No one knows quite how long Ernest has been working for the City accountancy firm of Tender & Mainprice; the precise details are lost in his personal file. Even the senior partner, a fiftysomething veteran who joined the company in 1981, cannot recall a time when Ernest's worn and slightly querulous figure was not seen stalking the Lothbury corridors or brooding in his basement lair: as fixtures go, he is very nearly the equivalent of Sir Job Tender, who founded the concern in the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and whose portrait can be seen hanging pinkly in the vestibule.
Not that Ernest – his surname, too, has vanished into the mists of time – has always fulfilled the same professional function, for his employment here in London EC2 has been an object lesson in upward mobility. On the other hand, the considerable fame he has acquired over the years at Tender & Mainprice has nothing to do with the efficiency brought to the roles of postal messenger, head stationery clerk and, most recently, manager: office supplies. Rather, it derives from the bureaucratic zeal that always accompanies the robust discharge of his duties.
To come across Ernest dealing with a junior manager in need of half-a-dozen box files for his audit team is like watching a hawk bringing down a pigeon. There will naturally be forms to submit. Should they, by some miracle, have been adequately filled in, it is probable that Ernest will reckon the number of signatures to be insufficient or otherwise defective. A chit from the firm's senior tax partner demanding a replacement chair was once sent back on the grounds that the initials appended to the request "could have been anyone's".
Many an employee has come unstuck by assuming that this obstreperousness is essentially a comic turn. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Any suggestion that by his intransigence Ernest is simply preventing people from getting on with their jobs or glorying in the petty responsibilities which his duties allow him is met with a stern reminder that this is the firm's property we're dealing with and if anyone went off with it without authorisation, where should we be?
Unsurprisingly, attitudes to Ernest divide up on age grounds: junior staff are terrified of him; seniors rather admire his lack of deference. Everyone agrees that he would have made a wonderful civil servant.