By Simon Downham-Knight
“When you wake up in the morning, I want the first thought to enter your head to be: ‘How much lovely money am I gonna make today?’” The ginger, red faced, stuffed suit at the front of the packed conference room said in a thick London accent. “Fellas, when you look up a street, I want you to think to yourself: every one of these houses is a crisp twenty-pound note for my pocket.” Everyone in the room murmured their approval and soon a smattering of applause erupted into a raucous cheer. The excitement was palpable. Only, I wasn’t excited. It all sounded like bullshit to me. “A, B, C, gents. A, B, C. Always Be Closing!” I smiled at this, because I had heard it before, so memorably uttered by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. It sounded like a cliché then and it sounded like one now, but I had to believe him, otherwise, what was I even doing there?
So, what was I doing there? I was trying to earn a fortune like everyone else. My name is Pete Epps and I was 28 years old in 1999. A typical Generation X slacker: an outsider and outlier, who never felt at home anywhere. A rather unremarkable looking individual, I had tried to distinguish my look by dyeing my mousey brown hair, black, wore an earring in my left ear, had a propensity for wearing black clothes and smoked way too many cigarettes. On a night out, I might even occasionally wear black eye liner. I had drifted through most of my twenties with no ambition, drive or direction but was looking to change that. Maybe get into some adventures and shit. The small square advert in the Evening Standard had read “Huge Earning Potential! Fantastic opportunity to earn between £500 and £5,000 a week.” I dialled the number and was invited to a training seminar a few days later. No interview, no reference checks, nothing. What did I have to lose? After all the hyperbole, it turned out that the company was called Sira Utilities and had been set up in the wake of the 1998 deregulation of the energy market as an agent for London Electricity selling a discounted, dual fuel, gas and electricity deal and telling the punters they would make an up to 20% saving on their energy bills. Before then: energy was state run and there was a set price for it. This was supposed to make the market more competitive. It was 100% commission based; a pyramid scheme set up with us Door Knockers at the bottom, next up, a Team Leader, who was assigned twenty street walkers. Above him, a Manager, who had twenty Team Leaders. Above them were the Executive Officers who had twenty Managers and, finally, above them, the mysterious and shadowy Chief Executive Officer. It was highly competitive and cutthroat: your Team Leader was making his money from you, and so on. If you weren’t hitting your targets, you were out. My Team Leader was called Paul. A small, uptight, impeccably neat man in his thirties. He wore a well-fitting suit, a beautifully trimmed moustache and a Patrick Bateman haircut. We were told to be pushy and aggressive and were given a script that extolled the virtues of the deal and the great savings to be made. We would get £20 for the dual fuel deal and £25 if they signed up for direct debit as well. We were paid weekly and all the contracts had to be taken into head office by nine o’clock on Thursday night in order for them to be processed for pay day, the following Friday. The teams would meet up at a designated location every day and split up for four hours, meet up to see how we were doing and split up again before meeting at the end of the day to tally up the spoils.
It was late in the Winter on our first afternoon out. We met up outside Highbury & Islington Station and Paul gave us the pep talk before we split up. It was raining that kind of fine rain that soaks right through your clothes. After eight hours of door slamming and unfriendly faces, I had not managed to sign up a single person. The fact that other people on my team had scored three or four didn’t help my confidence any and my Team Leader, Paul had scored twelve.
“You’re not being aggressive enough.” Paul said, dismissively. “I don’t even give them a choice. If they think better of it once you’ve gone, they get a ten-day cooling off period.” The Generation X slacker bit deep into me at that one. Fuck you! I don’t want to be aggressive and coercive! I thought to myself, but I also knew that this kind of thinking was going to get me nowhere.
