The queue of well-dressed, newly-qualified young hopefuls was long.
The advert had been irresistible - personal assistant to Solly Cavendish, a billionaire without any heirs to take over the running of his empire. The position would be challenging, well paid and offered security in a position of extreme trust. Personal integrity, literacy, business management skills and intelligence were essential.
Of course, all the applicants were convinced that they were the ideal choice, mainly because they hadn’t read the small print that also stipulated humility, empathy and understanding.
So many graduates with the expectation that the world would provide at the snap of their well-manicured fingers mingled in the penthouse reception like fighting fit bantams. Intimidated by the displays of superiority, three less assertive applicants remained in their corner. State school educated, they had just managed to scrape through college with some subsidy or other. Designer clothes, let alone the opportunity to have any influence in a competitive world, were likely to remain well out of their reaches. They may have been neat and tidy, but just didn’t have the je ne sais quoi that mattered. For them this was more an exercise in confidence building than realistic aspiration.
Charmian Aden was the first applicant called into the billionaire’s penthouse office.
She was expecting it to be filled with the designer furniture, cut crystal and the clean, understated declarations of wealth she was so used to. Instead, the room was more like the back room of her crazy Uncle Gilbert’s antique shop.
Behind a desk in front of half-shuttered windows concealing an amazing view of the City of London was a wizened, diamond-eyed man. Solly Cavendish’s gaze looked in different directions, like a chameleon’s.
Charmian kept her cool: presentation was all and this position could well guarantee the prosperous lifestyle which she expected. The young woman was also pragmatic and accepted that sacrifices may be required (she had made plenty of those before reaching twenty to fulfil her desire for the Porsche and luxury apartment when Papa refused to pay for them).
The applicant elegantly settled in the faded tapestry chair on the other side of the desk and tried to look the old man in his randomly directional eyes.
‘Miss Aden,’ he croaked, ‘Are you a good woman?’
Charmian was expecting to be asked about her qualifications or expensively designed Facebook profile. What had goodness got to do with being a billionaire’s personal assistant?
‘My family subscribes to six charities and I sometimes help my mother with the annual fete to raise funds for overseas orphans.’
The ensuing pause told her that had not been the right answer.
‘But do you have a good heart?’
She was a young woman in the peak of health, brilliant at tennis, rock climbing and horse riding - she had won gymkhana trophies at the age of five. Of course she had a good, strong heart!
‘Well – yes!’ There was indignation in the tone, too difficult for a girl who had been the class bully to suppress.
As Solly Cavendish leaned back in his winged armchair he could have been a vampire trying to avoid daylight. ‘You are very well qualified in economics, management and interior design. But do you know right from wrong?’
Charmian found the question problematic. What should she say? Admit that she had been a teenage doxy too free with favours when she wanted something. ‘I certainly hope so,’ and added hurriedly, ‘You would find me totally trustworthy in any social or business management this position entails.’
‘I’m very glad to hear that.’ Solly Cavendish pressed a button under his desk and a heavy, carved door slid aside. It could have once belonged to a cathedral, and the technology which moved it skirled in complaint. ‘Perhaps you wouldn’t mind waiting in the adjoining room while I see the other young people.’
Charmian hadn’t expected to be dismissed after such a short interview, at least not without finding out if any “special services" were required in addition to her university qualifications. She tried not to rise huffily and make her disapproval known, though by the swing of her hips and click of her heels on the oak floorboards it was all too apparent.
The next applicant was a brash, overconfident young man, the sort that regarded insider-trading as a perk of dealing stocks and shares.
He was also asked the same questions and, after displaying some perplexity, was perfunctorily banished to join Charmian.
Eventually the padded seats which lined the walls of the room on the other side of the carved door were filled with the trim backsides of young hopefuls. They sat wondering whether it had been worth their while making the effort to meet Solly Cavendish when they could have been sitting outside some café drinking expensive cappuccinos and chattering away on their smartphones.
After so many interviews, time was now limited, so the last three less confident applicants unwilling to push to the front of the queue were invited to come in together.
It was obvious that the young man, still in his teens, seemed anxious.
The billionaire asked what was wrong.
‘My mother’s working late. I promised to be there when my granddad arrives back from the day centre - it’s not safe for him to be left on his own.’
‘Why didn’t you say, then you could have come in earlier?’
‘I really didn’t like to.’
