Felicity Appleby has a job she hates in the London investment bank Ruff, Tumble and Bounderby. The only plus side is the bank's beautiful 19th century building and its location in the City of London, near St Paul's Cathedral.
However, after bumping her head on a cupboard door, Felicity finds that the building is home to a whole other group of people, the Impressions, who badly need her help. Can she help them survive the 21st century?
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It was Monday morning and time for work. Felicity Appleby looked in the mirror at the office-suitable clothes she’d bought herself in Oxford Street on Saturday. The grey jacket felt too small and the pockets weren’t large enough for anything useful like a packet of tissues or a phone. The matching skirt was too tight, and the high-heeled shoes pinched her toes.
How could this be happening, she wondered?
Felicity had left university with an excellent degree in English Literature and found that nobody in London was interested in what she knew about plot development in Charles Dickens or the economic realities behind Jane Austen marriages. After several weeks being rejected for any positions that sounded interesting, she was forced to take a job at Ruff, Tumble & Bounderby Associates, an investment bank that had been founded in the 19th century and stayed in the same building near St Paul’s Cathedral ever since.
Although she liked the offices and the location, she was not so impressed with the job. She was called a ‘Director’s Assistant’, but the impressive title really meant ‘secretary’. Pay and status were very unimpressive. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she quickly learnt that the clothes she favoured - floral dresses combined with Dr Martens and a black leather jacket plastered with generous pockets - were not seen as suitable office wear.
“Now, I don’t mean to be rude,” said Tricia, the office manager, fully intending to be extremely rude. “But our directors expect a certain level of style and elegance from us in the office. I mean, they’re all dressed up in suits, aren’t they? We can’t go around looking like hobos!”
Felicity would like to have walked out of the job at that point, but she had a large student loan to pay back and no alternative sources of finance. So, she had swallowed her pride, studied the others and put together an office wardrobe.
She turned from her mirror with a sigh, put on a respectable raincoat, gave her leather jacket a sad little pat and went down to catch the first of two buses that would take her all the way from north London down to the bank.
It was a long ride and quite pleasant when sunny. She liked sitting upstairs, seeing how the streets changed as the bus drew closer to St Paul’s. She liked imagining the lives of the other passengers or the people on the pavement they passed. But today it was rainy, windy and cold, the other passengers smelt damp and the pavements were mostly empty. Things didn’t improve when she got to work. Tricia called her and the other two director’s assistants into her office.
“Mr Ripov told me something dreadful this morning, girls,” She looked at them sorrowfully. “Can you imagine what he found when he sat down in his business-class seat for the flight back from Moscow to London yesterday afternoon?”
There was a silence as everybody tried to imagine.
“A seat-belt?” guessed Felicity finally. Somebody giggled but stopped as Tricia gave them an icy stare.
“No, Felicity, and I’ll thank you all to take this seriously. He found that one of you had booked him a seat next to the toilet. The toilet! Now, I …”
After a thirty-minute lecture on the importance of making sure directors were booked seats where they wouldn’t be offended by airplane plumbing, they were allowed to get on with their work.
Felicity had just finished editing a document about the sale and development of some building to Russian investors, when one of the directors, Mr Twobit, put his head out the door of his office.
“Could you pop out and get me a pastry?” he asked. “The usual, please, and make me a coffee when you get back. Here’s a tenner, get yourself something too.”
The rain had stopped, and a feeble winter sun made the task quite a pleasant one. She liked the streets around St Paul’s. They were very old with names like ‘Blackfriars Lane’ ‘Wardrobe Hill’ or ‘Puddle Dock’ and walking down them she could imagine she was a character in one of the Victorian novels she loved.
‘Felicity Appleby hurried along Watling Street, her hand firmly pressing her new bonnet to her head to stop the wind from removing it. The fresh air raised her spirits and as she entered Madame Hortense’s Patisserie in Garlick Hill it was with a sparkle in her eye and a smile upon her lips that was not unnoticed by the handsome gentleman with the side-whiskers and a black frock coat holding the door…’
How peculiar! There really was a man in an old-fashioned black coat holding the door for her as she went into the pastry shop. He raised his hat (a top hat!) to her before crossing the street.
“Did you see that man in the funny clothes?” she said as she paid for the pastries. “Is he an actor or something?”
“Man? Didn’t notice,” said the man behind the counter. “£8.75, please.”
Back in the office, she delivered pastry and coffee to Mr Twobit and was in the kitchen with one of the other girls emptying the dishwasher when Tricia walked in.
