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Rupert Upton sat on the edge of a chair in his new pin-striped suit, nervously looking around a huge office as he awaited the decision that could change his future. Opposite him, across a vast, polished oak table, a rather large gentleman with badger hair and bulldog jowls leaned back in an executive recliner, studying a portfolio that was clasped firmly in his fingers.
Rupert watched the man's facial expressions change as he read. He knew he had been asked to attend the interview because they had liked what they'd seen, but still, Rupert knew it would be hard to beat off the opposition; there was an abundance of advertising executives like him who'd outgrown the smaller firms, all hunting for bigger clients and contracts, bigger houses, bigger cars... bigger pay cheques. Of course, Rupert knew all this and he was no exception; he was far too over-qualified for his old firm, and he felt it was time to move on and earn bigger bucks; keep his high maintenance fiancée in perpetual manicures and pedicures, highlights and lowlights, bikini waxes and spray tans.
The big man eventually placed the portfolio on the desk and, without moving his head, looked up with quick, sharp eyes. "Very good Rupert, very good indeed," he said, nodding.
Rupert managed a smile. "Well thank-you, Sir." He had been holding his hands clasped in his lap and his knuckles were now white.
"Mr. Grover, please."
"Sorry... Mr. Grover."
"Now I'm not going to sit back," Mr. Grover continued, "and pretend that we don't need someone like you, because we do. And I'm not going to tire you with the usual onslaught of boring questions. I know you are good and have plenty of talent. Your portfolio speaks volumes. I certainly don't need to hear an audition from you, and your previous employer gave you an incredible reference."
Rupert tried to disguise a modest grin. "They were very good to me."
"Quite, and I'm not at all surprised either." Mr. Grover was looking directly into Rupert's eyes. "However, I have been inundated with references from youngsters like you, and as you know, we only have one vacancy."
Rupert held Mr. Grover's imposing and rather unsettling stare. "Yes, I know that," he said. He paused and secreted a deep breath. "I also know I'm the one for the job."
"Ah-ha! I wondered when that line would come. You youngsters are all the same, I don't know."
Rupert nervously coughed into his hand; he was now so unsettled, he felt that if he were to squeeze his hands together any harder, the bones in his fingers would snap.
"Don't look so worried, my boy," Mr. Grover said, grinning and revealing a set of yellowed teeth. "Everyone does it; everyone thinks they need to sell themselves. It just doesn't mean anything to me anymore." He leaned further back into his recliner and somehow appeared to deflate in his suit. "Now then, to business matters," he continued. "The applicant who will fill the position will start on forty-thousand, which we at Hopscotch Marketing think is more than generous. We also have a good pension plan if you wish to change over, and as far as holiday goes, thirty days are available, with five days to be taken over the Christmas period. All our executives drive Mercedes E classes with all travelling expenses paid. How does that suit you, so far?"
Rupert swallowed. "That sounds absolutely wonderful, Mr. Grover." It was seventeen thousand more than he was currently earning and the thought of driving of a Mercedes gave him a tingling sensation in the pit of his stomach. In his mind's eye he could see himself breaking the good news to his fiancée over a surprise meal at her favourite restaurant. She would grab him and kiss him and tell him how wonderful he was. Oh yes, life would be grand.
"The successful applicant will be working independently with some of our bigger clients," Mr. Grover continued, "taking on a lot of responsibility. Looking at your reference, I'm sure this would be no problem for you."
"Not at all," Rupert said. His heart was now pounding in his chest; he liked where this was going.
Just as things did indeed seem to be going in Rupert's favour, Mr. Grover frowned. "I would love to just hand you the position, Rupert, I really would," he explained, "but like I've already said, there are others in the same situation as you. It just wouldn't be fair, would it?"
"I guess not, no." Rupert wore a masked lie; his face was trying to smile with muscles that couldn't disguise his true disappointment.
Mr. Grover appeared deep in thought for a moment before leaning forward and placing his hands on the desk. "Now don't ask me why, but I'm in a good mood today and I'm feeling rather frivolous... Tell me Rupert, do you like a challenge?"
"I'm always up for a challenge," Rupert said, detecting a glimmer of hope.
"That's good news." From the side of his desk, Mr. Grover retrieved a large, glass ashtray and placed it in the centre. "You need to have a certain quality if you want to impress me."
