Travel, stories, people

Away day

by Mike Scott Thomson

It’s a day that will go down into legend – and with exactly thirty-two people in the department, it must have been destined.

Yet if Becky the Babe hadn’t joined the previous week, the whole crazy concept wouldn’t have worked. Had we done a pub quiz or personality profiling or those god-awful “trust falls” – you know the ones, where you’re supposed to fall backwards into the arms of your waiting colleagues – well, who knows? Maybe things would have turned out different.

My name is Peter Piper, by the way. Yes, I know all the jokes. I too used to work for Benedict Prospect, but I’m long gone now. I suppose I was only ever passing through, my fifth job in as many years, constantly on the lookout for office totty. But I’m putting in the hours now. It falls to me to write an account of that fateful day, which I shall save for posterity on the shared ‘J’ drive.

Since you’re reading this, you’ll know all about the exhilarating, white-knuckle rollercoaster ride that is insurance sales. I doubt much has changed since my time. All I know is that Charley-Ann is no longer there, and that must count for something.

Oh, many a day did I mull over the qualities, or lack thereof, of our esteemed general manager. What an endless source of procrastination that was. Chin in hand, I would stare intently at the Word document in front of me, the screen as blank as my face, looking for all the world like I was working my smelly socks off. What I was actually doing was asking myself over and over: what was it about Charley-bloody-Ann that made her so bloody annoying? Was it her insistence that we spend an hour a day filling in our timesheets, with the timesheets themselves containing a special category for filling in timesheets? Could it have been the infuriating way her voice fluttered into a falsetto, indicating, without fail, that she was right, everything she said was right, and everybody else, by virtue of being everybody else, was wrong? Maybe it was her habit of spending our entire drinks budget on fresh bunches of gladioli for the breakout area?

Yet the answer to all these questions was No. What really got me were those damn letters, added to the nameplate on her office door: “MBA”. I’m more important than you, they taunted. I’ve earned my right to be here. You haven’t. That’s why you work for me.

Master of Bugger All, the rest of us reckoned. Everyone, that is, except Kiss-Arse Kev.

But then came the day of human chess.

We were well curious when the email came round. It was a rare missive from Sir John Benedict himself, with the subject line “away day”. According to the message, we were to learn “the importance of team working”, and by extension, “personal development”. Bright and early the next Friday morning the entire sales department were to be whisked off to a hotel in deepest suburbia.

Five minutes after the email, Charley-Ann came strutting through the open-plan office, Kiss-Arse Kev hot on her heels and carrying her clipboard.

“Well, I’m glad,” she cooed. “I thought it was about time. I’ve been asking for ages for something like this.”

Sure you have, we all thought in unison. Everyone, perhaps, except Becky the Babe, but she was learning fast.

Becky, as I’ve said, had only just joined. This in itself was nothing unusual; on average we would lose, and have to re-hire, one member of staff a fortnight. Vigilant like a vixen, with puppy-dog eyes, Becky was brunette, petite and, excuse me if words fail me for a moment, well fit. As she walked into our department that first Monday morning, every male pair of eyes lingered a beat too long on her hourglass figure. Even Kiss-Arse Kev tore his attention away from Charley-Ann long enough to register his own confused approval. Becky, savvy as she was, knew she’d got us in the palm of her hand. But for me, she presented – whoa – a challenge. I’d have to move fast on this one.

Who else do you need to know about, before we address the burning issue? Of course, Round Bob. With his sixty-inch waist and twenty years of service, you could say he was literally part of the furniture. Every lunch break he would think nothing of sinking five pints of Spitfire and carrying on as sober as he was before. Yet he got the job done, much to Charley-Ann’s annoyance, who never managed to find an excuse to fire him (a deed that would have considerably lowered the average weight of the department).

So, that’s me (Peter Piper), Becky the Babe, Charley-Ann, Kiss-Arse Kev and Round Bob. Are they all the major players in this little game? Yes? Then let battle commence.

*

Only copious amounts of alcohol would make this trip bearable, and nobody could trust Charley-Ann to buy a round. When I checked my bank account at an ATM that Friday morning, a grand total of £11.52 flashed up on the screen. Could this not have been on payday? Grumbling to myself, I withdrew my last tenner and boarded the coach. One hour later, we were there.

We started with crate-stacking, which immediately put Kiss-Arse Kev in a sulk because he couldn’t get more than six high. We were divided into four teams of eight, each of us given plastic boxes and told to pile them as high as we could, one person being harnessed up as they climbed the growing tower. Charley-Ann was handing Kev the crates, with Round Bob and a few other guys supporting the bottom, when Round Bob did one of his world-famous sneezes, a cacophonous blast of wind and phlegm, and set the entire structure tumbling. Kev was a picture as he dangled by his harness, his face turning purple. I’ve never heard such awful language. Boy, is that dude competitive.

