The names and locations in this article have been changed (because I am still a little scared of the mafia men).
When I was 20 years old, I moved from my sheltered countryside life in the Swedish hinterland to a whole new beginning in the glittering metropolis of London. I was young, inexperienced, and incredibly naïve. Big city life was entirely different from the quiet fields and mooing cows I was used to. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect.
I moved into a flatshare and began settling into my new life, and immediately started looking for work. I had all of £200 in my pocket, and it was fair to say I was desperate. I had spent some summer days in my dad’s office licking envelopes and filing invoices, which I embellished as “five years part-time secretarial experience” on my very first CV. I was quite nifty with admin type stuff, and thought a secretary job would be a good way to ease me into professional life.
Before long, I found a job ad on Gumtree. It was very brief and full of grammar mistakes and misspelt words, but clueless little me didn’t recognise the warning signs – say what you will of growing up in the Swedish countryside, but it certainly doesn’t make you street-smart. Some anonymous London-based company was looking for a PA, and I thought I could definitely hack a desk-based job as a Personal Assistant. But I later discovered that it wasn’t at all the kind of PA I had in mind, and it certainly wasn’t desk-based.
A couple of days after I had sent in my application, I received a phone call at 8pm. It was a man who introduced himself as Mr Robert. In a strong accent he asked me to come to a prestigious hotel in West London an hour later. Eager to please and desperate for a job, I donned the £12 suit trousers I had bought in Primark a few days earlier, and borrowed my friend’s black boots and gloves to make me look like an adult. I felt worldly and adventurous as I rode the tube towards my first job interview.
In the hotel bar I met with Mr Robert, a 30-something, bespectacled guy who looked like he belonged in a Swiss watch advert. He was in fact Swiss, and so was the big boss, who turned up fashionably late wearing an expensive suit and a casual blue baseball cap and introduced himself as Sir Paul.
I must have looked sufficiently small and suggestible, because an hour later I found myself working for these people. I was immediately ordered to never talk about personal matters or offer up any information beyond the weather forecast, and I was given a new name.
“From now on, you are Miss Maria,” Sir Paul said, after pondering for a moment what name would be pleasing to him. I nodded and smiled – I didn’t care what my name was; I was employed!
When we went to settle our bill in the hotel bar which was to become my office of sorts, the bartender, who was clearly familiar with the crew, asked if I was working for Sir Paul now. “Yes,” I beamed, “as of today!” Mister Robert shot me an angry look. “Never admit personal details!” he hissed at me. I smiled nervously and apologised – they were clearly very serious about this whole anonymity strategy.
The predicament was that I was never told what to do, and I wasn’t allowed to ask any questions. So it was tough, to say the least, when one of my first tasks was to interview young girls to come work for Sir Paul in roles as ambiguous as my own. There I was, awkward in my too-big boots, pretending to be a grown-up and feeling very out of place in that upper-class hotel bar, while interviewing girls for jobs I couldn’t begin to understand. Natural questions like “What’s the company’s name?” and “Do you guys have a website?” popped up regularly, to which I shrugged helplessly and stammered something about being new to the company.
Sir Paul made it a habit to always come late, and I’m not talking ten minutes late, I mean two or three hours late – I think it gave him a sense of power. So when some girls (to my great astonishment) came back for a second interview to meet with Sir Paul, I spent many long hours in intense small talk training.
Once, in an interview, I texted Sir Paul. “Sorry to bother you, but I’m interviewing a girl and she is asking if we have a website. What should I tell her?” I waited awkwardly with the girl who looked more incredulous by the minute, until we parted with a tense handshake. I heard nothing from Sir Paul until late that night when I was on my way home, and he called me out of the blue. A jolt of fear ran down my spine as I answered. “I told you,” he roared down the phone at me, “you do not ask questions!” Abashed, I mumbled a hapless apology and swore it would never happen again.
Then there were the VIP events. I followed Sir Paul and his five bodyguards (who all looked like Russian killing robots in black trench coats) to late night VIP fashion shows in the hidden parts of West London. We were under strict orders to never attract attention or get caught in photographs, so whenever we went to these events it was in a cautious and meticulously planned manner.
