As the train came to a sudden halt, Nick Mills jerked awake, looking around in shock. Where was the beach? Where were the beautiful tanned bodies? All he could see were the pasty occupants of a dirty carriage. 'Damn,' he thought. 'I'm back.'
That weekend break in Australia had seemed like such a great idea while he and Philippa were lazing on the white sand at Byron Bay. It had topped off a particularly decadent Christmas that included skiing in Colorado and a quick trip to Lapland with the kids. Now the jetlag was kicking in and he wished he'd taken his wife's advice to take an extra day off to recover.
But he really needed to prepare for a crucial meeting with the analysts in two days' time. After three years of turnover rising as steeply as an Aspen black run, business was now as flat as a two-day-old pint.
Mills had a reputation to maintain. Only a few years earlier he had thought he had reached the pinnacle of his career while marketing director of Tottenham Hotspur. The Indian software millionaire who had bought the team in 2012 and poached Mills from Procter & Gamble had made it his mission for Spurs to beat Chelsea in every tournament and become the most aspirational sports brand.
For reasons that Mills had never been able to fathom, but would never question, his boss pumped nearly as much money into the marketing budget as he did into player acquisitions.
Mills had become the toast of the agency community as he happily spent millions on every form of marketing possible (and a few that turned out not to be possible, or even reasonable, decent or honest, and were quietly curtailed). He began to believe his own lunch-circuit reputation, convinced that almost any problem could be solved if enough money was thrown at it.
Then Alex Young, a headhunter, had popped up on his Media Center screen in early 2016 to tell him that Buy It TV was looking for a managing director to steer the company through flotation. Mills had jumped at the chance - the brand was as hot in the City as he was in marketing.
Buy It TV's technology allowed viewers to instantly buy items seen on-screen. Producers struck deals with programme-makers and the brands they sourced products from; viewers pressed a button on their remote and selected their purchase from a menu of the items on-screen at that moment.
In 2017 Mills guided the company through the most over-subscribed public flotation since Innocent Drinks in 2011. He then set up deals to treble the number of programme-makers that would give advance video files to Buy It so agreements could be struck with the makers of featured products.
The deal with the producers of I'm a Celebrity, Get Me and My Kids Out of Orbit! had proved highly successful, with thousands of viewers buying the space suits worn by the celebs' offspring. Mills' latest idea was to sell entire homes featured in TV dramas.
The share price, turnover and Mills' profile had carried on climbing.
Life was good.
His daydreaming was rudely interrupted by a call on his Micro, Microsoft's portable device. The face of Harry Jubilee, the PR man Mills had poached last year from Napster, appeared on the screen. 'Hey Nick, we've got a big problem.'
'And a Happy New Year to you too, Harry.'
'No, really, this is serious. Remember that programmer you sacked last month for failing his health test?'
'Yeah. His obesity and alcohol levels were sky-high. He was costing us a fortune in insurance premiums.'
'Well, he's found a neat way to get his own back. He's hacked into the system and put a hyperlink on a person rather than a thing. The problem is that he did it before anyone here noticed, and ... it's all gone through. Buy It TV has sold a person.'
'What? It must be reversible. We can't sell people. We don't own them in the first place.'
'That's what I thought. But remember when we put in the system that guarantees we will deliver the next working day? Someone in Legal added a clause that automates every transaction. Just over 5000 men who were watching The Girlz Channel's Blondes in Shopping Centres at 5am today can now legally claim to own Chardonnay Goldberg, a 20-year-old model.'
'Harry, did this kind of joke go down well at Napster?'
'I'm not kidding,' Jubilee replied, almost squeaking with panic. 'We've had calls from half the men already, and most of them have filed complaints. One of them has even appointed a lawyer. When are you going to be here? What am I going to tell MediaGuardian? Julie's just passed me a message from The Sun too. And here's one from BBC lunchtime news. Niiiick?'
'My train's just pulling in. Don't call anyone yet - I'll be with you in 20 minutes.' Mills marvelled at the calm in his voice, considering that it was anything but how he was feeling. He could already see Buy It TV's share price starting to fall on the screen of his Micro. The City would already be dumping stock because of Buy It's plummeting customer-service rating, which fed live onto Buy It's website and was monitored by brokers, like those of all FTSE 100 companies.
The bloggers had also started documenting Buy It's demise - Mills noticed one had even found the rogue programmer, who was quoted as saying: 'This is for you, Mills, you b******.' He sank back in his seat and closed his eyes, shuddering at the glee with which the media would take him and his company apart.
After putting out a basic statement to the media ('Buy It TV has experienced some technical glitches and we are, of course, investigating'), Mills noticed that 16 PR agencies had already sent in video pitches offering help. He deleted all but the one that began 'If the worst should happen, we are willing to do your personal PR free on the understanding that we get first crack at the PR for your next employer.'
Jubilee had put together a few minutes of footage of Goldberg's recent TV appearances, which Mills scanned through with increasing irritation.
He couldn't help thinking that he recognised the young man she was draped over in one shot, but he was soon distracted by an email informing him that she had appointed Max Clifford, the ageing but still-feared PR man.
