Late Capitalism- New Fiction- Rob Schofeld

I was working at the bed factory earning fuck all and enjoying it even less. The boss had already told me I had promise before I had the idea of going it alone. I don’t get why he thought I had promise. Probably it was because I was first in every morning; but you’d get there early if you were sofa surfing in London. Have you seen the size of the settees they squeeze into what the bastards call open plan living spaces? I was first in because I was making myself scarce before whoever it was that was putting me up that week came downstairs for breakfast. It’s always a good idea to get out before you’re asked to move on and besides, the boss had let me have the keys to open up. No doubt the lazy sod fancied an extra half hour in bed and no doubt he’d smuggled a Sleepmaestro Deluxe out the factory gate and into his cosy double bedroom with fitted wardrobes and en suite. Oh yeah, he loved his bedroom. The fucker never stopped going on about it.

Mum used to say I had a head full of ideas and for once she was right. Actually, she said stupid ideas, but when it comes to memories I prefer to be selective. What use are ideas if you don’t give them a chance to fly? I’ve learned not to dismiss them, however daft they may sound. I didn’t think the boss would go for it, but the plumbers were hard at it within a month of my suggestion about putting in showers for the staff who cycled in. That worked out well when I ran out of friends with sofas to sleep on. Don’t get me wrong: there were no fallings out, but people can tire of the smell of feet. So another idea I had was sleeping in the factory, where as you can imagine there was no shortage of beds. The trickiest thing was killing time until the second shift finished, but after ten o’clock I could let myself back in and have the whole place to myself. It was a sweet gig all in all. There was a kitchen and a television in the staff room, toilets and showers (what a great idea that was) and a showroom, which I bet would have given the boss’s beloved boudoir a run for its money. After a while I worked out I could save quite a bit of my monthly fuck all and that was when the ideas really started flowing.

My mate Ronnie, who had put up with my socks for two months without a single snarky comment, needed a new mattress. He didn’t say why, but it wasn’t hard to work out given his passion for water sports. He wasn’t after anything other than a recommendation or a second or a return or staff concession. I could have done any of those and he would have been happy. But what I got to thinking about was the old five-finger discount. If the boss could do it, why not me? There were lorries going up and down that road all hours. No one was going to bat an eyelid at one more van loading up before midnight. I told Ronnie I’d get him a junior Sleepmaestro for nothing as a thank you for putting me up; I even promised to throw in a waterproof mattress protector. He was cock-a-hoop and one Thursday night at about eleven he turned up with an Aussie called Ryan. Ryan is a man with a van. Now he’s my man with a van. Earlier in the day I’d got Tommy, one of the old fellers, to give me a hand wrapping the mattress and shifting it to the door. He’s been there twenty-odd years and didn’t ask a single question. It was just another mattress sitting by the loading bay and waiting to be collected. Did he wonder where it was when he got in the next morning? I doubt it. I picked him because he’s one of those who don’t give a fuck. He doesn’t say much, but you can tell he’s alright. God knows what he must have thought of me ordering him about. I used him a few times and feel bad about never dropping him a bung.

After Ronnie it was one of Ryan’s mates. Ryan shares a house with three other Aussies and a Kiwi and one of them is a retail consultant. I thought what the fuck is a retail consultant? Who needs a consultant to tell them what to buy? But that’s not it. A Retail Consultant (it’s in Capital Letters on her card) is someone who can tell you which shops will be on the high street this time next year and how we’ll do our shopping in ten years’ time. I like Lauren because she’s full of ideas and like a lot of the Aussies I’ve met she’s not shy when it comes to telling you what’s on her mind. She wanted a divan – the kind with a drawer – as well as a mattress, but the factory specialised in metal frames with slats. Divan was a dirty word to the boss, although he was happy enough to use it in front of his department store clients. Lauren said she’d be fine with the same as Ronnie – she had tried his, I don’t know in what circumstances – so I let her have one for free because I was keen to pick her brains.

You’re wondering how it’s possible to sneak stock out of a bed factory without anyone noticing. Fair enough. I wondered the same myself and I knew I wouldn’t get away with it forever. No, not forever, but I was game enough to push it until another opportunity came along. I kept my head down and my hands clean at work. I made sure to volunteer for anything that came up, especially the crappy jobs. It was in my interest to clean the staff room, for example, as it was a bit like my doing my housework. And when the boss started moaning about invoices and filing, I offered to give Mrs. McInerney a hand on my breaks. Later on he agreed when I said I thought she had too much to do, but I couldn’t believe it when he made me temporary Stock Controller without an interview. That put one or two noses out of joint, but after a few boxes of biscuits and doughnuts everything settled down. Ryan and Lauren’s housemates were my first paying customers and then we got a good thing going with Ryan’s expat buddies. He got a commission for every referral and a flat fee for deliveries. Even with Ryan’s cut I was saving plenty, what with paying no rent or utility bills; but it wasn’t easy to manipulate the stock figures and anyway I was getting itchy feet. I wouldn’t say I’d had any moral issues with the bed operation, but Mum did teach me right from wrong and I can’t remember who taught me this – maybe I learned it for myself – but I do know it’s good to quit when you’re ahead; especially if you have an idea about what to do next.

