“It’s going to be a rout!” said Giles.
“A massacre!” agreed Tim. “We will reclaim the Iron Throne, take what is our due, destroy our enemies!”
“We’ll lay waste to their lands. Take possession of their gold. Rape their women.”
“Steady on,” said Hannah, looking up from her laptop. “Less of the rapeyness, if you don’t mind.”
“Sorry.” Giles paused, then resumed the war dance he’d been performing around the water cooler. “Rape their men, then! Steal their horses!”
“You don’t have to rape anyone,” Hannah said. “It’s just a ping pong tournament, for God’s sake.”
“What do you mean, ‘just’?” said Tim. “It’s deadly serious. Our honour is at stake.”
“Will, please tell these boys they need to get out more,” Hannah said.
“Ha! You’ll get nowhere with the boss,” Tim said. “His thirst for blood is legendary. One look at the blue baize and he goes berserk. Last time he played Davina Jones he was like Gandalf facing down the Balrog.”
“She still won, mind,” Giles said. “But not tonight! Tonight we will have revenge. Right, Will?”
Will cleared his throat. He felt awful, letting his team down like this. The weekly Tech City ping pong tournament was a huge deal. Start-ups from all over London sent their best players, their skills honed by years of bitter rivalry. It was even rumoured that the recent annexation by a rival firm of Ivan Chan, one of Ignite’s lead developers, wasn’t so much a testimony to his stratospheric IQ and phenomenal coding skills, but because he had the best backhand in the business.
“I’m really sorry, dudes,” Will said. “I’m not going to be able to make it tonight. I’ve got other plans.”
“What? What could be more important than wiff waff?” said Tim.
“And last week you weren’t here for Cake Tuesday,” Giles said mournfully. “You missed my Victoria sponge. It’s my nan’s recipe and it’s gnarly. I gave myself the worst wanker’s cramp creaming the butter but it was worth it, wasn’t it, Hannah?”
“Total mouthgasm,” Hannah said. “So what’s up, Will? Tell us. What out-trumps cake?”
“Ping pong, LDO,” Tim said. “Unless you’ve got a meeting with Steve Wozniak, there is no excuse for bailing out on tonight. None.”
“Unless he’s got a hot date,” Hannah said. “Is that what it is, Will? Go on, share it with the group.”
Will allowed himself to imagine, just for a second, what it would be like to be the sort of CEO who didn’t have to put up with this kind of shit. A manager who struck terror into the hearts of his subordinates, and said things like ‘Step into my office’, ‘Your P45 is waiting’, and ‘Stop arsing around and do some work’. But he wasn’t. He’d found himself, almost by accident, managing a team of forty-five of the brightest minds in software engineering. Between them, they had dozens of PhDs and thousands of IQ points. They were in the business because they loved it – most of them had been coding since before they had a 1 in front of their ages, and he sometimes thought they hadn’t grown up much since then.
But, with competition for talent (not to mention mad skills at the ping pong table) so fierce among the hundreds of start-ups that populated the Silicon Roundabout, keeping staff sweet was essential. Hence the cake, the company’s dizzyingly high monthly coffee bill, and the relaxed approach to management.
“Yeah, okay, if you must know,” he said. “I do have a date.”
“Oooh!” all three of them chorussed.
“Where did you meet her?” Hannah asked.
“Is she banging?” Tim said.
“Never mind that, have you banged her?” said Giles.
God, this was beyond cringy. Will really didn’t want to discuss his foray into online dating with his colleagues – especially the bit about the made-up profile and pretending to be a low-paid computer science teacher. It was ridiculous, he knew, and it wasn’t like any of them had sex lives to boast about, but he felt unreasonably ashamed of the whole business.
He looked at his watch. “It’s six thirty,” he said. “You guys need to get your skates on if you’re not going to miss the draw.”
“Fuck! No time to waste,” Giles said. “Coming, Hannah?”
“Yeah, all right,” said Hannah.
“Just gotta take a smellfie.” Tim sniffed his armpit. “Yeah, I’m good. Tonight is the night I kick Davina Jones’s arse, and then I’m going to ask her out.”
“Sayonara, Will,” said Giles.
“So long,” Hannah said.
“And thanks for all the fish,” said Tim, and they trooped off, joining the stream of others hurrying for the door.
Normally there were people at their desks until close to midnight, and through until the morning if they were working on a project with collaborators in Seoul or San Francisco, but on Wednesdays all bets were off. Rule one of Ping Pong Fight Club was you didn’t miss Ping Pong Fight Club.