It was about a week after Carla's return to California. I was beginning to feel a bit like the coal miner who, on being elected as an MP, turned up at the pit for his next shift because no-one had told him any different. In my case, I was supposed to be developing some sort of human centred approach to global corporate consultancy but actually I was spending a lot of time hanging around at home, cooking stuff, playing with computers, sometimes wishing I had a cat. Or some other excuse for being distracted and unable to concentrate.
Basically, I was in limbo. Carla had blown in, blown out (pun, sadly, intended) and subsequently I'd had a couple or three e-mails from her: Home safe, thanks for your hospitality, things moving on, will be in contact. Nothing remotely precise, though, and no hint as to where future untold riches were coming from. Or when.
In theory, therefore, I was COO of a significantly capitalised consultancy and software development agency. In fact, the company had no saleable product and no plan and I was sitting in a tiny rented flat in North London with not a lot to do. Looking back, I know this to have been a classic case of the need to be careful about what one wishes for. It may have been a frustrating period, but things were about to change extremely rapidly. And not immediately for the better.
Inevitably, too, things moved on at precisely the wrong moment. I had actually just agreed to spend a few weeks working through a reconfiguration programme with CareSpan, a major UK charity - which is what I did in real life - when Carla got back in touch With Instructions. OK, I'd got to know C quite a bit better than when she first pissed me off with a peremptory e-mail - for a start, I now knew her to be a brilliant and beautiful woman - but even so I was taken aback by the tone of this message. OK, too, it was written at about 3am, California time, so maybe she'd been having a bad day.
Nonetheless, I was somewhat less than happy at simply being starkly told that funding was in place, corporate structures agreed (by and with whom, I wondered?) and that I should therefore get on with recruiting people and porting code from Linux to Windows. 'You what?', I thought. How do I do that, exactly? Where would I put anyone I did recruit, and why would they want to work for someone who had no way of paying them in the first place? And shouldn't we be talking to some customers about what the details of what they wanted the code to do before we started actually rewriting it?
I started to write a stroppy e-mail back but some vestige of good sense stopped me. Actually, I paused for a calming cup of coffee and this was just enough time for me to remember some of the good times I'd had with Carla when she was briefly in London - and to remind myself that I'd never quite believed her when she described me as indispensable for the current project. Not wishing to shoot the auriferous goose, then, I went for a more emollient line. Actually, I went for a slightly pathetic wheedling tone, which I suspect was completely the wrong approach, but, hell, I never claimed to be competent at this sort of stuff.
What I got back, an hour or two later, was an e-mail from someone called Zhu Lui, signing him / herself as "Executive Specialist", whatever that might be, and bullet pointing in a brusque but presumably business-like fashion some stuff I was presumable supposed to have known. Or maybe just intuitively guessed. Specifically, that funds were held by PCW - or our "corporate partners" as they now appeared to be - and that said organisation would also be handling the legal bits around establishing the new business as a legal entity in the UK and EU. Finally, office space would be made available for me to use in the interim in their offices, the e-mail also giving me a contact in one Deborah Jensen who would apparently act as my liaison with "our partners". Even if partners seemed a slightly euphemistic description of a group who appeared to be in control of pretty much everything.
I decided that it would be a good idea to think about this a bit before replying and in any case had agreed to a preliminary chat with the good folks at CareSpan which I was in danger of being late for. So I set off in the tube, again, and once again my thoughts were more of ways to fake suicide and run away rather than any vaguely constructive ideas on how to make it all work. Actually, by the time I emerged onto the street, I'd got to the stage of thinking that I should just save all the buggering about and top myself for real. I thought I knew just enough about the corporate world to know that I didn't fit and frankly didn't even want to try to do so.
I was, thus, not the happiest looking visitor when I got to CareSpan and got plonked into a reception area sofa. I had a few minutes to wait for my contact, a woman called May who I'd met briefly before but couldn't claim to know. I spent it staring into space and, well, wallowing in self pity which did not do much to improve things. In fact, I'd got into such an effective wallow that it took me some moments to notice that someone was standing in front of me, repeating my name in an amused tone of voice.
Looking up, I saw a pair of tan nylon covered legs, a knee length beige skirt, a grey knitted jumper and, finally, an intelligent, smiling face framed in a mass of curly grey hair. I got quickly to my feet, shook my head clear of preoccupations and shook her hand.
"I'm May Harris", she said, "and welcome to CareSpan. Or welcome back to the planet, perhaps I should say." I laughed, turned down the ritual offer of coffee and followed her through to the broom cupboard that she used as an office. I'm fairly sure that there was a PC on her desk, but it was hard to tell amidst the piles of paperwork. She shifted enough of this to find a couple of chairs, though, and we began to talk through the work she felt they needed done. Actually, it was fairly standard stuff except for the fact that she'd thought it through for herself a lot more astutely than most of my clients had on first meeting. As a result, within half an hour or so we had the beginnings of a plan, and had agreed that my involvement would not be as extensive as first suggested, though possibly of longer duration. She apologised for that and I had to explain a little of the situation with Carla, and in particular that it looked like it would have been difficult for me to actually commit full time to her organisation - as I liked to do in at least the early stages of a project - in the near future anyway.