My boss was getting twitchy about reduced productivity on the one hand and online mattress companies on the other. He didn’t know which way to turn. He couldn’t understand how his well-oiled machine could be producing less, but the facts were plain to see in my stock figures. Clients were warning him about new companies that were sourcing beds in China and selling them direct. Lauren had told me about people buying mattresses on the internet. I couldn’t believe that anyone would think it was a good idea to spend a grand on something they’d never tried out. But that was the future, according to Lauren and the clients who were threatening to cut orders. When the boss confided in me that he was thinking about letting some of the older fellas go and installing cameras, I figured it was time to jump ship and move on to Phase Two.

I learned something really interesting from the back-door selling. I mean, we all know everyone loves a bargain, but what I think my original customers liked most of all was the cloak and dagger stuff. It made them feel special – as if they’d got one over on their neighbour or were sticking it to the man or something. I’m not one to dwell on what goes on in people’s heads, but this felt like useful knowledge. The question I asked myself was how far would people go to get that feeling? And also, I suppose, how much would they pay? One night I went with Lauren and Ronnie to a secret gin bar in a scruffy part of the East End. It was in the offices of an old warehouse, but you could walk up and down the street without finding it. We did, and we weren’t the only ones. What you had to do was text someone who was already inside who would text the manager your number who would call you up and open the door while you were still on the phone. If he liked the sound of you, that is. I don’t even drink gin, but by the time Lauren’s phone rang I was desperate to get in. It was fucking extortionate but I fucking loved it.

Thank god it was Tommy rapping on the back door the next morning. I must have looked and smelled a right state when I opened up, but all he did was nod. Anything for a quiet life, our Tommy. The showroom stank of booze and there were no windows to open to air it, so I had to get the cleaning stuff and make out I was giving it a good going over. That Mr Sheen made me gip, but I held it together and when the boss arrived he couldn’t praise me enough. I was just the kind of person the company needed if it was going to survive all this market upheaval. Yeah, right. You should have seen his face when I told him I was leaving.

*

What you have to do is create a demand for your products and services. In my case, the demand for beds and mattresses was already there. The traditional market, as Lauren put it, was saturated (her words) and on its arse (mine). But I had come to know about beds, so I was stuck with the product. I wasn’t about to launch a website and grapple with Google and I wasn’t interested in sitting in a shop or a showroom all day. Well, not exactly. What if I was hiding behind a door and deciding whether or not to let you into a club you’d heard about from a friend who’d heard about it from another friend? What if you couldn’t find any mention of this club online or in any kind of directory? You’re getting interested now, aren’t you? Soon you’ll be having sleepless nights worrying about missing out. And if you can’t sleep, maybe you’ll start obsessing about your mattress and bed frame. You’ve got to get in. You’ve got to get a new mattress. Gotcha!

I got the idea of calling myself the Sleep Consultant from Lauren’s business card; I take full credit for not providing my proper name. I once heard a woman telling her husband that it’s all so thrillingly enigmatic, so I guess that worked. After two weeks of Lauren talking about the Sleep Consultant during lunch breaks and in the queue for coffee, a colleague called Adam took the bait. Lauren arranged for Adam to meet Ronnie for Saturday brunch in an East End pub. Ronnie – who would have thought he would be such a good actor? – played my client and although he went a bit off script, Adam was hooked. Two days later Adam was pulled from a meeting to take delivery of an envelope from a cycle courier. The cycle courier, a Kiwi called Samuel who shares a house with four Aussies, waited for Adam to sign a copy of the non-disclosure agreement that was inside the envelope. Three days after that, Adam received a text message containing an address, a date and a time. The following Monday Adam pitched up at an old East End print works and knocked on a grubby wooden door. He eventually made his way up some steps to an ante room where he met the Sleep Consultant for an introductory consultation. Three quarters of an hour later, having answered thirty-seven questions and after signing a second non-disclosure agreement, Adam left without having seen a single mattress or bed frame. One month and two consultations later he took delivery of a two and a half thousand pound bed and pocket-sprung mattress. The mattress is a dead ringer for the Sleepmaestro Deluxe, but without the label. If you look carefully – and everyone looks carefully – in one corner of the mattress you will see the words Sleep Consultant hand-stitched in golden thread.

After Adam it was easy. The business works on a referral-only basis and I’ve even got the clients – always clients and never customers – to hold the first brunch meeting in the same pub. At some point in the process the client hears that they have undergone a vetting procedure which started in the pub – they think I’ve been giving them the once-over – but actually there’s no such thing. Each client is sworn to secrecy and I reckon they wouldn’t blab even without the threat to take back products if the terms of the NDA are broken. As if I’d go and take a bed back. At the second meeting they are shown through to a room with bare walls and floorboards. There are two beds – one metal, one divan – under the sash windows and six mattresses are propped against the walls on either side of the beds. I make a big deal about selecting a mattress and placing it on one of the beds. The clients can take as long as they like to lie on the mattress, but the longest anyone has taken is twelve minutes. Sometimes they ask to try a second mattress. No one has ever tried a third, let alone all six. My old boss lets me have the Sleepmaestro Deluxe and Junior at cost, as long as I give him a wedge off the books at the end of every month. I ship the divans and frames from China and change the labels in the showroom. The only money I’ve spent on marketing was for the business cards. They’re dead cheap online.

It’s still hard to believe that people will creep up a dingy staircase, knock three times on an unmarked door and wait to be asked for a password. I know I’ve created a monster, but it’s a monster that people love to pet and feed and I’m happy about that. Ryan says it’s an indictment – I think that’s how it’s spelled – on late capitalism. I say it’s the end of fucking days.

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