"Well I like to be challenged. I think I can prove to you how much I want this job."
Mr. Grover reached into the bottom drawer of his desk and lifted out a wooden box with an engraved glass lid. "You know, I admire your enthusiasm, young man," he said, lifting the lid and selecting a large cigar.
Rupert watched as he ran the cigar under his nose, inhaling and savouring the scent of matured tobacco. "Ah, this is what you call a cigar," he said. "Do you like cigars, Rupert?"
"Well, yes, every now and again, I suppose," he lied, wanting to stay agreeable to everything the big man was saying. Even if he'd wanted to smoke the occasional cigar, he very much doubted his fiancée would allow it.
"Good, good, I like a man that appreciates a good smoke," Mr. Grover said, pulling out a miniature guillotine from his jacket pocket. With some skill and speed, he snipped off the end of the cigar about a centimetre from the tip and threw it into the ashtray.
Rupert could only smile politely as Mr. Grover carried out the rest of his routine. The big man struck a match and waited for the initial sulphur fumes to dissipate before introducing the flame to the tip of the cigar. He held the cigar lovingly between his first two fingers and thumb, and he slowly rotated it an inch from the flame to ensure it was evenly lit. "Hand rolled, you know," he said. "Bet you haven't smoked one of these before."
Rupert watched as a thin trail of blue smoke drifted towards the ceiling. "No, I can honestly say I haven't."
It was only when the tip was aglow that Mr. Grover allowed himself the pleasure of lifting it to his mouth. He inhaled and appeared to suck the flame into the end of the cigar, and after several puffs like this, he was finally satisfied and laid it gently in the ashtray.
"It looks expensive," Rupert said.
"My boy, if only you knew how much this was worth," Mr. Grover chuckled. "Do you like the look of it?"
"Well it does look impressive. I certainly haven't smoked one that size."
"You're missing out on something very special," Mr. Grover said. The beginning of a grin started to appear, lifting his baggy jowls an inch or two higher on his face. Rupert was suddenly reminded of the Cheshire cat. "Now, you know that challenge I mentioned?" Mr. Grover continued.
"Well, how can I put this...? Mr. Grover said. "The thing is, Rupert, I want to offer you the position for a little challenge, a little bet as it were."
"Right... okay," Rupert answered, hesitantly. Although he was confused, for the second time, he felt as though this bizarre interview was swinging back into his favour. "A bet? What kind of a bet?"
Mr. Grover plucked the cigar from the ashtray. "This particular cigar is known as a Churchill because of its size and shape," he explained. "It is seven inches in length, well, a little less since it has been burning." He replaced it back in the ashtray and then made a pyramid with his hands, touching the tips of his fingers and thumbs together. "Now then, if you can smoke this down to the paper band - which is about five inches from the tip - in the duration of ten minutes, the position is yours. An inch for every two minutes, it's as simple as that." He paused for a moment. "But," he continued, "if you fail, I will have to return your portfolio and I won't be able to consider you for the position. Of course, you don't have to take me up on the challenge; I will still put you on the list with all the other applicants, it's just this is a way of ensuring the position."
Rupert smiled, but a look of bewilderment and incredulity gave the impression he was suffering a mild pain, and he nervously rubbed his cheek. "So, I smoke the cigar, and the position's mine? What happens to all the other applicants?"
"Let's just say you'll be a marked card," Mr. Grover said. "If you are successful, the position will be yours, don't you worry about that." To give Rupert a little incentive, he pulled open his top drawer and lifted out a leather fob with a single key attached. "Not forgetting the company car of course," he said, placing it next to the ashtray. "I noticed a little spark in your eyes when I mentioned the Mercedes." He winked at Rupert, who was clearly still a little baffled.
The cigar sat slowly smouldering in the ashtray as Rupert contemplated the offer. He watched the smoke, and how it drifted up to the ceiling like entwined phantom snakes. Rupert had only smoked a few cigarettes during his college days; despite detesting and loathing the taste, he'd gone ahead and done it anyway. But that was nine years ago now; this would be a damn tough challenge. What if he turned it down but some other applicant was made the same offer? He averted his attention from the ashtray to the silver, three-pointed star badge. "I'll do it," he answered impetuously, his mind's eye conjuring up an image of him picking up his fiancée in a new Mercedes. He could see himself sitting opposite her in the restaurant too - Did I also mention the pay rise darling? he would casually drop into conversation. Rupert leaned back in his chair. "The bet's on," he said, confidently.
