Wednesday, 29 May 2013

One-Way Return

It was only when the letter came through that he realised he had never been to Head Office – the new Head Office, the one in London, the nerve centre of the huge consortium that now made the life and death decisions for his company.

His company had once been a respectable building firm, making a small profit each year, keeping several dozen tradesmen in business, sending him off around the area, talking to workmen, site managers, merchants, inspectors, clerks of works; in fact, all kinds of everybody, they all knew him.

Then, about five years ago, someone somewhere made the Harrison brothers – joint directors – a very lucrative offer at a time when the industry was going through something of a dry patch and suddenly the respectable building firm was merely the South-West Construction Division of Brickline plc. Instead of going in to the office once a week with their NHBC forms, they sent everything by post and e-mail to the new London Head Office, a place to which, duty by duty, desk by desk and worker by worker, Harrisons’ office slowly migrated. Then the old 1950s office itself was pulled down and a steel and glass cube housing microtechnology firms sprang up in its place.

He loaded his battered old briefcase, its corners frayed, its locks scratched and dull, and set it down on the passenger seat of his car. It would be a long enough journey, he thought. The letter said half-past nine, so he had made sure he was ready to set off at seven, giving himself enough time to stop off at a service station and grab breakfast. The street was quiet, just the paperboy cycling idly past, giving him a curt nod, the smart businessman three doors up setting off early too, the old woman with her Westie, just too far away to notice him. Should he stay five minutes longer and pass the time with her?  Probably not a good idea, he thought. Tempting fate. He could imagine himself somewhere in London, trying to beg those five minutes back from the past.

He locked up, and got into his car, starting it up, flicking on Radio Two, letting himself melt into the companionable mix of music and chat as he headed for the A-road that would take him onto the motorway. It was an overcast morning, and he wondered whether it would rain later. He had groundworkers, bricklayers, roofers to think of. He had worked his way up through the trades himself, he knew what it was like to press on with a job in the full force of the British weather when every instinct told him to get under cover, hide in the portakabins, scrounge a mug of tea or skedaddle to the nearest sandwich van until he saw the site agent stomping round in his muddy riggers, looking for someone’s arse to kick.

Stuck behind a heavy gravel lorry, he waited for a gap in the traffic to pull out and past. He cast a glance into the back of the lorry, wondering what sort of aggregate it was, where it was headed, what it would be used for. Later that day, he was sure the driver would find himself splashing through muddy ruts, searching out the site office, asking someone on a high scaffold where they wanted the sand tipping.

Half-past seven, and the motorway reached out and pulled him in. He made a mental calculation, totted up the miles, divided by the time, was sure he’d make it with plenty to spare, squirmed in his seat, put his foot down anyway. That was the difference between A-road traffic and the motorway, the difference that the experienced driver recognised. A consensual agreement to allow the motorway to do half the work for them. On A-roads, there were choices to be made, manoeuvres to be negotiated, hazards to consider. On the motorway, there were three lanes of single-direction traffic and only two things to bear in mind – your speed and what was happening directly in front of you.  He flicked between the left hand and middle lanes,  passing camper vans, sales reps, innumerable articulated lorries with wording from every country in Europe, supermarket delivery vans and a Range Rover towing a trailer with two mud-spattered quad bikes on it.

He changed station to Radio Four to hear the weather – overcast but dry in London – then back to Two, to hear Wogan narrowly avoid crashing the pips. The news told its familiar tale of woe, and he found himself switching off before the radio did. He kept an eye out for the next services. He needed something to eat. He had drunk a cup of tea and eaten two chocolate digestives since waking – he had glanced into the fridge for anything to eat but all there he had found was the left-overs of the takeaway Chicken Jalfrezi that had suddenly made him feel rather queasy the previous night and ruined the second half of Taggart. He had left it there; he’d bin it when he got home.

Services two miles and twenty-one miles. That’d do. Twenty minutes for a traditional breakfast, pot of tea, a fiver if he got himself an Express as well. He flicked on the indicator, pulled off the motorway and slowed as he negotiated the sharp bend that slid him into the car park, stopping between a Mondeo and a Megane, both London registered.

