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The verge practice

Barry Maitland

1

The Zhejiang delegation stood huddled at the foot of the great sheet of glass that hung between two brick warehouses, twisting out before hitting the ground to form a shimmering canopy supported on a spider’s web of thin stainless-steel rods.

Sandy Clarke, senior partner of the Verge Practice, hurried through the glass doors to welcome them, the firm’s information manager, Jennifer Mathieson, at his side. Stiff little bows, handshakes and business cards were exchanged, and the party moved from the chill May morning into the warm interior. Once past the low ceiling of the reception area, they paused for a moment to admire the sweep of the atrium that soared up above them, surrounded by floors of open-plan drawing offices, and to take in the view of the river through the glass wall on the far side.

‘Rondon Bridge.’ Cheong Hung, leader of the delegation, beamed knowingly at the structure to their left.

‘Tower Bridge, Mr Cheong,’ Clarke corrected politely, and drew his guest further to the right to point out the pinnacles of the Tower of London just visible beyond the bridge. He then turned to indicate the tiers of levels rising above them, all brightly lit and humming with activity, although it was only eight o’clock on a Monday morning. ‘Would you care to inspect our facilities?’

Cheong’s English wasn’t that good, and he looked inquiringly at a woman at his elbow, who began to whisper a translation into his ear.

‘Ah.’ Cheong checked his watch and shook his head. He spoke to the woman, who then turned to Clarke. ‘Mr Cheong regrets we are short of time. We are familiar with your facilities from your brochures. They are most impressive. Please to continue to the presentation of your proposals.’

‘Of course.’ Clarke was aware the party had three other presentations to attend that day before catching their flight back to the People’s Republic, and that time was tight, but he knew that Jennifer was anxious to delay things until Charles could be traced. He led the way through a gallery in which models and photographs of some of their more spectacular recent projects were displayed: office towers, a football stadium, a dinosaur museum. Jennifer Mathieson described them briefly as they passed, but the visitors seemed more interested in her red hair and long legs. They came to a milky glass wall that parted with a mechanical sigh in front of them, and entered the auditorium that had been prepared for the formal presentation. While the Chinese accepted coffees and took them to their seats, Jennifer whispered urgently in his ear, ‘Where the hell is he, Sandy?’

‘He must still be upstairs in the flat,’ Clarke said calmly. ‘I saw a light on when I arrived this morning. I asked Elaine to call him.’

‘I spoke to her. She says no one’s answering the phone. There’s no sign of Miki either.’

Clarke could understand her consternation. This wasn’t at all like Charles. Normally he’d have been down in the office hours before, thrashing out the final details of the presentation with the media unit.

‘Maybe he’s in the shower or on his mobile. He’s probably still jet-lagged from the States. Why don’t you go up there, Jennifer? Take the key and winkle him out. I’ll get things started.’

He fixed a confident smile on his face as Jennifer made for the door.

The audience was waiting. Clarke walked to the front of the room and introduced the other senior staff of the Verge Practice who were present.

‘And Mr Verge?’ Cheong asked haltingly. ‘Will he join us?’

‘Naturally, Mr Verge intended to join us. He has been totally involved in the proposals you are about to see. Unfortunately, he seems to have picked up a virus on a recent trip to California, and he has been unwell. He will join us if he possibly can.’

This was translated, producing an exchange of stony looks among the Chinese.

Cheong murmured a few words to the interpreter, who said, ‘Mr Cheong is most disappointed. He very much wished to meet Charles Verge in person.’

‘And Charles is very anxious to meet him. However, since time is short, I suggest that we start the presentation.’ Sandy Clarke beamed another reassuring smile and nodded at the technician. Thank God for digital media, he thought; at least I shan’t have to speak for the next fifteen minutes. Charles wouldn’t have done it this way, of course. He would have worked the audience first, set the scene, hinted at the vision, created a receptive atmosphere. They had formed an effective partnership so often in the past, Charles’s dynamism and his own poise, but today he was on his own.

Clarke moved to a seat against the wall and the room slowly filled with the sound of traditional Chinese music; the screen flicked alive to a scene of white clouds and the title, in both Chinese and English characters, came into focus: The New City of Wuxang. The titles faded and the clouds parted to reveal a patchwork of green fields, a rural landscape in Zhejiang province. Below could be seen a small village, rice paddies, a lake, a wood-and suddenly something else: an interchange, a row of towers, and then a huge city, digitally realised, stretching away in magnificent order towards the horizon, its buildings and highways glittering purposefully in the sunlight.

It was a lie to say that Charles had been totally involved in the development of this proposal. The truth was that he had shown little interest in it, though it was far and away the biggest thing they’d ever been called upon to design. The statistics were staggering, the quantities of concrete and steel and dollars, numbers with long strings of zeros. Yet Charles had remained remote from it all, attending design sessions reluctantly, offering advice only when pressed and then in a tone almost of amusement, as if the whole thing were absurd. And perhaps it was. As he watched the camera dive down to fly along one of the main boulevards leading to the centre of the metropolis, Sandy felt a dispiriting sense of failure, suspecting that though they had designed a vast and efficient beehive, they had utterly failed to grasp the possibilities of a city for two million human souls. And this feeling was immediately followed by a flash of anger. If only Charles had contributed a little more, set the team ablaze as only he could, things might have been different.

Fourteen minutes later there was still no sign of Verge, and Clarke was breathing deeply, maintaining his control. He saw Jennifer Mathieson’s red hair at the glass door of the theatre. She was behind the audience, whose faces were fixed on the screen, and Clarke half rose from his seat, trying to make out what she was doing. She seemed to be signalling to him, waving her hand, but he made no move to go to her. Then something behind her must have distracted her; she half turned and the lights outside caught her face. Clarke was startled by its appearance. It was so white, eyes unnaturally wide, lips drawn back from her teeth, as if she’d had some terrible shock.

But the film was suddenly over, the room lights coming on to the sound of polite clapping from the guests, and Clarke rose to his feet. He invited questions, and it was clear that the party had prepared a list. One by one their questions were laboriously translated and then answered by either Clarke himself or one of the specialist team members. Traffic projections, construction methods, environmental concerns, pedestrian networks, densities, surface water management, each topic was worked over. Finally Mr Cheong spoke what sounded like a rehearsed line.

‘I assume your fee proposal is negotiable.’ Then he paused and said something in Mandarin to the interpreter, who translated: ‘But Mr Cheong prefers to discuss this in person with Mr Verge, when he is available.’

Clarke felt humiliated, but gave no sign. He apologised again for his partner’s absence, and the delegation began to shuffle their papers into their briefcases. The mood was not buoyant.

After he had seen them off, he hurried back to the reception area. ‘Where’s Jennifer?’

‘She went back upstairs to Mr Verge’s apartment, Mr Clarke. She wants you to meet her there urgently, and asked would you go alone.’ The receptionist was watching to see how he would react to this odd message, and he forced himself to speak calmly.

‘Very well.’

Clarke maintained his composure until the lift doors slid shut behind him, then he took a deep breath and wiped the sweat from his brow with his handkerchief, aware that his hand was shaking. He vividly recalled the look

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