Anyhow, all that business was just the prelude. Next came the main task. In a courtyard out back was an enormous chessboard, each square at least two feet wide. At the start of the day we’d been given dinky button badges to wear – some white, others black – and now it was starting to make sense.

“Chess,” announced the leader of the training centre, a skinny kid in a baseball cap, “the ultimate in tactical nous, forward planning and strategy. Indeed, not unlike the world of business. But here’s the difference. This time, you are the pieces, as well as the players.”

With this guff rattling in my brain, I stole a glance at Becky. Though we had hardly exchanged a word over the past week, she returned my look. Something mysterious was going on behind those deep brown eyes.

“Two teams,” announced Baseball Cap. “Sixteen pieces per side. Arrange yourselves on the grid, and away you go!”

I was black, alongside Charley-Ann, Kev, Becky and a bored Round Bob. We clustered at one end of the board as Charley-Ann took control.

“I’ll be queen,” she declared. “All the Band 3 employees are pawns. Kev, you be a knight.”

“Right you are,” Kev sniffed, clearly disappointed at not being made king.

A voice piped up. “I’m county chess champion,” said Becky.

Charley-Ann droned on. “The rest of you, decide which pieces you’re going to be and get on the board. I’ll announce the moves. I used to play when I was at Oxford University.”

“I’m county chess champion,” said Becky again. Although she didn’t seem too flustered, I couldn’t let it pass. Now was my chance to get in her good books.

“Charley,” I said, forgetting the Ann, which I knew would get her attention, “I think you should listen to our new recruit.”

The sixteen of us parted to reveal the trim figure of Becky, standing at the back. “I’m county chess champion,” she said for the third time. “If we want to win, let me call the moves.”

Charley-Ann glanced with barely concealed disdain at the newbie. Finally, she shrugged. “Fine,” she said. “You make the moves. But I’m still queen.”

“Deal,” said Becky.

We got into place, the whites having arranged themselves ages ago. I was a castle, just behind Becky who took a pawn position on the outer edge. Round Bob was the biggest pawn the board had probably ever seen. “Sacrifice me first,” he whispered to Becky as we settled into our squares. “I want a bloody drink.”

“Can do,” said Becky with a wink. Cat-like, she turned to face the other team, her face impassive, determined.

This was going to be better than I thought.

Becky the Babe was true to her word; Gary Gilligan’s white knight took Round Bob’s black pawn only three moves into the game. “Thank fook for that,” said Round Bob as he wandered back to the bar. Kev, surprisingly, was next off. Becky moved him to square E5, where he was rudely taken by Martin McCabe’s white pawn. The fleeting look of hurt which came over his face would have been, if it were anyone else, a heartbreaking sight; as it was, I had little sympathy. Charley-Ann, having not yet moved, merely raised a quizzical eyebrow. Kev looked at his shoes and trundled away towards the crates. Becky’s eyes followed him as he went. I still couldn’t tell what was going on inside that mind of hers.

Then things got interesting.

“Queen to H4!” called Brian Bale, the tactician for the whites. Their queen duly came trotting over our end, stopping on the right-hand side. They were on the offensive. Becky paused for a moment, her usually milky-smooth brow furrowing with thought.

Eventually, she called, “Queen to F3.” Charley-Ann made her first move, shuffling diagonally along.

The next few moves, I realise now, were the calm before the storm. Martin McCabe took another of our pawns; Becky finally moved me up the board, to the far end. It was clear to none of us but Becky, least of all to Charley-Ann, that our queen was in danger.

“Pawn to F3, queen capture,” announced Brian from the other end. An astonished murmur arose from the players as Martin edged into Charley-Ann’s space, nudging her aside. Charley-Ann was speechless – her mouth fell open – and as she marched off, she shot Becky a vicious glare. If looks could kill, the souls of every organism within fifteen miles would have left their bodies. Becky, in response, just smirked.

So when ten minutes later Becky advanced herself to the other end of the board, thereby promoting herself from pawn to queen, Charley-Ann saw a chance for revenge.

“Good,” she chimed from the sidelines, the falsetto back in her voice as she flounced onto the board. She sidled up to Becky’s advanced position and stood there, hands on hips. “Well, go on then.”

“Go on where?” replied Becky.

“I’m the queen,” said Charley-Ann. “So go on, scoot.”

Becky the Babe, it was my pleasure to see, stood her ground. “I’m queen now,” she responded. “So you scoot.”

The chess pieces held their collective breaths.

Charley-Ann straightened her back. “I see,” she said. “We have an insubordinate in our midst. I’m sure Sir John Benedict will be absolutely disgusted.”