Second day was worse than the first: Colder, wetter, same amount of success for my colleagues, same lack of success for me but much more despondency. On the fifth day, it didn’t rain but that didn’t help the sinking feeling of failure I was feeling. I felt that I was never going to get it and I started to feel a kind of seething resentment. My colleagues were enjoying more and more success, so I knew that the failure was mine and mine alone. By ten to eight that evening I wanted to kill every unfriendly face that came to the door and I was ready to jack it in. Five depressing days out in the cold and rainy streets of London with absolutely nothing to show for it except for blisters and an impending cold. My final house of the day looked untidy and unkempt. The paint on the wooden, grubby, single paned windows was cracked and peeling and the front garden was full of dead weeds and rubbish. I felt woefully pessimistic as I knocked on the door. It didn’t even look like anybody lived there. I waited and I waited, sighed, fidgeted from foot to foot, then drew back my fist to knock again. Before I did, I noticed, through the mottled glass in the window, a dull light being switched on. I was suddenly filled with an inexplicable surge of optimism and confidence that caused me to stand up straight. From inside, I heard the lengthy process of unbolting and unlocking and moments later I was staring into the twinkling eyes of a very friendly looking old man.
“Hello, yes. What can I do for you, young man?” He said, with a smile. I warmly smiled back at him and recited my script for the hundredth time that day.
“…and your name is?” I finished, then hopefully hovered my pen above the contract and looked him in the eye.
“Well, young man, my name is Morris Clement.” He said and I feverishly scribbled it down on the triplicate contract.
“How do you pay your bills, sir? Quarterly, or via direct debit?” I said.
“Well, I usually pay them quarterly but it’s becoming more of a to-do. I’ve forgotten a few times and been sent reminders and final demands.” I could feel my temperature rising and my palms getting sweaty.
“I can set you up a direct debit for both gas and electricity right now, if you want. You need never worry about paying your bills again.” I said, hopefully.
“Sounds good, young man. Sounds good. Twenty percent off my energy bills and direct debits set up without leaving home? Sounds like my lucky day!” More like my lucky day, I thought as I filled out his bank details.
“All I need from you now, Mister Clement, is your signature right here.” I said pointing to the dotted line at the bottom of the contract. Morris Clement then happily took the pen from me and signed. I didn’t even have to tell him there was a ten-day cooling off period. As he closed the door and went back inside, I felt like Janine in Ghostbusters as I ran up the street towards my unimpressed teammates waving the yellow and green pieces of paper above my head yelling:
“I got oooonnnneee!”
The next day I got two, the day after, I got three and the day after that, I got four and there it seemed to plateau. Between £80 and £100 a day didn’t seem to be too bad pickings to me. Between £400 and £500 a week was more than I’d ever earned, but it wasn’t getting Paul his Ferrari and I was taking up the place of a decent earner. I knew my days were numbered if I didn’t start performing. Every day, Paul would say before we split up onto our allocated streets:
“Remember, lads. A, B, C. Always be closing! We’re winners on this team. I want us on the top of that Leader Board at the end of the month!”
The next day was Friday and Paul took me to one side, by the arm.
“I really need you to pull one out of the bag for me today, Pete.” He whispered. “You’re my worst earner by far and you’re starting to feel like dead weight. I’m sorry, but if you don’t double your numbers today, I’m going to have to let you go.” He then gave me a street in Tufnell Park that looked really posh on the outside but the houses had all been divided into flats that contained a larger demographic of what Friedrich Nietzche might have called the bungled and the botched. Hippies, junkies, punks, drunks and care in the community types. The day didn’t start all that well: on the third house I stopped at, a twitchy, hollow eyed, terrified looking man came to the door with a downwards facing shotgun. I managed to garble about five words of my script when he made a shrill and stressed wheeze and slammed the door in my face. That was a door slam I wasn’t disappointed by. I walked up the street a little; sat on a wall and rapidly and hotly smoked a cigarette. I flicked away the butt, straightened up my back and went to the next house. A friendly old Rasta called Festus opened the door and invited me into his small apartment, then gladly signed up. At the end of the day, I had scored my first ten. Ten! I joyously arrived at the meet-up clutching my bundle of contracts above my head and beamed at Paul; rightfully expecting a “good boy” pat on the back. Instead of looking pleased for me though, he looked miffed.
“That’s odd,” he said. “Really odd.”
“What do you mean?” I said. Feeling deflated. He stroked at his moustache as he spoke.
“You went up the streets I gave you? Nowhere else?” I nodded and thrust my ten contracts at him. He looked through them looking more stressed and shaking his head.