‘Leave your name and address with my secretary so he can arrange a more suitable time.’
The young man expressed his gratitude, bid his two companions goodbye, and quickly left.
The younger of the two women was a happy, round soul who would be out of her depth in the cut and thrust of the world the billionaire inhabited. Sue’s idea of smart dress was more night club than boardroom, and her acumen appeared to be limited to picking the winners of TV cooking competitions until it became evident by her interest in the penthouse surroundings that she possessed considerable knowledge about antiques.
The cheerful young woman was not invited to join the others in the adjoining room, but sent away with a letter of recommendation to the owner of an auction house that dealt in everything from fine porcelain to ancient farming equipment.
Being last made Alison feel even more anxious. She was a sensitive young woman who struggled to deal with the raw injustices of the world and beginning to wonder how she had found the temerity to apply for such a prestigious position.
The chameleon gaze of Solly Cavendish settled on her pale features.
She tried not to shiver.
‘What do you want?’ he asked.
Although a strange question, Alison detected no meanness in this wall-eyed billionaire and found it easy enough to answer, ‘A kinder society and companion for my pet rat that won’t attack him,’ though she had no idea why she felt impelled to mention her elderly rodent.
‘What do you want to be?’
‘A worthwhile human being.’ It must have sounded very naive after the sophisticated interviews of the previous candidates, but it seemed to be what he wanted to hear.
And so the interview continued, Solly Cavendish asking apparently irrelevant questions, and Alison responding in the only way she knew how.
The other applicants continued to wait in the adjoining room. Their phones could not get a signal and without an Internet connection or ability to send texts they lost all sense of time. However full of self-esteem, no one was prepared to be the first to storm out in protest. The need to jump into a fast car, or book a flight to Tenerife no longer seemed so important. Their annoyance seeped away as the oppressive ambience of the sound-proofed room closed in and held them in silent apprehension.
As they felt they were being swallowed into a lethargic torpor, a plain white door slid open.
In the small room on the other side was a large mirror.
‘Charmian Aden,’ an authoritative female voice announced. ‘Please enter.’
The young woman should have been indignant at the order, yet found herself being drawn inside like hypnotised chicken.
The door slid shut after her.
The other applicants were worried and bemused: this was more like waiting for the dentist than an interview for some plum position in the city. They listened in silence for sounds of drilling, unaware that they would all confront something far worse.
There was nothing else in the small room but the full length mirror. Charmian used it to admire the effort she had put into her presentation.
She looked good - really good!
But the reflection started to disagree. Her face ceased to be the one she made up every morning. Lines of meanness crept across her Botoxed features to create a roadmap of her true nature. As she attempted to massage them out, the other immaculate qualities also melted away. The proud, padded shoulders had lost that confidence of the privileged. Her designer dress now looked ridiculous, its hem far too short and her legs ridiculously muscular from all the horse riding and games of tennis.
Charmian wanted to leave, but could not pull away from the reflection of her true nature until her confidence had been totally crushed.
She wanted to scuttle away like a small lizard for the cover of a rock.
When another door eventually slid open the young woman tottered, blubbing, out into a secret lift lobby before the humiliating experience could be recorded on anyone’s smartphone.
One by one, the other applicants were invited by the authoritative voice to experience the hell in the mirror. Virtually gibbering at the revelation of their true selves all of them left by the secret lift down to the safety of the outside world which they had previously been so anxious to impress.
After they had gone, it was Alison’s turn to look into the mirror of self knowledge.
Solly Cavendish rose from his winged armchair and, with the aid of two amber-handled walking sticks, accompanied her into the secret room. He invited Alison to stand before the full-length mirror and gaze into its honest reflection.
She was no longer apprehensive; the long interview had restored her confidence and a mirror was only a mirror after all, it just inverted the world.
But Alison barely recognised herself. It reflected that facet of her personality suppressed to survive in an unreasonable world. Her hair was not mousey as she believed, her figure just as trim as those of the other young women who had coveted the position the billionaire was offering, and there was generosity in the expression, possibly one her elderly rat was more familiar with than other human beings.
Yet there was also steel; deeply embedded, it was the blade she would use as an experienced woman to cut through the inhumanity and bullshit Solly Cavendish felt himself being dragged down by as he grew older.
If any other human being was going to distribute the elderly billionaire’s vast wealth against the wishes of relatives and other vested interests to good causes, it would be Alison.