Tales from the back of the eyelids


The secret of my success is that I'm prepared to do anything that needs to be done. Long before I got to my position I used to sell our earthenware casserole dishes from door to door. I rode around town on my bike with five dishes strapped to the rear rack with bungee rope. Even now I'm not too proud to make the tea, pop out to the shops or clean the toilets for the others if necessary. Everyone, including me, has to muck in to make the business run well. I don't think of my colleagues as employees: I think of them as friends. That can only be good for business. It means I have to listen when they tell the truth.

Last Saturday we had a conference in South West London with our affiliates. Most people would rather stay at home at the weekend. That's not me: I saw an opportunity to present ourselves. Visibility is all important if we want to influence others. One day they'll need us and that's when we'll move the organisation in the direction we want it to go.

Neil, my deputy, was reluctant at first. He said his wife was ill and the nanny didn't come at the weekends which meant he was needed at home to look after the kids. I told him about visibility and that without it he would end up being an office boy instead of becoming the division manager he aspires to be. He quickly saw my point and agreed to come along.

I'm a northerner – born and bred north of the river Thames. I don't know South London and I don't like South London. It makes me feel uneasy. What's good about the north is that it makes sense. Wembley, Kilburn, Hampstead, Highgate, Camden, Barnet, Tottenham. Even though not all areas are plush, and some are shabby, each is coherent and has its own distinct character. If you know the parts, you know the whole. That can't be said of the south. I looked on the internet the night before to find out where we were going. Big villas next to run-down terraced houses next to office blocks. Here and there some small factories mixed in with scrappy parks and cut through with dual carriageways. No identity. A mess.

My car doesn't have GPS and for some reason the app on my mobile stopped working when we went offline. All the same, we got to Wandsdon easily by following the signs. After the roundabout we drove down the high street and passed the red-bricked clock tower on our left. That meant we were close: according to the snapshot of the map I had on my tablet, the hall was four streets back from the main road. Seeing as the conference wouldn't start for another hour, there was plenty of time to stop off at a café for a cup of tea. Except we couldn't find a parking space. We drove up and down for a few minutes and then decided instead to go straight to the venue.

Neil was navigating. We circled the block. The first time we missed the turning and, because of the one way streets, had to go all the way around again. The second time we went the right way, only to find ourselves at a dead-end a couple of hundred yards on. What should have been a road was a wall. We'd have to approach the building from the other side. We turned back and rejoined the one way streets, stopping at each junction to consult the map. Soon, though, we arrived back at the main road and could only turn left on to it.

As we drove along I glimpsed the conference centre between the houses. It's a massive place and dwarfs all the buildings around it. I took the first left and zigzagged along the little streets towards it. Sometimes I caught sight of the sheet glass and the white walls and, for the most part, we seemed to be getting closer. Then all of a sudden the structure disappeared from view. No matter which way we turned we couldn't see it. We took one street after another trying to find it again and completely lost our bearings. Now we had no idea where the centre was nor how to get back to the main road.

"I think you should ask someone," Neil said.

Asking means not only defeat but also dependency. It's an option not to be used except as a last resort. Unfortunately all other options had been exhausted.

"The Kafka Centre?" Mused the pensioner walking his dog. He scrunched up his eyes and scratched his head. "That's in Hammersmith. That's miles away from here, on the other side of the river."

"No, no," I insisted. "It's on Castle Lane near here."

"Castle Lane? Never heard of it," the pensioner said. "Actually, I'm not from around here," he then confessed. "I'm a northener myself. Born and bred in Neasden."

As we were talking the front door of the nearest terraced house opened and a white haired lady appeared on the porch. "Do you need any help?" She shouted down to us.

I got out of the car. "We're looking for the Kafka Centre." I said. "Do you know where it is?"

"Come in! I'll show you," she said beckoning with her hand and she disappeared inside.

Neil and I trotted in after her. Friendly for a southerner, I thought. In the hallway she told us to hang our coats on the hooks and to sit down in the sitting room while she made tea. I tried to signal to Neil "no" but without even a glance at me he strode into the room and perched himself on the sofa. Irritated, I followed him in. It wasn't a bad idea to have a cup of tea. We didn't manage to get one on the high street and it wouldn't matter much if we missed the opening of the conference. Still, Neil's failure to consult with a colleague was noted.

The old lady chatted to us from the kitchen as she prepared tea. She also prepared cake, biscuits and some canapés. She was curious about us: what was our line of work, what were we doing down here in these parts, what was life like up in the north? Her husband had been in sales too, she said, and had got to be division manager and would have got further if he hadn't suddenly died of a heart attack almost exactly twenty three years ago. Reg was a lovely man and she thought about him every day.

The lady – whose name was Audrey – brought in the tea on a tray and laid it on the coffee table in front of us. She returned several times for the snacks, chatting all the while, and soon the table was full. Neil tucked in enthusiastically and between big mouthfuls fuelled the talk with questions. I, on the other hand, only had one digestive biscuit and, although I nodded and smiled, sat silently. We needed to get a move on. When a discussion began about which colour combinations are suitable in clothes I butted in, firmly but politely:

"Would it be possible to tell us how to get to the conference centre now?"

Audrey was slightly startled by the abrupt change in topic.

"Oh yes, of course," she said and went over the sideboard by the door where there was an old fashioned black landline phone with a rotary dial.