As he opened the door, the fresh air and the rumble of motorway traffic hit him like a slap, waking him from the somnolence of long-distance driving. He walked across the car-park, joining the flow that poured into the foyer of Western Fayre’s tiled and plastic world of welcome. Around the foyer, franchises jostled for space. Costa Coffee, Patsy’s Parlour, News Cabin, Captain’s Catch, Antonio’s Pizzeria.
The young girl at the counter of Patsy’s Parlour, rosy-cheeked, frizzy hair gathered up in a bun and tucked under a straw boated gifted him with a smile and a cheery good morning as he paid for his breakfast and paper.
“Up to London, are we?”
“Yes,” he replied, feeling strangely reluctant to discuss his business. “Big meeting.  Head Office. Attendance compulsory.”
“Oh, right,” she said with mock-foreboding. “Hope it goes well for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you hear about these things, don’t you?  Invited to big meeting. Head Office. Attendance compulsory. P45 on table.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. “I’ve been with the company for years. Too much experience. Too valuable.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” she said. He shrugged and walked off towards a nearby table, still glistening wet from its last wipedown.
Starting on his breakfast, he gazed out across the car park, the motorway, the fields beyond, stretching into the blurred distance of the Berkshire countryside. As he chewed his first mouthful, he mulled over what the girl at the counter had said. It was nonsense, of course it was. She must have heard so many moans from so many travellers that she had dredged up a meaningless memory of someone else’s life. He shrugged again, kept on with his breakfast, sipped at his tea. The thought was almost lost as he flicked the pages of his Express, tutting at the state of the world today, sighing at the stupidity of the rich and famous, shaking his head at the things they were said to have said.

He glanced at his watch and realised that he must have bolted his breakfast. He had a good few minutes left before he ought be back on the road. He picked up his paper and walked out into the foyer, then to the car park. Instead of returning to the car, he made his way up an embankment to the picnic benches and sat down, looking out again at the countryside, feeling that something was now troubling him, an itch inside his mind that he couldn’t shake off.
He took out the letter from his jacket pocket. It had the directions to head office but that was not what interested him now. Instead, he read and re-read the short paragraphs, trying to detect any coded hints as to the purpose of the meeting. He should have checked with his colleagues, contacts in other offices, checking to see if they had also been invited. He wondered what it would have indicated had no-one else received an invitation.
It was just plain ridiculous, he thought. No-one was called all the way to London just to be fired. They would have sent someone down, or told him in a letter, plain and simple. That was the way the Harrisons had done it; bulletting, they called it.
He’s not working out, it’s best we bullet him, Fred.
I think we’ll bullet him on Friday, Henry.
The phrase had caught on and he had found himself using it of hapless joiners and bricklayers many a time. 
Ah yes, he caught himself thinking, that was the Harrison way, but they aren’t here any more. Brickline plc probably have a more modern way of doing things. They probably have a huge Personnel - HR, nowadays – department, with hundreds of lawyers to make sure things are done by the book, no chance of an industrial tribunal or such things. When they sack someone, that someone stays sacked. Of course, it wasn’t called sacking now. It was called outplacement, or downsizing or letting someone go. Damn Americanisms, he found himself fuming, as if British management was afraid to call the sack the sack. 
And what better way to get rid of someone than to do it off their own turf, at some huge building in London, where they felt alone and friendless, no mates to encourage them, no familiar surroundings.
He looked at the letter again and the nagging doubt in his mind began to grow. The more he thought about it, the more he began to see things that had previously eluded him. That was why the young quantity surveyor had been sent down to their office. The official line was that restructuring had brought more work which the new arrival was going to help handle. But what better way to learn the business he was going to take over than to shadow the old boy, watch his every move, slide into the job before it was handed to him.
And the new computer system, all internet and intranet and e-mail and laptops. Guaranteed to sideline the oldsters like himself, who were unfamiliar with computers in the first place. A sure way to ensure that certain communications went unnoticed.
And that internal memo concerning his company car upgrade; the paragraph about waiting for new budget proposals, favourable tax rates, a newer model. They didn’t want to give him a new car because he wasn’t going to be there to drive it.

He wasn’t surprised, just disappointed. He had heard of so many like him, giving loyal service to their companies and then shunted aside in favour of those who toed the corporate line. He would find somewhere else, he was sure of it, or perhaps he might reply to that letter from the local college, asking if he was interested in teaching Building and Civil Engineering. He had thrust that one aside, insulted that they might have thought him past it and ready to power down, but now, it seemed like an opportunity that he ought to grasp at.

He took out Brickline’s letter, tore it into a handful of ragged pieces and let them drop into the nearest litter bin. Then he strode to his car, got in and started it up. The reassuring tones of Wogan’s blarney filled his ears again. He smiled at a particularly acerbic comment, swung the car round and headed towards the westbound lane of the motorway.

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