Mills' PA called in from her home office in Yorkshire to run through his diary.
'Adele, I'm going to need to clear a bit of space today. The meeting with IKEA can go for starters.'
'The one about furnishing the sets of that new Daniel Radcliffe chat show? OK. What about the 11.15 with Hat Trick?
'Yeah, I'll do that. I need to negotiate a discount on the fees we pay them for next season's shows. But move the lunch with Toyota about the exclusive car placement deal with the BBC. Now, James Murdoch is down for 3pm. He's cancelled on me four times so I'm definitely keeping that one.'
'Oh, sorry, I forgot to say - his PA rang to rearrange it.'
In the corner of Mills' Media Center, the Cam flickered to life with a shot of his eldest son Noah, standing in front of his school library's KidKam. A shambling line-up of gangly boys surrounded him. 'Having fun, Dad?' asked Noah, backed by a chorus of barely suppressed sniggering.
'Not really, son. Can we make this quick?'
'OK. Look, you know how you're always saying that I should use more initiative?'
Mills did not want to imagine what would come next. 'Yes?'
'I've been taking bids for that Chardonnay bird from guys in my class. I know she's technically already been bought, but surely you could arrange for my top bidder to just meet her?
'This is not what I meant by initiative. And what's this "bird" business? Is that what that pricey school teaches you? Not that it matters - once I've lost my job, pension and reputation in a few hours' time you'll be straight into the local City Academy.'
'Please, Dad? I could write it up for my Dell BizKids project.'
'I'm switching off.'
Mills switched on the camera that monitored his programmers, squeezed into a prefabricated unit in The Maldives, the latest offshore tax haven.
As he panned around, he noticed there were a lot of smiling faces, unlike their usual moody demeanour. Some wag had pinned a picture of the rogue programmer up on the wall - along with a sign saying 'Guru'.
Mills did a quick screen-save and forwarded the image to his programming manager, with a note: 'Anil - I'm having enough trouble sorting this nightmare out without your lot turning that idiot into Ghandi. Please exert a bit of authority. Nick.'
Taking a swig from the De-stress drink from his personal Proctoid, Mills thought back to his time at Procter & Gamble. Compared with this, explaining the need for baby wipes to Chinese mothers was a breeze. He and his manager Jim Silver had struggled for months on that job, but they had both been promoted when they arrived back in Newcastle.
Suddenly, Mills remembered why he recognised the man he had seen with Goldberg, and reached for his phone.
'Nick, this is awful - I'm sending you the latest Piers Morgan blog. The man's really got it in for us - he's saying that we are massively over-valued.'
'Don't worry about that. Just book some time on the Reuters Video Conference for a press announcement, soon as you can.'
'But we've got nothing to say!'
'We will by then. Just get it booked and tell the press.'
As they logged off from the press video conference, Jubilee turned to Mills. 'How did you do that? In fact, how did you get around Clifford to get hold of Goldberg anyway?'
'Her boyfriend is the son of a friend of mine. She virtually bit my hand off when I suggested she present one of the programmes our production unit is developing. She'll be awful but the ratings will be great. Once we got that sorted she was more than happy to invite her buyers to a private party she will host with a few of her friends. I spoke to that customer's lawyer and it sounds like his client is more than happy with that result.'
'Wow. That is so lucky. When you said private party ...'
'I know. We'll probably have to hire her a bit of security.'
'So what about those questions from the City hacks about the reliability of our systems?'
'I'll sort that tomorrow. They have a point. It looks like I'm going to need to sack the Maldives crew and outsource the programming to Microsoft.'
'You're a genius, boss.'
'Looks like I've lived to fight another day,' quipped Mills.
- Three hundred thousand women bought the Assisi Jagger dress worn by Peaches Geldof when she presented the 2017 BAFTAs via Buy It TV - the company's highest-profile sale, it helped boost the share price after flotation.
- Mills' wife Philippa is a part-time sculptor and investment banker. She is currently working 19-hour days on the takeover of Unilever by Tesco, sleeping at the HiltonSleepPod annexed to her office. Under the terms of her contract, her employer pays the rent on her sculpture studio in return for her working 10 19-hour days a year.
- The Proctoid is a drinks dispenser that delivers functional drinks developed by Mills during his time at Procter & Gamble. They were the first to be endorsed by the Department of Wellness as they contain a cholesterol-busting drug. Employees can choose from drinks designed for De-stressing, Creativity and Overtime.
- Buy It TV's ad agency is Daddy, which was spun off from Mother in 2011. The agency has a 2% share in Buy It TV - a practice encouraged by more and more clients. Eighty per cent of Buy It's media budget is spent on broadcast, which covers the old-fashioned classifications of online and TV, as the widespread adoption of the Windows Media Center means every consumer's personal screen offers the internet and TV.
- The Windows Media Center provides everything a PC used to, downloadable video and video phone calls. Google offers the facility to search for every piece of broadcast footage ever screened on TV. Mills' screen, like those of other company managers, also features a graph showing a real-time ranking of service levels.