Despite the main business of the day being done so quickly, I kept up the conversation for a while in the knowledge that she'd cleared three hours from her diary - and I know how busy charity Chief Executives always are - and that, anyway, I'd hardly made a brilliant first impression. After a while, though, we really had done all we could do so I arranged some dates to meet with some other key people in the organisation for initial chats, agreed a deadline for getting a more detailed plan to her and accepted a huge wodge of paperwork which she claimed would give me loads of background information on their work and people. I stood up to say my goodbyes and offered my hand for a parting handshake. To my surprise she also stood, picked up a jacket from behind her chair and her bag from the chaos on her desk and said that she'd come out with me.
"Enough for the day," she said, "I don't normally work Tuesdays, so I'm only here for this meeting and if I stay a moment longer people will imagine that they need me for stuff. So best if I sneak out with you. Then everyone will presume that we've gone to the pub to conspire and get really worried about you and your role ..."
She smiled as she said this, making clear that it was a joke, that inducing paranoia was not one of her management strategies, and I apologised for ruining her day off. Not at all, she said, it had been interesting - and she was now curious to know more about this strange world of international business that I seemed to be getting into. So I offered to make the pub a reality, satisfy that curiosity over a drink. I really did need to talk to someone objective about it, I realised, and May seemed like a sensible person to bounce stuff off.
So we went to the pub, a tiny affair just round the corner from the CareSpan offices and we talked. Turned out that her ex ("very ex", as she put it)-husband had been a management accountant with one of the firms who merged to form PCW as is. She didn't have a very high opinion of their world, or more precisely their view of the world the rest of us lived in. We laughed a lot about that, swapping bad "suit" jokes and generally agreeing that she was far from the objective outsider that I thought I'd been looking for. Good company, though, so it was well after eight when we staggered back outside, both, I think having had a good time. I said as much and she suggested that we should do it again some time, just before leaving in something of a hurry to catch a half hourly train home. Ah, well, I thought, she has my number and I know where she works, so...
I only remembered that I'd switched my mobile off for our meeting as I was getting off the tube on my way home. Not expecting to have missed much, I promptly switched the thing back on again and discovered that I had two new voice mails and six texts ... the latter all from Carla, all variations on the theme of 'have read your e-mail, call me'. Once I'd got back onto the street I found the voice mails were from her, too, sounding tired and with fairly hectic bar sounds in the background; saying pretty much the same thing. I checked my watch, tried to work out the time in the States, decided to phone her anyway. Got her voice mail, of course, and left a similar sort of message of my own.
I finally got hold of her at 8 the next morning, figuring that midnight her time wasn't all that late for us busy international business types. She sounded bleary, though, and I realised that I probably had woken her up. Indeed, I was sure that I could hear someone gently snoring in the background. Ah, well, I thought, at least I didn't wake them both up.
Carla, thankfully, was a model of befuggled calm, not getting involved in any detailed discussion, just explaining that what she'd set up so far was just the basic legal stuff to allow me to get paid (by her) and to pay for stuff - and for people, eventually - on corporate accounts. How the thing ended up structured, where it was based, who worked on it and what they did would be up to me. It would be a good idea, though, to check out what PCW were offering as she felt that they needed to get familiar with me and spend time with me - "face time", she actually called it - and in any case were better able to advise on UK company law and stuff than her people in CA were. I promised to call them, agreed to maintain more regular contact in the near future. Rang off after about quarter of an hour, not really any clearer but feeling a little more reassured.
At nine, I phoned Ms Jensen at PCW, got a secretary of some sort, agreed a time to meet that afternoon at their HQ. Got myself a coffee, sat down at the PC and started to make notes on the bumf that May had given me about CareSpan. It was good stuff and the relevant parts had been carefully highlighted, saving me a great deal of time: I was impressed.
I was about half way through the pile when my mobile rang: Ms Jensen from PCW. I immediately assumed that she was phoning to cancel our meeting but she quickly explained that she merely wanted to change the venue. Apparently someone or the other at HQ had suggested that I might not want to be based directly there and she wanted to suggest an alternative location. Of course, I cynically thought that someone had actually felt that I'd make the place look scruffy, but took down a new address from her and agreed to meet at a cafe near by at the original time. Hanging up, I realised that this was actually more convenient for me to get to, and, mentally shrugging, felt that I could probably live with being shoved away in some corporate backwater for the moment.
Later that afternoon, then, I was sitting outside Romano's, a fairly typical Italian joint just on the edge of Bloomsbury, enjoying the sun, and having a cigarette with my espresso. Ms Jensen, as you would expect, turned up exactly on time and in exactly the persona I'd envisaged for her: Crisp business suit, white blouse, medium high heels and the inevitable laptop bag over her shoulder. Just to add the final touch, she was busily playing with a mobile phone, but she put it away almost immediately and came and sat down at my table, introducing herself without confirming that I was actually me beforehand. Say what you like, having long hair and a beard can be an advantage when it comes to being recognised by total strangers.