Mr. Grover sat upright with surprising speed considering his generous frame. "Good man! I thought you might take this on, you know," he said, excited. He clapped his hands together. "The rules: You may smoke it however you like, but, and I will say a big but, you have to inhale the smoke, every last drag within the ten minute time limit. If you throw up you have failed, the same goes for passing out. But as you seem to be agreeable to a cigar, I'm sure these last two points won't be a factor."
Now this was an entirely different ball game, Rupert thought. He shifted in his chair. "I thought you didn't inhale cigars?"
"True, very true," Mr. Grover agreed. "Personally, I like to roll the smoke on my tongue, just like a wine connoisseur would an expensive, fine wine. But that would just be too easy. I'd be giving you the luxury of smoking this fine cigar and handing you a job for the pleasure of it. No, I want to see you earn the position. I like to see a bit of determination."
"Has this been done before?" Rupert enquired, now a little suspicious.
"I'll be honest with you," Mr. Grover said. "Over the past thirty years here at Hopscotch Marketing, I have acquired about three executives this way. So yes, it has been done before. Around five or six have failed though. Some are sick, some give up - why, even one actually passed out. It's not as easy as you think."
"Not the best odds then," Rupert said. He looked at the key fob again. I can do this! he thought; even if he suffered, Rupert was confident he could achieve the position and the car. "But I guess I'll give it a crack."
"Good lad! Right then, you'd better get to it, the cigar is already slowly burning down," Mr. Grover said, sliding the ashtray across the desk. "We'll use the office clock to time you. When the second-hand reaches twelve, you will have ten minutes to smoke it down to the paper band, okay?"
Rupert looked up to the antiquated wooden clock above the office door. "Okay," he answered, watching the second hand as it swept past the six. He picked up the cigar, sucking clean air deep into his lungs, preparing them for the onslaught.
Mr. Grover watched the clock intently. "Five... four... three... two... one, go!" he cried, as the big hand reached twelve.
With the cigar between his lips, Rupert slowly and cautiously inhaled; he wasn't quite sure as to how his lungs would take to it. The tip glowed deep crimson and orange and he could hear a crisp crackle as the embers ate away at the fresh tobacco leaves. After about a centimetre had burned down, he removed the cigar from his lips, sucked in the smoke and exhaled a thick line of white smoke. "Christ!" he spluttered, trying desperately not to cough.
Mr. Grover grinned and watched on totally enthralled. "Take your time. Nice even drags."
Twenty-eight seconds had passed by this point and Rupert had smoked just over a centimetre of the five inches. His lungs were in spasm, wanting to cough, but Rupert managing to contain them. As he replaced the smoke with clean air, he gave the clock a passing glance and worked out he would need to take around another fourteen or fifteen drags to win the bet. Again, he placed the cigar between his lips and inhaled. Keep it going, he thought, just a little further this time.
Mr. Grover was now leaning forward with his elbows resting on the desk and his head nestling comfortably in his open hands. His face was serious, but a wry smile lifted one corner of his mouth. His eyes were fixed upon Rupert, and it was as though they had been polished for the occasion.
The tip of the cigar roared as Rupert managed an extra few millimetres more than his previous effort. He blew out the smoke, but this time he couldn't help but cough. His mouth tasted foul and the smell of singed hair filled his sinuses.
"Good going! You're impressing me so far, my lad."
Rupert looked through the dissipating smoke that hovered around him like grey shroud and acknowledged Mr. Grover with a nod; he couldn't speak for fear of triggering another cough. His head was spinning and he could feel his heart thumping in his fingertips. Forty-three seconds gone... he thought, watching the clock. He was on target for succeeding, but he now realised how hard this was actually going to be. Was it possible to keep up such a pace?
He persevered regardless of what discouraging thoughts were now teasing his pragmatism. He kept one eye trained on the key-fob; this at least injected a little dose of adrenalin to keep him going - a dangled carrot if you like. It was all about timing and taking sufficient breaks in between drags. For every centimetre smoked, Rupert worked out he needed at least twenty seconds of clean air - as far as clean air went in the smoky office - to prevent himself from either being sick, or even worse, fainting. He had already come close to vomiting after the second minute, and he had to steady himself and let the brief nauseous spell pass, wasting precious seconds.
