“And the beat goes on” is the current and favoured expression of the employee I think of as “the Thesp”. I’m not sure if this is supposed to offer me some kind of comfort in light of the stagnation in our business or whether it is just a general reflection. It is, however, one of those rather meaningless utterings that in less busy times, such as these, cause me to pause and reflect on their actual meaning.

In the same vein, my client “the Señora” called this week to tell me she has an American friend who wishes to buy a flat for her daughters. The friend is married to a “charming” Egyptian, lives between Cairo, Kentucky and Buenos Aires and has decided that her girls will attend university in London. Apparently she already has people looking on her behalf but if I could find a fabulous deal …

I explained that that’s not how I really work but, without missing a beat the Señora replied: “But caro mio, life is life.” She went on to repeat this saying three times in the course of as many minutes. I’m sure this has a perfectly comprehensible translation in Italian or Spanish but in English it doesn’t make any sense.

“Yes,” I felt like responding, “life is life and air is air and water is water and I am what I am and a thousand other platitudes.” Instead I e-mailed her friend and offered my services on the condition that I would work only under an exclusive contract. Even in times of recession, standards must be maintained. I’ve learnt that as a high-end service you are not valued if you come too cheaply or too easily. I’m sure there’s a platitude of some sort with which to express that belief.

And the beat has gone on. The developers who instructed me last week, claiming now is the time to buy, have been viewing. This week they seem to have revised that view; now is the time to buy at the right price, which sits somewhere between a 20 per cent and 40 per cent discount on “realistically” valued properties. Of course the owners of the “realistically” priced properties I’ve shown them will accept no more than a 5-10 per cent discount. We’ve got a long way to plummet before we reach the sort of prices the developers are talking of but, they assure me, some people will get desperate.

“The Mattress” is driving an equally hard bargain on the rental flat I’ve found her in Chelsea. She concluded it was the most appropriate area of London for her, with the highest quotient of eligible single men. Not only does she want a fixed rent price for the next two years, she wants a one-way option to break the lease after six months. She also wants a rent reduction of 20 per cent on the asking price. I’ve never seen such ruthless brokering and yet she holds the trump card. She’s quite happy to walk away and find something else.

The impact of the business’s lethargic turnover is finally beginning to dawn on Natasha. In the past she has been quite shameless about taking personal calls in the office, sharing not only with the caller but the entire office the minutiae of the previous evening’s excitements. Now when her Take That ringtone summons her, she either suggests she return the call later in the day or takes herself and her mobile outside. I thought at first she had developed a new sensitivity to her office environment but this week I discovered the truth. Returning from a viewing a little earlier than anticipated, I found Natasha lurking outside the office unaware of my presence. I was about to say hello when I realised she was on the phone and then it became inevitable that I eavesdrop. It wasn’t intentional but Nathasha’s voice has a braying defiance that demands to be heard.

I understood from the gist of the conversation she was talking to her aunt Jemima, a successful interior decorator. “But Aunt Mima,” I heard her implore, “surely you can get rid of that silly girl who helps you. You’re always complaining about her.” It seemed that whether Jemima was planning on getting rid of the silly girl or not she had no intention of hiring her niece. It dawned on me that Natasha’s office etiquette had nothing to do with a new-found consideration for her co-workers. No, she was job hunting. This also explained her current interest in the accounts and her repeatedly questioning me about viewings on the big house. Now I’m filled with mixed emotions: Natasha is a hopeless employee in almost every way but I would miss her unequivocal self-belief that can, at times, be inspiring.

Some details have been changed.
secretagent@ft.com

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