“But is there anything from a meeting of our partners that would interest the Kremlin?”
Quentin Shears, 48, is a partner in Newt UK, the recently rebranded Hertfordshire-based quantity surveying subsidiary of US construction giant Gator Corp. While Quentin has been coming to terms with his new masters’ work culture, they have been working out quite what to do with their new outpost in Austerity Britain.
With the consent of his anger management therapist (who he sees on a weekly basis to address his issues with the local architectural community), Quentin has agreed to share excerpts from his “frustration diary” with Building.
Everything, it seems, now hinges on the “big meeting”. This is the gathering of Newt’s elders to work out how we get our share of the gruel on offer over the next five years. Are we going to make a bold move into infrastructure? Or develop a niche project-managing the refurbishment of old Woolworths depots into secondary schools?
Either way, the meeting has become the only thing anybody at Newt wants to talk about. The problem is that nobody seems to know when or where it might take place. Indeed, the whole thing has been shrouded in such secrecy that its very existence has been questioned. It has taken on near mythical proportions, somewhere between the Holy Grail and the day the cashpoint on the High Street started dispensing free £20 notes.
The only person who knows anything for certain is John Gatz Jr, our US parent company’s vice president of Europe, Asia, South America and Africa - which, as we’re their only overseas office, essentially makes him managing director of the Bishop’s Stortford branch. But no-one had seen him for a week and a half, and his cryptic answerphone message just said something about making sure “lines are secure”.
Then I remembered he’d invited me to his 4th of July barbecue (“Should be swell. Some of the guys from URS and Aecom are in town - we’re trying to set up our own Little League”). I decided this was my opportunity for a quiet word.
But when I arrived, John seemed too distracted to chat. He just stood behind the smoke from the barbecue, quietly watching his guests through narrowed eyes. Eventually, as the afternoon gave way to the inevitable post-meat lull, I spied my chance. As soon as I mentioned the words “our plans” however, John grabbed my arm, pushed me into the kitchen, and shut the door behind us.
“You can’t be too careful, Quentin. This is highly sensitive stuff. There’s a guy out there, says he’s a bridge engineer, but I’m fairly sure I saw him trying on fur hats in M&S last weekend …”
He stared down anxiously at his plate of ribs, while it slowly dawned on me what on earth he was talking about.
“You’re not suggesting the Russians are spying on us too?”, I spluttered.
“Don’t you read the papers? They’re everywhere!” he hissed. “And you can practically see Hertfordshire from Russia!”
I tried to steer him back to the matter in hand. “But is there likely to be anything from the meeting that would interest the Kremlin? I mean, what exactly are our plans?”
John Jr paused, as if to assess whether I really was a 48-year-old quantity surveyor from Bishop’s Stortford, or a deep-cover mole from Volgagrad, eager to sell Newt’s most classified secrets to my shadowy paymasters. His eyes descended to a tray of blackened meat scraps salvaged from the bottom of the barbeque. I knew what I had to do. I took the most carbonised sausage I could see and, meeting John’s unflinching gaze, bit into it. It was an act, and indeed a sausage, that only someone brought up on British summer cooking could have stomached.
I had passed the test. John Jr’s mood suddenly lifted. “Thank God you’re one of us, Quent - I’ve been wanting to trust you with this for weeks,” he said. “We’re going to totally revolutionise Newt UK - if you’ll pardon the phrase. Now listen carefully …”
He talked without pause for the next half hour. Sadly, I heard none of it. The last thing I caught was something about walls and ears, as he turned on all the taps, then the radio, and finally put the washing machine on an intensive spin cycle, just in case.
“So what do you think, Quentin?” he asked, as the washing machine shuddered to a halt.
“It’s safe to say,” I replied, “that the firm’s secrets are safe with me.”