“That doesn’t make sense.” He said. “I went up those streets last week and found it to be full of drunks and weirdos, who just didn’t want to play. I didn’t get a single contract all day.” This made my head reel a little bit. Did that neat prick send me up there to fail? Was this a stitch up? I was about to give him a piece of my mind when a lightbulb illuminated above his head.
“I think we may have found your skill, Mister Epps.” He said with an enormous grin. “You can relate to the ones that nobody else can get to. The wackos, wingnuts and weirdos!” I couldn’t tell if this was a compliment or not, but he was smiling a drunken smile that showed he was in love with the idea and I felt as though I had just been given a lifeline.
Over the weekend, Paul called round all his team leader mates and collated me a list of all the misfit streets where Sira Utilities had failed to bring in the booty. He called me first thing on Monday morning and told me not to meet him where we had agreed on Friday. He told me to go to a series of streets in Kentish Town. By this time, I had worked out a system. I would take a piece of paper and fold it into four. I would write all the numbers of the houses down. If they weren’t in, I would put a dot by the number. If they were in and said, no, I would put a cross. If they signed up, I would put a star.
On Monday morning, I stared up the street and said out loud:
“Every one of these houses, is a crisp twenty-pound note for my pocket. A, B, C! A, B, C! Always be closing.” At the end of that day, I had scored an unlucky for some, thirteen. Tuesday, fifteen, Wednesday seventeen. I went home that evening with my head reeling that I had earned around £1,100 in just four days. My future was beginning to look and smell sweet.
On Thursday morning I tingled as I stared up the street of townhouses with a few blocks of flats at the end. I could feel the fifty-five contracts burning in my bag. Today was going to be a winner. The first house I knocked at signed up for the dual fuel deal. As did the second, the third and the fourth. By the time I had signed up my fifth consecutive customer I was feeling invincible. At six forty-five I had scored twenty-four of the buggers. This took me up to a total of seventy-nine. A grand total of £1,580, notwithstanding the people who get cold feet. But I was confident it would be an incredibly lucrative week. Paul was right. I was their secret weapon. I could easily withdraw right now, but something about me rounding up to twenty-five for the day pushed me on. I was already inside a block of housing association flats and had one more to door to knock on. What did I have to lose?
I bunched my fist and rapped on the yellow door with the number 23 on it. Within moments I could hear a stirring from inside. This was followed by a lengthy unlocking before the door opened on a chain and a short, pale, red haired, moustachioed face appeared. I was instantly walloped with the smell of alcohol, urine, body odour and mustiness. The ginger face smiled at me.
“Hello, my name is Peter,” I said. “And I am here to offer you an, up to, twenty percent discount on your energy bills.” I smiled my most winning smile at him. “London Electricity are currently offering a dual fuel deal and if you sign up with me today and sign up for a direct debit as well, you will be assured the full twenty percent discount.” He raised his eyebrow.
“So, yer saying you can get us a twenty percent discount off on our energy bills?” He said in a strong Irish accent and a twinkle in his eye.
“That’s right,” I said, with a smile and, at that, the chain was dropped, the door was opened, and I was led inside.
“My name’s Mick. Come on inside. Meet the rest of the gang.” He said as he led me through the dingy hallway into the smoky dining area which had a round table in the middle of it, that was covered in empty booze bottles, cigarettes, ashtrays, food, fag butts and other detritus. Seated around it were three other, rather drunk, looking people. Two men: another, much darker, moustachioed Irishman with greying temples, a chubby, bald, Uncle Fester looking fella and a small mousey haired, little woman with sad eyes and a pudding basin haircut in the middle, with her posture thrown forward and her arms thrust between her legs.
“Will you have a drink with us?” Mick said and motioned to the empty chair on the other side of the table.
“Ummm,” I said and looked down at the contract on my clipboard
“Oh, say you will.” Mick said, looking down at my clipboard. “I’ll sign the contract after we’ve had a drink. I promise.” I smiled at him and nodded. “This is John,” Mick said pointing to the other moustachioed Irishman. “This is Terry,” he said, pointing to Uncle Fester, and this is the lovely, Marie.” The lovely but terribly sad faced Marie looked up at me from staring at the table and barely managed a smile. “Gang, meet Peter. He’s here to save us twenty percent on our energy bills.” John smiled at this, raised his glass and drank.
