Itís not often we feel the need to turn down a commission. I take a pride in the research we do and I get involved in almost every operation one way or another. I canít remember the last one we turned down. Iím Rick, by the way. I look after the Research Division for Clegg Enterprises. We trade women, but I guess you knew that already.
I was with Larry, our marketing man, in a restaurant at the top of a hotel overlooking Hyde Park. Heíd asked me to go along with him for a meeting with a client. "Itís a woman, Daphne Challis," he said. I must have looked interested. Actually, I just recognised the name. Larry had us do a report on her a while back. "Donít get our hopes up," he said. "If there was her and a horse in the bar, youíd be looking at the horse!
"That rough?" I said.
It was a pleasant day in mid march. Our table overlooked the hotel roof garden and the park beyond, where the plane trees were just starting to push out leaves in anticipation of summer.
I saw what Larry meant about Daphne when she joined us. She sort of waddled in, wearing a skirt that stretched across her belly, a sweater that looked two sizes two small and pair of shoes that looked as if they cost more than some cars.
The restaurant was a better venue than most of the places I lunch in.† Green Stuff was a new place, built to cash in on enthusiasms for better food and healthier eating. Both the prices and portions were calculated to slim you down!
"Larry," Daphne said, when he broke the news that we didnít want the job, "whatís so difficult about it?"
Daphne persisted. "I need a personal trainer. Someone who can help me with getting fit. You must have someone like that on the database."
I pushed the leaves around my plate. What had been billed as "Country Life" on the menu had turned out to be a mixed green salad. I was missing some carbohydrates, the one thing Iíd expected from lunch with Daphne, after what Larry had said, was that it would involve chips. Daphne reached over and poured some more carrot juice into my glass. Larry looked impressed. I guessed it was the first time he had ever seen her help someone else to some food.
"I can check but Iím just not sure itís a smart idea," Larry said. "Look -- its going to be a challenge to find someone that will be right but of course we can do that with a bit of effort. Rick here can find something, I Ďm sure." I nodded. "The problem will be prep."
"Hungfg?" she said through a mouthful of salad. I took it to be a request for explanation. You pick up useful life-skills working a lot with gagged women.
"First itís going to be a really difficult pick up. Sheíll be fit -- thatís a sort of requirement -- works a lot with a lot of people, so not often on her own. Then thereís getting her controlled -- athletes are really good with pain and stress so weíll need to come up with a whole new approach. And, well, itís like any creative type skill. If you discipline them enough to be a slave you lose the abilities you were after. If you donít discipline them well enough theyíre over the wall at the first opportunity. Plus, with a trainer, they will have to take you out to Gyms, Tracks, Parks. Itís not like you could keep them in a cage. They will be over the wall already! Trust me, Iíve just been through something like this with a writer and even with all Freddieís resources first she was difficult to hang on to and second she was difficult to get working properly. Then your project is going to take what -- twelve months, tops? At the end of that youíll want to sell on and Iím telling you there has been zero requirement for anything like this in the past so resale value is going to be nothing like what youíll spend in Prep costs, even. Itís a money pit project and much though Iíd like to take your cash, I need to warn you."
She dabbed at her mouth with her napkin. It left a green stain on the cloth but I guess thatís a hazard if you serve this sort of food. "Larry, Iím going to have one. You know what Iím like when I make up my mind." She waved to the waiter and he came across. She pointed to her plate and said, "Again." He wandered away. I didnít think she quite got the hang of healthy eating.
"Let me make a radical suggestion." said Larry. Daphne looked at Larry suspiciously. "Hire one."
"What, hire a slave? How does that help?"
"No, not a slave. Hire a personal trainer. Thatís what normal people do. You give them money and they work for you. Sorted -- and itís cheaper, believe me."
"Yes, look in Yellow Pages. Put Ďpersonal fitness trainersí into Google. You donít need our database; you just need a cheque book. Itís how they make their living. You must be hiring people all the time in business."
"Hire one? But this is a bit...† personal."
"Hire one: Getting fit is going to bit a bit public anyway, Daphne."
Her second plate of food arrived. She picked at it with a fork without saying anything. She seemed to be thinking about what Larry had suggested.
"You hire one. Youíre the experts at selecting people. Find me a trainer."
"Daphne, Iíd like to help but, well, Cleggís operation isnít an employment agency."
"Come on Larry, do me a favour. Iíve put business your way. Iíll pay a commission -- 25% on top of her rates whatever they are. Rick," she looked at me, "from what I hear you could do this without to much effort. Clegg wonít mind -- put this down to account management -- keeping the customer satisfied."