First, Mr Robert and I would go in and get a table, and order five bottles of champagne. Ten minutes later, two bodyguards would arrive and assume their positions in dark corners. Then two more bodyguards, and finally Sir Paul and his right-hand man would enter. The minute Sir Paul took his seat, he would inexplicably be surrounded by young, beautiful women who would drape themselves over him and shout, “Paaaaauul, we’ve missed you!” I nervously poured champagne for them and wondered what the hell I was doing there.
I remember trying to guess what Sir Paul wanted from me. I would assume different roles like quiet obedient assistant, clever conversationalist, and smart admin professional, but to no avail – I just couldn’t figure out what he wanted or for what, exactly, they were paying me.
Sir Paul also had some young Russian girls in his convoy, recent immigrants whom he had taken under his wing, for reasons about which I could only speculate. I was ordered to befriend them and spy on them, and under Sir Paul’s command I brought them to local internet cafes and observed what they did and said so that I could report back to Sir Paul. I thought the whole thing was ridiculous and couldn’t take Sir Paul seriously, but what choice did I have?
So I hung out with these girls and later debriefed Sir Paul with juicy details like, “She checked her Hotmail for half an hour. Then she went to the toilet for about five minutes. Then she came back out and read online news for twenty minutes before we left.” Meanwhile, Sir Paul would sit stroking an imaginary beard and occasionally interject with “Interesting… Uh-huh… Very good…” (Only afterwards did I realise the tickling possibility of really messing with his head. What if I had made something up like, “Suddenly she disappeared for fifteen minutes and came back with a moustachioed man and a black suitcase…!” But it’s probably best not to mess with an actual mafia boss.)
One of these poor girls bonded with me over having recently become a Londoner (a tidbit of personal information I had let slip in an unguarded moment), and in one of the many cab rides down Holland Park Avenue she handed me an envelope containing a Christmas card. “Merry Christmas Miss Maria! It is wonderful to make your acquaintance and I hope we will be friends in the future!” I hid my guilt behind a grateful smile and hug, and thought to myself, If only she knew…
This was my new reality, and I was in a constant state of bafflement, but somehow in my naïve little mind I thought that this was what city life was like. Every week I would receive an envelope with four crisp £50 notes, and that was enough to cover rent and keep me quiet. My poor parents kept begging me to quit and come back home. In hindsight, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for them to know that their daughter was getting involved with dirty mafia business in Europe’s capital, while they had absolutely no control over it.
My usual hours were around 6pm to 2am, so I missed out on a lot of social engagements. One night my flatmates and all their friends were going out for a pub meal, and I really didn’t feel like going to work and spend another tense night flattering Sir Paul or spying on girls who thought I was their friend. After much deliberation I called Mr Robert and said I wasn’t feeling well. I thought I had been let off the hook and could finally enjoy a spontaneous night out with my friends, but the entire time I kept looking over my shoulder and nervously eyeing suspicious-looking vehicles parked along the street. Everywhere I went, I felt their eyes on me. Working for the mafia will get you paranoid.
I never did find out what they were actually doing or how they could afford all those cars and expensive, champagne-fuelled nights. I imagine drugs were involved somehow, large amounts of them, but who knows? All I know is that I could never take them seriously, these big boys with their fat wallets, and they must have sensed that. I guess I became too inquisitive and non-compliant, because one day when Mr Robert called me as usual around 5pm, he asked me to bring my work phone, and I knew it was over.
I was sad to lose my first job, but at the same time very relieved to be released from that madhouse. No more awkward interviews, no more strange late-night VIP events, no more having to pretend to be Miss Maria and talk about the weather. I was scared of struggling with rent, but at least I was no longer Sir Paul’s prisoner.
Two weeks later I found another job – a legitimate secretary job in a newly-started law firm. In the whole of London, their office was just opposite the hotel where the mafia boys were based, and my interview took place in that same hotel bar. The law firm told me the reason my CV had stood out was because I was familiar with the area. So it was thanks to Sir Paul and his entourage that I found my first proper job in London.
For months, as I walked to and from work, I would nervously look around and worry about running into one of them. I never did, and eventually I forgot about it all. Then one sunny day, a red convertible zoomed down the avenue with two familiar faces in the front seats – Sir Paul and Mr Robert, out for an afternoon ride. They had evidently swapped their black vans for showy sports cars, I noted. I watched them drive off, and stood for a few minutes and looked after them. So many questions were left unanswered (unasked, even). Who were they? Where were they from? What were they doing? What did they want? All I know is that once upon a time I was their Personal Assistant, and god knows what that meant.