“Please,” I said. “Call me Pete.”
“Sit down, Pete. Sit down.” He motioned at the empty chair round the table and smiled. I took off my shoulder bag full of contracts and put it on the sideboard, squeezed past Uncle Fester and Marie and sat in the chair in the corner next to John. Mick sat down next to me with a smile. He turned over a downturned mug and filled it from a bottle labelled as Stollachvostok vodka.
“Will you have a beer? Give him a beer.” Mick said to Uncle Fester and Fester leaned down and pulled up a four pack of Stella Artois from the floor. He pulled one off the plastic ring and handed it to me. I smiled, popped the top of the can and took a drink. Uncle Fester smiled at me, exposing a truly horrific set of grey, yellow and green rotten teeth. From deep inside him came a gurgling, wheezy snigger that hit me in the face with a stench that took me aback. Tobacco and booze masked the rotting biofilm reek you would get from a foul drain. He pointed to my cup of vodka and smiled. I picked it up and took a drink of something that tasted more like isopropyl or white spirit and winced as it burned its way down my windpipe into my gut. That can’t be vodka, can it?
“Do you like to have a smoke?” John said with a smile.
“Sure, I do” I said, pointing to the gold box of Benson & Hedges I had in my breast pocket.
“I meant the proper stuff, y’know, the wacky backy.” John said and pulled out a small bag of the green stuff.
“Sure,” I said with a smile, my windpipe still smarting from whatever the fuck it was that I just drank. I thought a couple of hits from a joint might mellow my mood a little. I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable in their company. I took another sip of my Stella and Uncle Fester pointed to the mug of “vodka” again.
“I’m ok with the beer, thanks.” I said.
“You what? Mick said. “Get it down ye. It’d be a real shame to waste it. We’re all on the dole y’know. We’re not filthy rich salesmen, like yerself.” I looked round at the four of them with their imploring eyes and realised that a bubble of regret, about coming into this place, was beginning to form in my gut. I picked up the mug of vodka and put it to my lips. As I did, Uncle Fester reached across and placed his tobacco-stained fingers on the bottom of the mug, pushed it up and held it there until I had drained it. My eyes and nose were streaming and my insides were screaming, and I felt confused and slightly detached as it started to ease off. Uncle Fester opened the bottle and poured me out some more. I put my hand over the cup and as the clear liquid splashed onto my skin it burned.
“What kind of vodka is that?” I said to Mick, who burst into laughter. John and Uncle Fester joined in. Marie’s facial expression hadn’t changed from the expression of desperate sadness she had worn since I arrived.
“He thinks it’s vodka, lads.” Mick said with a giggle. “That isn’t vodka, that’s just in a vodka bottle. That’s the proper Irish good stuff. The Devil’s Spittle.”
“Huh?” I dumbly breathed out through the fog that had descended into my brain.
“Y’know, Mountain Dew, Poitín!” Mick said, as John had licked the glue of his joint, stuck it down, popped it in his mouth and sparked it up. He drew deeply and exhaled.
“What do you think of Marie?” John said, leering suggestively at her. As I looked up at her sad eyes, through my haze, John took a big pull on his joint and handed it to me. I absentmindedly took it and drew deeply.
“She’s very nice.” I said as I inhaled the smoke deep into my lungs. I took another deep draw and immediately felt it curdling with the beer and poitín.
“Nice?” He said with real irritation. “Nice? This lady is beautiful. Isn’t she lads?” He looked around at John and Uncle Fester and they enthusiastically nodded at him. “She sorts us all out, don’t you, darlin’?” Marie looked up from the table for the first time since I’d got there and glumly nodded. “She’ll sort you out as well if you like. Go on, lad. Take her into the room over there if you like.” My head was really spinning now, and I tried to pass the joint on to Fester but he declined. I shook my head and tried to get my thoughts in order. I was beginning to fear for my safety and wonder about hers. I turned to Marie and reached across and touched her hand. She violently flinched away, sending cans and glasses flying, as though my hand was on fire.