“Now, that’s enough chatting. You get back to work when you’ve finished in here. And make sure you shut all these top cupboard doors properly. I hit my head on one of them the other day. Wouldn’t want that to happen to any of our directors, would we?”
It was a long day, Felicity had a lot to do and nearly everybody had left the building before she was finished. She put some things away in the kitchen and was just bending down to close the dishwasher when…
“Miss Appleby, could you spare a moment? We need your help to…” said a voice.
Felicity jumped upwards with a little scream of surprise, banged her head on an open cupboard door above her and landed with a crash on the floor.
At first, she only saw flashing lights, which gradually turned into spinning circles that slowly settled down into a group of blurry faces looking down at her.
“Miss Appleby are you all right?” said a voice. Somebody pulled her upright and moved her towards a chair. There was the sound of running water and a cold damp cloth was pressed to the top of her head.
“Miss Appleby, can you hear me?”
Felicity focused her eyes with difficulty on the face the voice came from and recognised the man she’d seen in the pastry shop that morning. On one side of him stood a rather dirty boy of about thirteen with a cloth cap and on the other a woman in a long dress made of black silk.
“Ah, Miss Appleby,” he said. “So sorry for the little accident with the cupboard. Now, I don’t want to hurry you, but do you think you could come along to the boardroom? They’re expecting you.”
“But …but who are you? What are you doing in the building? You don’t belong here!”
“My name, Miss Appleby, is Frederick Tumble. But I promise you, I definitely belong to this building. If you come along to the boardroom, we can explain everything. Mrs Twizleton, you take Miss Appleby’s right arm … I’ll take her left … Smudge, you open the doors. Off we go!”
And with that, Felicity found herself being walked down the corridor towards the boardroom. As they entered, a bizarre sight met her eyes. Sitting around the table was an extraordinary mixture of people in an extraordinary mixture of clothes. It was as if they were guests at a fancy-dress party, but everybody had a different idea of what the theme should be. There was a large man dressed as a Nigerian prince, a couple of people who looked like bank-clerks from a story by Charles Dickens, a policeman with his blue helmet beside him on the table, two nurses from the Second World War, an American general smoking a cigar and a lady dressed in a Salvation Army uniform. At the head of the table and with a glass of what looked like port in his hand sat an elderly gentleman wearing a wig. As Felicity was put into the chair next to him, he stood up and tapped his glass with a spoon.
The room fell silent.
“Miss Appleby,” he said. “My name is Sir Lancelot Tumble, founder of Ruff, Tumble and Bounderby. We are delighted to welcome you.”
Felicity stared at him with round eyes. “Am I …am I dead?” she asked finally. The group burst out laughing
“Are … are you ghosts?” They laughed even louder this time.
“Sorry Uncle Lancelot,” said Frederick. “Miss Appleby bumped her head and we didn’t have a chance to explain.”
“I see. Well, Miss Appleby. We are what you could call Impressions.”
“Everybody here has at some time or other had something important to do with this building. Smudge was a very popular post boy. Mrs Twizleton …” the lady in the black dress nodded at her. “… was one of London’s finest detectives in the 1870s. Her office was on the ground floor.”
“And all of us,” continued Frederick. “Made an impression on this building. You see, there are certain special buildings, like this one, that are similar to living organisms, they take in impressions of particular people. The same as when you press a key into wax, you get the shape – the impression - of the key left behind in the wax.”
“This means we remain here, even if our physical selves have left the building and our souls have joined the heavenly choir up above,” added Sir Lancelot piously. “But mostly you ‘living’ people hardly notice us.”
“Why can I see you properly? And what did your nephew mean when he said you needed my help?”
“No idea why you can see us, it’s very rare these days. In fact, I think since about 1980 you’re the first one. I blame television, you know, and now with this computer nonsense everybody is …”
“I beg your pardon. Your second question. Help. Why we need it. You may remember this morning you were rewriting a document for Mr Gus Twobit because his English is so execrable.”
“Well, did you notice what the document was about?”
“Something to do with the sale of a property and its redevelopment.”
“Exactly. Well, the property in question is this one. The directors plan to sell this building to some investors who will probably build some architectural monstrosity on this site. Next week they have invited the possible purchasers over for a meeting to conclude the deal. But that’s not the worst of it.” He leant forward, grasped her hands with his and looked into her eyes. “Miss Appleby, unless you can help us stop this building being torn down and replaced, we cease to exist!”
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