Obviously, I took the opportunity to discomfit her by introducing myself in full in return and immediately regretted doing so as she blushed - and blushed deeply - in embarrassment. I felt guilty enough to offer to get her a coffee, vaguely amused by the thought striking me that she was on expenses and anyway probably earned about ten times what I did. Only been moving in these circles for about a fortnight, Dave, I thought to myself, and you're getting obsessed with money already?
When I got back to the table, I was slightly surprised to see her also smoking and - get this - a roll up, rather than a Marlboro Lite or whatever. Then she added sugar to the coffee and tiny bits of my presumptions as to her character and personality that I'd constructed from sheer prejudice began to crumble ... very, very slightly.
Actually, she was quite relaxing company, chatting away happily about the area and her time at UCL - a college that now occupies most of Bloomsbury, with ambitions to take over the rest. She didn't seem to be in any hurry to get onto business, and, frankly, neither was I. Instead, I began to take more of an interest in my "liaison person", not in the standard Bloke Meets Girl type of way - hey, I really don't do that - but more to try to see behind the corporate camouflage. OK, the suit and stuff was convincing, as was the carefully bobbed blonde hair, the ever so subtle make up, the terribly discrete jewellery (a small broach, a wrist chain, no rings). But this was also a woman who knew her London history - much of it revolutionary, had studied philosophy and seemed to have been good at it, had her share of very entertaining stories. I wondered how she coped in the uber masculine environment that had been my experience of PCW to date, then wondered whether that was how it seemed to her. Maybe they could be nice to each other in private and all the machismo was just to scare off outsiders?
Well, maybe. I got the beginning of a hint as to the answer when I offered her another cup of coffee and she sighed slightly ruefully.
"Trust me," she said, "there are few things I'd like more at the moment, but I can't stay away from the office for ever, and anyway, I'm supposed to be showing you some possible accomodation, aren't I?" With which we were on our feet, she was all efficiency again and I was being led a very short way down the street. To, it turned out, a Georgian town house, overlooking Hertford Square, one of the areas signature gardens. It was a fairly grand edifice, with a couple of brass plaques beside the front door - an accountancy practice and a firm of "eco-architects". Debbie - not Deborah, she'd insisted - let us in, greeted the ground floor receptionist familiarly and led us up a couple of flights of stairs.
We emerged into a large open plan office with just a few desks and chairs arranged around the place, a work group printer and PCs about the only other furniture. It was all conspicuously clean and fresh looking - in fact it all smelt of fresh paint. It had, Debbie explained, never been used. PCW had come into possession when they'd invested in the architects upstairs, co-funding what I learnt was one of the most eco friendly office conversions in London and then never having been able to find a final tenant. Apparently triple glazing, solar heating and the rest simply didn't appeal to the corporate mindset enough to justify the premium rent, despite the outgoings being almost zero. So it was mine if I wanted it, for a few months anyway. More than enough space to house a small development team, she pointed out, all the ICT infrastructure in place and ... she paused ... far enough away from the rest of PCW's empire to allow work to continue without undue supervision. I had to smile at the last bit and we agreed, warmly, that it was, in fact a no brainer. And, as PCW owned the freehold, we could sort everything out in time for me to move in in days rather than weeks.
Which kind of concluded our business for the day. Except that I decided to quickly measure the place - despite Debbie's offer to e-mail the plans to me when she got back to base - and while I was doing this she disappeared downstairs, returning with two more cups of coffee. While I was playing around with the tape measure, she sat on one of the desks - shoes kicked off with an expression of some relief, I noticed - and I asked her about her life with PCW. Turns out that she'd joined from Uni, quickly realised that she was never going to get anywhere in the mainstream and had instead carved herself a niche working on special projects, developing new teams, liaising with external partners and the like. Currently, she explained, this meant working with me (and, by implication, Carla's lot) to ensure that we got any help we needed from the experts within her wider organisation. I said I was glad to hear that I had so much of her time and was looking forward to working with her. In return, she told me that I looked like being a refreshing change from her normal contacts and she too was looking forward to seeing the project through.
Which was all very nice and a good place to start from, workwise. Just as the mutual admiration thing was getting into gear, however, my mobile rang. It was May, "touching base", as she put it, but also telling me that a couple of people I'd arranged to see the next day would have to cancel as they had a short notice visit from the Charity Commission to deal with. I sympathised with the hassle this sort of stuff always caused, agreed to rearrange the meetings and finally also agreed that we should get together for a drink sometime before cutting the call short, explaining that I was in a meeting of sorts myself.
Debbie was looking at me curiously when I turned back to her, so I explained that May was CEO of a charity I was moonlighting with. "Not your girlfriend, then?", she asked, reddening again.
"No", I laughed. "I don't really have one. Yourself?"
"Oh, no", she said, smiling. "I'm not really into girls."