday nine years earlier, and wondered whether it had finally begun to lose time. She was only ten minutes late, but I was beginning to tire of the creepy man by the bar wearing a trench coat and constantly glancing at me, trying to determine if I was alone. I had checked my watch every two minutes since my arrival in the hope that he’d get the message that I was waiting for someone.
Finally, Jackie tottered her perfectly slim figure through the door and looked around the bar. She saw me leaning back in my chair, tapping my pencil impatiently against the sales forecast in front of me. She knew I was joking, so she didn’t bother with any false tales, as she was well aware I would excuse her for anything. She dropped her string-handled boutique bags by the side of the table and made a grab for the white wine chilling in an ice bucket. As she reached, she flicked her long, perfectly conditioned black hair over her shoulder.
At thirty-nine years old, Jackie had left a fifteen-year career as a purser for the largest and oldest British airline. She mourned the lifestyle she once had in, as she described, the “glamour days” of flying, and often commented that she would still be a trolley dolly if the airline’s management hadn’t strangled all the fun out of it by attempting to compete with new airlines that seemed to spring up and go bankrupt every year.
Jackie didn’t have to say much to make me laugh. She had a posh, privately educated accent that made every word of every sentence bounce until there was a comical clip at the end. From her immaculate dress sense and understated makeup to the way she carried herself, everything about her cried “class.” Even the recent divorce from her husband, one of the older and more affluent captains at the airline, hadn’t dampened her spirits and humor, despite her many years of dread at the thought of being thrown into the “First Wives Club Class” of the sky. Years of flying with a thousand types of passengers gave her the ability to speak to anyone on any level as though they were family. I had seen this in practice a thousand times, and it always managed to impress me.
But the real Jackie, the one I had grown to love and cherish as a friend and confidante, and on whom I relied as my assistant, was nothing short of an attitude-changing muse when I was having a bad day—and the one I wanted by my side during the best days. She took on the responsibility of caring for the girls as if she were their chaperone, leaving me to concentrate on business matters. She had a great relationship with them all but occasionally still struggled to control Emma and her youthful defiance. And it certainly didn’t help much that Emma bore a striking resemblance to the young stewardess who had replaced Jackie in her marriage.
Jackie and I joined the company at the same time, five years earlier, and Jackie had outed me to the entire sales team on our very first meeting. I never had a problem disclosing the fact that I was gay, but since I had only been there a few days, it just hadn’t come up yet. Simon and all the other managers sat around the table for the usual monthly meeting, along with three new assistants who were to be assigned to the three new sales managers who had been hired, myself included. Jackie and I clicked immediately and were in full banter before the meeting even began. When the time came to pair managers and assistants, Jackie leaned across the table, pointed at me, and cried, “I wish to procure the manager of the sausage gobbler variety, please!” before she was even asked.
Every head turned to me with a look of confusion. I couldn’t help laughing. After a moment, Simon joined the laughter after he realized I wouldn’t be running to HR in tears, brandishing a formal intent to sue.
Since then, Jackie, the squad, and I had traveled all over the world planning and executing promotional events for Side Line Beer. We toured and promoted in theme parks and huge sports arenas across America, at St. Paddy’s Day parades in Ireland, in lavish hotel resorts in Dubai, and in countless other destinations for whatever event was on the calendar. The brand had grown so much in recent years that the sales team was now directed to concentrate on growing markets in countries that hadn’t yet been reached. This was more of a challenge, but the monetary rewards were too good to ignore.
Although I had never intended to be so career driven, my early working life spurred an ambition that I never realized I had. I watched my parents struggle throughout their lives to carve out a semicomfortable living while trying to raise a family. They were only now, in their retirement, beginning to enjoy it. I was determined that I would not wait until the end of my days before I owned my home outright, could afford a decent car, and had a holiday villa in Florida where I could retreat. And I was determined to reach those goals by my midthirties.