Balcony on the fifth floor by Phil Charter

In a few minutes they’ll be here.

Martin stood frozen to the spot as his colleagues rushed around him. He cracked open the plastic lid of his bottle of sparkling water. Listening to the fizz of the bubbles, he cursed the newsagent for being out of San Pellegrino. He’d had to settle for a brand he’d never even heard of – it would probably be flat in no time.  The usual prescription-strength Ibuprofen tablets went down. Without him telling it to, his hand felt for the plastic seal around the new pack of Benson & Hedges cigarettes in his pocket. He didn’t know if he would get a chance to open them before the meeting.

Martin was about to deliver the biggest pitch of his career. Winning the business would mean he’d finally get that bonus, the kind with a lot of zeros. Without it, he may as well cut his losses and walk away from the company he had invested fourteen years of his life in. The cocky little twerp in charge of tenders at PWC would be there soon with his team of stern consultants. The client was one of those slick haired hot-shots with an MBA and a few years of experience at an international recruitment firm. He spoke in acronyms and percentages. He wanted results and wasn’t interested in how they were obtained; creative ideas would be a hard sell. Martin would have to play nice and flirt with him a bit. Everyone was gay in the glamorous world of advertising weren’t they? Either way, it wouldn’t hurt to boost his ego a bit.

The gangly intern returned from the copy room on the ground floor with ten neatly bound pitch documents. Creative recruitment solutions for PricewaterhouseCoopers. He handed them over to Shelley, the wiry haired New Business Manager and withdrew to his corner desk. She flipped through one of the folders hoping to find an error she could highlight, a good reason to make a scene.

Martin pulled open the French window and walked out onto the fifth floor balcony. It was his favourite place in the building – so close to the buzz of the office, yet it felt a million miles away. When he went out there, everyone knew not to bother him. He was able to shut the door on all of the bullshit and think, if only for a few minutes. He’d had some of his best ideas pacing up and down that two-by-five metre space, imagining the River Thames beyond the grand old buildings blocking his view. That was the only thing he didn’t like about it, the buildings in the way. It was only halfway to a good view.

You weren’t supposed to smoke out there, but no one was going to tell a director off. He sparked the lighter and held the flame over the end for a little longer than he needed to. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. Nicotine wasn’t going to kill the headache, or settle the feeling in his stomach. He’d spent weeks working on these briefs with his team and had even come into the office on Saturday to make sure the work sparkled.

Down below, an endless line of black cabs crawled along Sloan Street. A bike messenger carrying a poster tube on his shoulder weaved in and out of traffic on his fixed-wheel bike. Why did people ride around on those death traps? Once you get going there’s no changing your mind. You can’t slow down quickly, let alone stop in a hurry.

Why couldn’t they be pitching to Lavazza or Rimmel London? Writing copy for Associated British Ports and Londis wasn’t what he had dreamed of all those years ago as a student in Bournemouth. Were the clients even serious about switching their business? They’d better not just be doing this for a better deal with their current agency. The bastards.

Last night at the club Gavin had been whispering into a young guy’s ear. He must have been new there because nobody had seen him before. He couldn’t have been more than 24 – Gavin probably fucked him. After nine years of late nights, drugs and promiscuity, the thought of growing old with him suddenly filled Martin with dread. What would happen when he got too old for his Sunday club residency at Hex? I mean, what are you supposed to do when you pass forty, move to the country and get a labrador and a Land Rover discovery? Fuck that. Imagine all of the gossip at the Christmas drinks gathering. A couple of queers living in one of Buckinghamshire’s quaintest villages, that wouldn’t do.

Martin felt his stomach tense. His head throbbed. The comedown from last night’s pills was starting in earnest. He’d been a fool to pile onto the 07:20 train with all of the other commuters after only three hours of sleep. He turned and glanced at himself in the reflective window. He looked defeated. At six foot two he was well-built, although his midriff was considerably looser than it once had been. He had thrown on a crumpled shirt that still smelled of smoke. One of the arms of his trademark tortoiseshell thick framed glasses was patched up with black electrical tape above his wooden cross earring. His grey beard was taking over his face.

Martin held down the bile rising in his stomach and tried to take another cigarette out from the packet. He felt lost. Staggering, he steadied himself on the balcony handrail and closed his eyes. His head was spinning with swirls of purple and green – not now. The sharp tinnitus acquired from years of DJing in his right ear. There was a reason the Brixton community called them suicide Mondays.

‘Are you OK Martin . . . Martin? The clients have arrived?’ Somebody was knocking on the French window. It didn’t matter now. Martin ignored them and kept his eyes closed.

He didn’t want to step back into reality, but he would have to go through the office, and past everyone to make it out of there. Martin braced himself, preparing for his escape.

He turned and tore open the sliding door, pushing past a young art director and hurried towards the lift. He hammered the elevator button repeatedly but the light remained steadfast – floor number two. He ran to the stairwell and leapt down them two at a time. It seemed like fifteen flights even though it was only five. He finally made it past the reception desk out into the fresh Knightsbridge air. The shoppers and pedestrians averted their eyes from the man in the paisley shirt throwing up on the pavement. They gave him a wide berth and went about their business, while Martin rested his hands on his knees and fought to regain his breath.

After a minute Martin opened his eyes and straightened up. The Creative Director started to walk away from the office building. He ignored the phone buzzing in his trouser pocket. He kept walking. He had no idea where he was going.


Philip Charter is a British writer who currently lives in Pamplona, Spain. Between writing fiction, songs and poems, he runs a blog about teaching and travel. His work has been featured in Flash Fiction, Storgy and Carillon magazines.

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