"I'll just phone my son Robert," she explained. "He'll know."

She sat down in the nearby armchair and dialled. Some seconds later she said:

"Hello Robbie! How are you? Fine thanks. How's Joanie? Oh, I'm sorry to hear that." She cupped her hand over the mouthpiece and whispered to us: "That's his wife. She's in hospital. Just had a hysterectomy."

Audrey returned to the phone. She repeated several times over "Oh dear" and "I'm sorry to hear that" and "It'll be better soon". I squirmed and fidgetted. The impulsive part of me wanted to get up there and then and leave. The rational – and more persuasive - part told me to stay put, the conversation would finish soon, we'd get the information we needed and then we could go. We couldn't find the place ourselves anyway and few more minutes wouldn't make any difference. In the end the rational part was proved right: after a few minutes the conversation did finish and Audrey put the phone down. It pays to be patient, I suppose.

"He says it's too difficult to explain on the phone," Audrey said. "But he's coming round here. He'll show you the way in his car. He's got GPS."

"Oh no no!" I said, getting up. "Don't bother about that. We'll find it. It must be just around the block from here."

"I don't think it's just round the block, love," Audrey said. "It's down Lewisham way. You'd only get lost. Best if you wait for Robbie. He'll be here in a jiffy then you'll get there in no time."

I sat down again. I had another digestive biscuit and Neil ate a few more canapés. I kept on looking at my watch. In an hour or so we had a presentation to make. Last night I had rehearsed what we were going to say. Neil seemed completely relaxed about this fact and was chatting away to Audrey again as if there were nothing to worry about.

The doorbell rang. Of course Robert hadn't come in a jiffy: we had waited for him for at least twenty-five minutes. Robert was a balding, podgy man.

"So where do you lads want to go?" He asked us when we were out in the hall.

"The Kafka Centre."

"Why that's miles from here! That's in Bromley."

"No, it's around here. It's on Castle Lane, SW21."

"Castle Lane? Never heard of it. Do you know where it is Mum?"

"I told the boys you'd show them the way in your car," Audrey said.

"But I don't know where it is and I haven't got GPS," Robert protested.

"Why don't you phone Gavin?" His mother suggested. "He'll know."

Robert whipped out his mobile phone from his pocket and started to call.

"Look," I said, "we really must go. We're already late. But thanks for your help anway."

I took my coat from the hook and was about to make my way out when Neil stopped me and whispered in my ear that at least we should pay for the phone call.

"No way!" I hissed but Neil wasn't listening to me and had already turned to Audrey and offered.

"That's kind of you dear," said the old lady. "That'll be £11.46 including tea and snacks."

"Could you give me your half?" Neil asked me. "I didn't bring enough cash."

I took out my wallet and gave him six pounds - simply to get out of there as quickly as possible. Neil rounded up the bill and gave Audrey twelve.

The doorbell rang again.

"Ah, that'll be Gavin," said Robert.

Gavin was about twice the width of Robert and Robert wasn't small. There we were, all standing in a narrow hallway, with Gavin and Robert blocking the way out and, needless to say, with Neil and myself furthest from the door. Robert was telling Gavin where we wanted to go.

"Castle Lane? Never heard of it," said Gavin.

"I'm sorry," I interrupted. "Would you mind letting us through?"

Despite some awkard shuffling and pressing of bodies against walls, Neil and I couldn't squeeze past them.

"Look," I said, my voice rising in irritation, "go out of the door so we can leave!"

Gavin tried to pull the door to but because of his size, and because we were all crammed in the hallway, couldn't get it open. That's when I snapped.

"I don't need any more of this crap!" I roared. "Especially after being conned out of six quid!"

For few seconds everyone was frozen in shock. Audrey, who had up that moment always had a kindly expression on her face, gave me a vicious stare. Neil, horrified, turned to the old lady.

"I'm sorry, my colleague, he's a bit..." he stammered apologetically.

Suddenly, surprisingly, Gavin gave out a hearty laugh.

"Don't worry about it mate," he said giving me a wink. "They're just having fun. They're always doing this to people who get lost around here. Be cool!"

Robert and his mother exchanged a knowing smirk. They both looked as if they were about to burst into uncontrollable hysterics. Unlike them I didn't find the situation in the least funny.

"Let me through!" I screamed and tried to barge my way past Audrey and Robert. The next thing I knew there was a scuffle. Neil and Robert were punching each other because Neil had stopped Robert from punching me. Gavin weighed in, at first to restrain the two of them, and then became part of the brawl himself. I began grappling with Audrey when she attacked Neil. I mean I had to: Neil was already getting it from two sides. Audrey slapped me hard on my cheek and so I slapped her back on the side of the head. Then she grabbed my hair and pulled hard and I did the same to her. After three or four blows of the elbows and the knees between us, we were both on the floor rolling over each other, scratching, slapping, thumping, pinching and biting. As we fought we both snarled and growled like two wild animals.

I do know it's wrong to fight old ladies. I do feel ashamed when I think back on what I did. I shouldn't have lost control. We didn't get to the conference anyway, so there was no point. That's all true. But, you know, something positive did come out of the incident. No one got seriously hurt and yet I'm quite sure that because of what happened that family will never harass innocent passers-by again. Occasionally, very occasionally, a few sharp slaps around the head can do a world of good.

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