ĎYeah,í I thought to myself, Ďone step ahead of the shoeshine, two steps away from the county line.í What Larry said was, "OK, Daphne, weíll think about it."
When I sat down with Larry after sheíd gone I must have sounded unimpressed. "You want us to research a girl but youíre not going to pick her up?"
Larry nodded. "So overheads on collection down, operational risks down but do we make any money?"
"You heard her. Maybe some. Sort of. Not much. Rick give me a hand, can you? Look at it like this. The worst that can happen is youíll have to spend some time looking at really fit women."
"Well," he said with heavy irony, "in that case, I suppose I could do a bit of work for you."
I got back to him three days later with a portfolio of half a dozen possibles. "Well that wasnít the worst assignment Iíve had," I smirked. "I wouldnít mind lying on a beach while this lot came and kicked sand in my face."
"Thank you Arnold Schwarzenegger," Larry said taking the portfolio and thumbing through it. "They all look OK to me but what do I know about it?"
"Ah, thereís a science to this you know. Weíve been very selective. One of the girls in research had done a bit of training a while back. She used to do a bit of amateur running - middle distance stuff. Sheís worked with people like this. These are all people that will work with beginners -- some of the top trainers wonít. Weíve gone for folk that use fairly conventional training methods and weíve gone for those that are easy on the eye too. Your client seems to like that."
"You have a deep understanding of customer needs, Rick, as always." Larry had said.††††
It took us a while but, finally, we thought weíd identified one.
My research team are pretty good when it comes to finding the right girl. When I saw the file I was sorry we werenít actually going to pick her up. But then, as Larry had said, this one was legit.
She looked fit, which wasnít surprising. Some of these athletes can look a bit muscle bound canít they? Or out of proportion. Anyway, this one looked normal. In fact if Iíd been looking for fit blonde for our normal channels, sheíd have been on the list.
The research report had a lot of detail on her personal background -- my team do a good job on that stuff. Katya Izotova was our recommendation.
Katya was born and brought up in Moscow. She was very much a product of what remained of the Russian State Athletics Training Programme - it still worked in some of the schools in spite of the disappearance of state funding. Sheíd been in England about four years. She had come here, following her lover, Nicky after theyíd met in Moscow.
He was the son of a show biz celebrity of the 1970ís, a promising athlete but not quite good enough for the national teams. Armed with a degree is Sports Science heíd gone to study training methods at the Moscow State Institute of Physical Education. There he met Katya, who was also a student at the Institute.
The two of them came back to the UK as an item. Nicky had contacts in the entertainment and film world through his father. He set up in business getting actors fit for action movies. That led to personal training commissions. Actor clients attracted other celebrity clients. The business grew. Katya had turned out to be a real asset for his business, He did the promotion work and ran the business; she did most of the training. He provided the professional credibility and the contacts, she provided the glamour.
They were doing very nicely thank you; premium rates for their training business, more consultancy and adviser roles lined up. There had even been suggestions from some quarters of a cushy consultancy roll with the Olympic Games 2012 planning team.
Then the roof fell in.
The first Katya had known about it was when a journalist turned up at their house asking if sheíd like to comment on rumours that the US FDA were seeking to extradite Nicky on charges of supplying anabolic steroids to US athletes. Word was that Nicky had been operating a sideline to help his actor clients to beef up, heíd extended that into on-line merchandising over the Internet and some US athletes had thought that buying off-shore would avoid the US authorities. Trouble was Nicky had overlooked the UK--US Extradition Treaty that meant he could be shipped off for US† trial on the basis of US Government allegations.†
With the press attention, the clients started to run much faster than they ever had in training, Nicky felt the urge to join friends in Argentina and Katya was left with her share in the business, financial overheads, no clients, few friends and lots of tabloid attention. The paparazzi were three deep every time Katya even tried to go to the shops.
The press attention wore off when Katya developed the best strategy for dealing with them; donít say anything at all. In time they got bored but she was pretty hard pressed. She still had the share in the gym that they used - theyíd put it in her name for tax purposes but that just meant financial commitments with no income. She had no clients. They had all run a mile and quicker than any of them had ever achieved in training.
Thatís when I met up with her.
She was on a run. I was on a bicycle. Weíd thought it would be less likely to spook her than puling up alongside her in a car. I was finding it difficult keeping up with her. "Ms Izotova," I called as I went to overtake her. It wasnít very easy. We were on an uphill slope. At least thatís my excuse.
She didnít break her stride. "Iím not talking to the press," she said, continuing to stare straight ahead as she pushed her feet forward one after another in a relentless rhythm that had me struggling not to fall behind.