Becky’s response was immediate. “Don’t tell me what my father thinks.”

Silence descended. Confusion etched itself over the face of our boss.

Becky continued. “And I think our little exercise is complete. I’ve found out all I needed to know this past week, and will be able to give my father a full account of the reasons for the high staff turnover in the sales team.” She turned to face the rest of us. “Game over, everyone.”

Charley-Ann, though, was not listening. Something had caught her eye, something in the distance, by the crates in the far corner…

We all turned. Kev, clearly riled by his earlier failure and his premature exit from chess, was perched atop a stack of crates, a record-beating eleven high, wobbling five metres off the ground. Round Bob, having been roped in to helping, was at the base of the stack, loading more boxes on to the pulley.

That he’d built a new tower wasn’t the problem. The fact that his new construction was leaning Pisa-like towards the car park, however, most certainly was. Having deemed a safety harness an unnecessary luxury used by sissies, Kev, the stupid prat, was headed for a hospital visit – or worse, an early grave.

Chess forgotten, we watched in horror, frozen to the spot.

It was Charley-Ann who reacted first. “Jesus Christ, Kev!” And off she went, her chubby legs sprinting her away.

She got there just as the tower buckled. Kev, who until that point was swinging his arms wildly in an attempt to keep balance, succumbed to gravity, flipping himself theatrically to the side. To my mind, it was always ironic that we called him Kiss-Arse Kev, since when he landed, bottom first on Charley-Ann’s head, it was very much a case of her kissing his. With both of them splayed on the floor, a shaking Kev struggling to his feet next to an unconscious Charley-Ann and a confused Round Bob chest-deep in several dozen plastic boxes, that image will be tattooed on my mind for as long as I live.

I said it then and I’ll say it again: that’s what I call a trust fall.

*

The ambulance came and took a concussed Charley-Ann away. Becky lingered on the phone, presumably talking to her powerful father, while a disconsolate Kev, Round Bob and I hovered by the coach.

“You’re gonna be a hero, mate,” I told Kev. “You knocked out our boss.”

I didn’t expect his response.

“Why do you hate her?” he said. “What has she ever done to you?”

“Well,” I said after a pause, “she has that stupid obsession with timesheets, and…”

I stopped. Despite my endless hours of procrastination about Charley-Ann, I couldn’t think of anything else. I stood there, puzzled, looking at Kev, wondering about this strange new feeling brewing inside me.

And then, like a parting of the clouds, it became clear.

“Just ask her out,” I said. “You’re clearly in there.”

Kev’s face mottled with anguish and embarrassment. “But how?”

I glanced over at Becky the Babe, the undercover pawn. Power and beauty, an irresistible combination. It was now or never – and I could show Kev a thing or two at the same time.

“Watch this,” I told Kev. I strode over to Becky, her phone conversation finished, and put on my most winning smile.

‘How,’ I asked her, “would you like this Peter Piper to peck your pickled pepper?”

Her response was to violently connect the palm of her right hand with my left ear. That was a “No”. I blinked stupidly as she glared back. That line had always worked before. Clearly I wasn’t the man I once was. I returned to Kev and Bob, hell’s bells ringing in my ear, my face flushing worse than Kev’s.

“Nah,” said Round Bob, smacking his lips. “What you need to do, Kev my son, is get one of them bunches of flowers she likes, then write her a note saying, ‘You’ll always be my queen’.”

Kev and I stared at him. “Bob, you old honey-dripper!” I said. Forty-stone Round Bob just shrugged.

“I don’t have any cash,” said Kev, a hint of desperation in his voice.

I took pity on him. Never thought I’d say that about Kiss-Arse Kev. “Here,” I said, producing my last ten pound note from my wallet. “Use this. Go.”

Kev took the note and dashed away.

*

And apparently, Crazy-in-Love Kev did exactly that. With my tenner he acquired a large bunch of gladioli, wrote the note with words by Romeo Bob (as I now think of him), and paid an immediate visit to Charley-Ann in the head trauma unit. Clearly she’s a more forgiving sort than we’d given her credit for, since the two of them, at the time of writing, are still together. And you know what? As you read this, weeks, months or even years later, I really hope they still are. I really am not the man I once was.

As for Benedict Prospect, it underwent, shall we say, some changes. Bob, true to form, is still there, but he’s the only one. Charley-Ann, Kev, Becky, they’re all gone, and I will be too, once I hit ‘save’ on this report for the last time. I guess I need some personal development of my own.

But before I do, I should put this on record: that legendary away day was a success. Beforehand, we were strangers, thrown together inside grey office walls, our true selves hidden behind the labels we attached to each other. And afterwards? Well, put it like this. Never mind pawns, castles and queens. We all should have been black knights that day.

Dark horses, every one of us.

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