Mr. Grover watched with a begrudging admiration at the young pretender in his new suit, and how this little whippersnapper had worked out a little routine. "You're doing ever so well," he said, watching the clock. None of the other applicants in the past had put any thought into it like this; they had just smoked the cigar like their lives had depended on it, and inevitably most had suffered the consequences. "Keep it going my boy. You're nearly halfway there."
Rupert took another big drag. The cigar tip was now burning two-and-half inches from the paper band and, according to the clock - although Rupert, extremely light-headed, couldn't be sure - there were five minutes remaining. He was still on course to succeed but the smoke and nicotine had taken its toll. His hands felt cold and detached and his stomach felt as though it was continually been dropped from a great height. The abundance of smoke that drifted around his head caused his eyes to water, and every time he coughed it only made matters worse.
Rupert exhaled another white plume of smoke, and this time he had taken in too much. The glands at the side of his mouth started to secrete a salty liquid, and he swallowed, desperately trying to rid himself the revolting taste before his stomach turned.
Mr. Grover recognized the signs immediately, and he shifted forward. "Steady, steady, take your time, boy," he said.
Rupert took the advice and controlled his breathing. Again, he focused on the Mercedes badge and imagined what the car would be like to drive. And just what would do with the extra income? This helped no end, and with a renewed vigour he gave the clock a passing glance. Four minutes and twenty-three seconds remained and Rupert hastily raised the cigar to his mouth and gained another centimetre.
His eyes stung and his nose was running. He had to sniff hard to clear his nostrils, and he reluctantly swallowed the mucus that was tinged with the repugnant taste of stale tobacco. The salty liquid in his mouth had disappeared but it felt like the smoke had clogged every nook and cranny, and it wouldn't have surprised him in the slightest if it had started to drift out of his ears.
"Just under four minutes to go," Mr. Grover said, watching the clock and drumming his fingers on the desk top.
Rupert nodded and, through sheer, dogged determination, continued to suffer, sticking to his routine, taking big drags with timed breaks in between. The key-fob was his talisman, his guide throughout the bet, and he wasn't leaving this damn office without it! He wanted more than anything to have the chance to impress his fiancée. As for himself, this is what he really wanted; ever since his school days, he'd been impatient to go up in the world.
Mr. Grover eyed up the clock again. "Two minutes! You're nearly there."
If Rupert were to hit the paper band before the ten minutes were out, he would have to start reducing his breaks; his pace had dropped somewhat. Just over an inch remained, and Rupert approached the final hurdle, inhaling long and hard. His lungs felt hot and raw and he wondered if this was what it felt like to die trapped in a burning building. Moving his head suddenly was fatal, and every time he felt himself swoon, he shut his eyes to prevent the room from spinning. He was walking a thin line; he could hear his heart thumping in his ears and his hands were tingling. Not a good sign.
"One minute!" Mr. Grover cried, from the edge of his seat. He was vigorously massaging his hands together, and it looked as though he was washing them with an invisible soap.
"Oh God," Rupert moaned, feeling queasy. As the seconds ticked by, he tried calming himself, safe in the knowledge that one big effort would be enough. In his mind, he mentally agreed that twenty seconds should suffice to complete the last titanic drag, which according to the clock, would be in twenty-six seconds time.
By this point, Mr. Grover had worked himself up to a near frenzy. His cheeks were beetroot red and drops of sweat broke out on his forehead.
The desperation to just get on and finish the cigar almost broke Rupert's routine, but he refrained the temptation and sucked in deep breaths. Mr. Grover watched on saucer-eyed as the boy sitting opposite shut his eyes and appeared to meditate. "My boy, your time is nearly up!" he urged, his eyes darting from the clock to the cigar.
Rupert opened his eyes and the corner of his mouth lifted suggesting he had a trick or two up his sleeve. He lifted the cigar to his lips, inhaled an enormous drag and watched the tip as it blazed, until finally, the burning embers caught the paper band, singing the edges brown. No sooner had he pulled the cigar away, the butt was flicked into the ashtray. "Done it!" he gasped, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.
Mr. Grover was now out of his seat, applauding and hopping from one foot to the other, shouting words of praise. "You did it with four seconds to go. It's never been so close!"