"Iím not the press," I puffed. "But I do have a business proposition for you. Iím looking for a trainer." I missed a gear change on the bike, practically fell off the pedals and slipped behind her.
She slowed her pace and then stopped beside the road. She stood, one hand on her hip, the other pushing a strand of blonde hair back from her face as she waited for me to catch up again. As I stopped beside her she said," You look like you need one!"
I caught my breath. "Itís not for me," she looked like she didnít believe me. "Itís a friend of mine."
Katya looked thoughtful for a moment then shook her head. "Iím committed at the moment. Many clients. Too much work."
"Thatís not what Iíd heard," I said, smiling. "You wouldnít be doing road work on your own if you had clients to run with. Iíve heard that, since the boyfriend took his trip to South America, the business isnít doing too well. That most of the clients came because of him and left when he did and those that didnít werenít too keen on training while trying to run with you through a crowd of paparazzi."
"The photographers have gone now."
"But the clients havenít come back. Have they? Why donít you see my friend? Talk. Maybe youíll hit it off. Besides you need something to do, you canít just go on pounding the streets until the money runs out or the Home Office remembers that you came in on the back of boyfriend persuading UK Athletics to sponsor your immigration visa."
Katya looked uncomfortable. I could tell Iíd scored a point. "Maybe," she said quietly, "I could meet. No promises though."
I gave her a card from Green Stuff. "Can you do lunch?" I said. "Tomorrow?"
Katya nodded. I hadnít thought that she would be busy.
Daphne turned up at Green Stuff looking pretty much as she had when we had first met there. Katya was already† there when she arrived. She did a good job of concealing a "you cannot be serious" look as she saw Daphne at the entrance. I introduced them. Iíd told Daphne that she needed to be nice, that Katya needed persuading. It wasnít her default style but she managed it.
"So," Katya looked at her prospective trainee, "you want to be fit? To feel better?"
Daphne, unused to being addressed so bluntly, nodded.
"Is not enough. Anyone can want things. Getting them is harder. You need a goal. Do you have a goal? Something concrete, something measurable?"
"Iíve thought about that." Daphne appeared to be warming to the Russian girl. "I like goals and targets. I use them in my business. SMART -- specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timed - without them you get nowhere. I have a goal. To run a marathon. The London Marathon. Next year."
It was my turn to conceal a look of disbelief but something about Daphneís tone obviously encouraged Katya. "Hmm," she grunted. "Itís a good goal. SMART as you say. Specific certainly. Achievable? I donít know. I could be unkind Ms Challis but - looking at you now - letís just say itís ambitious."
"You are candid, Miss Izotova. We can agree on that." The two women smiled. "But let me be candid too. From what I hear from my friend here, you need a demonstration of your own abilities if you are to restart your business career. This could be what you need. Besides, I will be able to cover your fees to allow you to focus exclusively on my challenge. And I am very committed when I decide on something I want."
Daphneís determined tone was something that was new to me. For the first time I got some sort of sight of how she had made a success of her business ventures. Maybe she could do this after all.
Katya frowned again. "So," she said. "I train you. This is not easy for you. There will be changes. Food. You need to change what you eat and how much you eat to change how you feel. Exercise. Rest. Work. Cigarettes! All these need changes." Katya folded her hands on the table looking straight at Daphne. "But there is more. Something which people do not consider often enough, perhaps. The psychological aspect." Katya tapped at the side of her forehead with her finger. "The mind. Marathon running is the most demanding of athletic events, even for professionals. There can be unexpected psychological burdens and changes, particularly if they have far to go."
"I expected your comments about the physical preparations. The others? Well, I can see they make sense.† I am sure I am mentally resilient enough to deal with the stresses of training," said Daphne, returning the Russianís look with determination. "I am quite prepared to do whatever we need to do in order to make this happen. You will need to see my house. I have a room we can use as a gym but you will want changes I am sure."
"Certainly," Katya was content to let Daphne continue.
"You will need to make arrangements regarding your current clients. My friend here," Daphne gestured towards me, "can help if there any difficulties." I wasnít sure what that meant but since I was pretty sure that Katyaís diary was virtually empty, I didnít think it would be a problem. I nodded. Katya shrugged.
"So," Katya said. "We start soon. Tomorrow is Thursday. Monday I come to your house and see what we must do to start."
Daphne got to her feet. "Thatís fine, Miss Izotova," she said.
"Please," said Katya, we will be working together. I prefer Katya."
"Of course, Katya. And please call me Daphne."
"OK, Daphne," Katya said. "On Monday then."
The two of them got up and shook hands and headed out of the restaurant. I realised that they had left me with the bill. It took me ages to get the money back from Larry.