“Don’t touch me!” She screamed and my heart leapt into my throat as terror curdled the weed and the booze. “Don’t you fucking touch me. Any of you. You make me fucking sick, ya bunch of fucking bastards.” I realised I was completely blocked in and the door seemed miles away in the haze of my intoxication.
“It’s OK,” I said. “I won’t hurt you.”
“Hurt me?” She sobbed with raw emotion that told me that the sadness had truly overboiled. “Hurt me? You can’t hurt me! There’s nothing left to hurt. They took away me babies. I haven’t seen ‘em in months. The pain is unbearable. They took them away. I don’t know where they are. I don’t know where they are!” I looked round at John, Mick and Fester. They had all taken the same position that Marie had before her outburst. Heads cast down; arms thrust between their legs; I looked round at them but as I attempted eye contact, they looked away. “I scalded myself with the kettle and they still want to fuck me.” She wept. “They hurt me. They don’t care about my pain. They think they can fuck it away.” Why couldn’t I have been satisfied with twenty-four contracts? This wasn’t worth twenty quid. This wasn’t worth any amount of money. She abruptly stood up and pulled down the pyjama bottoms she was wearing. She was wearing no underwear. I looked away as quickly as I could, but it was too late. I had seen that her thighs and belly were horribly scalded with stripes of purple burns that had blistered and cracked. Yellow liquid and blood oozed and crusted around the spots where the blisters had burst. Her emotional pain and suffering manifested as physical pain and suffering. Mick stood up, pushing the table forward and tried to put his arms around her, but she pummelled his chest with her balled up fists. Uncle Fester stood up, squeezed past me from behind and put his arms around her. Her pyjama bottoms dropped to the floor and she fell into Mick’s arms and descended into hideous, pain wracked, child’s sobs. My mind suddenly came into full focus and I looked up at the front door that was just thirty meters away. I took one last look at my hosts and of Marie’s little bottom; overturned the table, sending bottles, cans ashtrays, and so on, flying into the air and crashing to the floor. John made a grab for me as I bolted like a rabbit across the dining room, but I elbowed him in the cheek.
“Please god, don’t let the door be deadlocked.” I thought to myself as I flew through the hallway and finally made it to the yellow door. To my utter relief it opened inwards with a twist of the Yale lock and I emerged out into the lobby and smacked into the wall before I could stop myself; my body jangled and sweated with fear and my breathing was fast and ragged. I turned around to see that the yellow door was swinging closed on the door arm.
“My contracts!” I said aloud and launched myself at the door, just too late to stop that final sliver of light from the inside disappearing as it clicked closed. “Fuck!” I screamed out. “Fuuuuuuuuuuccckkk!!!” I pushed fruitlessly at the locked door. My brain reeling from weed, stress, beer, fear and poitín, started firing off in all directions. My seventy-nine contracts, my £1,580, all my hard work, my future, sat in my shoulder bag lying on the sideboard in there. I knocked on the door, gingerly at first, but more and more forcefully, until I was hammering on it. Nobody came to the door. Nothing stirred. After twenty minutes the light switched off from inside. After twenty more I slunk out.
I didn’t meet up with my team later on. I was too ashamed to tell Paul, or anyone else at Sira Utilities. I couldn’t bring myself to start again. My mojo had completely left me. I couldn’t bring myself to knock on any more doors. It was a simple fact that I was just not a salesman. I hated being a shill for London Electricity. This experience had illustrated this to me like a punch on the nose. It had also profoundly affected me. I couldn’t get poor Marie and Mick and John and Terry out of my head. What happened to them? I would never find out. Did Marie ever get to see her kids again? I hope so. As one door closes another opens, so they say. After a few months of thinking about what Paul had said to me, about being able to get through to the ones that nobody else could relate to. The wackos, wingnuts and weirdos, I got a job as a link worker in a drugs and alcohol rehabilitation centre where I found my true calling and the start of a meaningful career, so not a sad ending to this story.
I regularly dream of my final dash out of that dining room, down that corridor, through the yellow door and out into that lobby. As the door clicks shut, I always awaken with a terrified gasp and a start. I guess that, until such a day as the dream stops, that door will always be closing.
Copyright 2021 – Simon Downham-Knight