Rupert's lungs finally protested; he began to cough violently and tears streamed down his cheeks. The awful salty taste had returned and he had to try and swallow whilst his chest heaved.
"Are you alright?" Mr. Grover asked, placing a hand on Rupert's shoulder.
Rupert could only nod as he tried his hardest to settle. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and continued to swallow until the foul taste finally subsided. "I did it. I won the bet, right?" he said, his head still spinning.
Mr. Grover reached over the table and picked up the key-fob. "Of course! Why, that was bloody entertaining," he said. "Such determination. I am a man of my word, so on behalf of Hopscotch Marketing, we are glad to have you onboard." He held the key fob out. "Here you go. It'll be ready when you arrive on your first day. Are you sure you're okay? You're not going to be sick are you?"
Although he felt extremely ill and light headed, Rupert was happy it was all over, and he gladly accepted the key-fob. He had won and that was that as far as he was concerned. Never again would he smoke; he promised himself that much as he held his head in his hands.
"I'll give you a few moments to get yourself together, then I really must get on," Mr. Grover said, returning to his chair, his excitement over. "Congratulations. You earned the job, boy. You did well. We look forward to seeing you."
As soon as Rupert felt as though he could manage, he thanked Mr. Grover and said how delighted he was to be a part of his team. He stood up on wobbly legs and made his way out. "Thanks again," he said closing the door.
As he descended the stairs to the foyer, he felt as though he were floating. He didn't know if it was the fact he'd secured the position or if it was the effects the smoke had had on him. He gripped the banister hard all the way down until he was finally drifting across the foyer, spinning through the revolving doors and stepping out onto the street.
It was disturbingly loud outside and it was as though Rupert had never been in the big building for the interview. The sudden fresh air made his head spin more than ever, and the sweat on his forehead felt ice cold. He spotted a newspaper stand just yards away and headed over to buy a copy of the Times.
"Are you okay, mate? You're as white as a sheet," the short, elderly gentleman asked, accepting Rupert's loose change.
Rupert wearily nodded. "Yeah, I just came from a tough interview, that's all."
The old man laughed and Rupert felt a little better apart from the acrid taste that still lingered on the sides of his tongue.
With the Times tucked under his arm, he crossed the road, avoiding kamikaze black cabs in the process, and then dived into a café, where he ordered a cappuccino to wash away the disgusting remnants of tobacco.
He sat at the counter working on the crossword and sipping his coffee. He was excited and he wanted nothing more than to phone his fiancée, but he managed to stop himself; patience is a virtue; it would be far better breaking the news the way he'd already planned. He felt in his jacket pocket and squeezed the key-fob. It was still there.
Just as he was starting to feel a little better, the crossword and coffee taking his mind from his rollercoaster stomach, he heard the waitress yell an order out to the kitchen: "One fried egg, sausage and bacon sandwich!"
Under the circumstances, Rupert couldn't think of anything more repulsive, and his stomach lurched at the thought. He took another few sips of his coffee and concentrated on the Times, and in no time at all he found himself dreaming of what he would do with the bigger pay cheques. He would take his fiancée for long drives and weekends away. He was finally doing what he had set out to do. Celebrations were in order and he would make arrangements for them tonight!
Rupert hastily finished off his coffee, and as he stood to leave, the waitress floated past, carrying a tray with the revolting sandwich sitting on it. He caught sight of the greasy monstrosity as it made its way to the end of the counter. The egg-yolk ran down the sides of the bread, merging with a tiny pool of grease that had formed on the plate, and hot fat spat out from the splits in the sausages.
Rupert bolted for the door, his hand held firmly to his mouth, and with only yards until he was outside again, the inevitable happened. He bent double, and through a series of uncontrollable retches, vomited onto the café floor, splashing a gentleman's trousers and shoes as he stood at the counter.
"Oh God," Rupert spluttered, pulling out a handkerchief. "I'm so sorry."
At the time of the unfortunate incident, the gentleman standing at the counter had just taken a large bite from his fried egg, sausage and bacon sandwich, and he'd swiftly stepped to one side to avoid further mess.
Rupert straightened up as he wiped his mouth. His vision was blurred with tears and he had to blink vigorously to clear them.
After he had controlled himself, Rupert looked up, embarrassed.
"After you've cleaned my shoes, you can hand over your car key," Mr. Grover said, frowning, a glob of egg-yolk running down his chin. "You're fired!"
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