This is a double header, told from Dave's point of view when the text is to the left, Debbie's when it all shifts over to the right. I hope that this is clear enough (and that it works in your browser) ... and be grateful that I didn't go with the original idea of doing the whole thing in parallel columns ...
Friday morning and it was raining heavily as I got to Hertford Square, not in the best of moods after a series of delays on the tube had added a little extra sparkle to the joy that is commuting in London. So I wasn't my normal cheerful self when I let myself into the office, observing Seffi already engrossed in an animated conversation on the phone, no Naz, and ... sitting at Naz's desk, Gareth the Legal Bloke, who smiled at me somewhat bashfully. I probably didn't smile back ... to be honest I just wanted a coffee and some space to go through the e-mails, calm down a bit before having to face the world.
However, I am a Brit and politeness is kind of ingrained, so I offered Gareth a coffee , made him and Seff one while I was getting my own, then dragged myself behind my own desk, powering up the PC even as I asked Gareth what brought him into the office. Turns out he was taking another illicit break from the day job, his more detailed examination of our contractual position, viz a viz our paymasters at PCW, having revealed some ambiguities which he wanted to talk to me about. Which was admirably keen of him and, I was sure, the best hope we had of a solution to our various problems but to be honest my heart fell. I don't do contracts, or at least not the sort of contracts we'd signed when we were setting the company up. I think it takes a peculiarly perverse type of mind to draft or decode a spiders web of interrelated clauses, wherefores and thereunders, conditions and codicils .. and that was one perversity, at least, that I didn't have. Nonetheless, I put on my best intelligent face and sat back to listen to what he had to say.
Half an hour later, Gareth was still talking Seff still on the phone and I was losing the will to live. Occasionally, he would come back to something I vaguely recognised as English, my mind would bravely try to catch up and then he was off again ... completely fluent gibberish ... might as well have been speaking Chinese as far as I was concerned. This was all a bit embarrassing as I could see that he was making a real effort to put this in a lawyers equivalent of idiot speak ... and it was still passing me by completely. I was saved by Naz arriving, slamming through the door in what just had to be Naz-in-a-state-of-high-excitement mode, Gareth only just getting out of the way in time as he virtually threw himself into his chair seemingly oblivious to the fact that someone else had been sitting there seconds before.
Half an hour after that, I was still listening to Naz, talking at me, this time, about air turbulence and fluid dynamics, I think, a subject which had apparently kept him up most of the night Seff, her conversation paused for the moment, gave an exasperated sigh at that, presumably having been kept up with him and which promised great but fuzzy at least to me benefits to us, the wind generator guys and, hell, the rest of the world, too, by the sound of it. Frankly, I didn't understand a word but it was nice to see Naz so enthusiastic ... and that Gareth, too, was looking a bit dazed by the rant. I felt a headache coming on, wondered which of the two I should try and deal with first ... and then reception buzzed up ... we had a visitor.
I went down myself, if only to catch a moment of sanity, and found myself greeting a tall woman of about my age, dressed in an ankle length black skirt, a very wet black soft shell jacket ... and an emerald head scarf. She smiled as I introduced myself, her eyes a deep golden brown, laugh lines showing against the slightly tawny skin, introduced herself in turn as Niusha. Ah yes, I thought, mentally cursing the fact that my morning had given me no time to either talk to Seff or even check my own appointments, Niusha ... the CareSpan administrator that May had offered to "lend" us so that Naz and Seff could get over to Germany. I asked her to come on up, apologising for the fact that things were a bit chaotic, that we were not as prepared as we might have been for her arrival.
Things had not changed much when we got back upstairs. Seff was still on the phone, albeit now apparently swearing quietly to herself in German, while Gareth was now backed into a corner, taking the full force of Naz's attempts to explain his new ideas, which now included, I saw, a number of complex diagrams ... which didn't make any more sense than the verbiage. I gave Niusha a quick, consoling, grin, then interrupted enough to do some basic introductions ... even Seff briefly surfacing and giving her a quick wave. I made coffee.
At least I understood the coffee machine, I thought ...
I got a few hours sleep back at the hotel before coming down to meet Colin for breakfast, watching snow falling heavily outside, already beginning to drift slightly in the breeze. He was efficient and focused, so that I felt the attitude slowly infecting me, displacing the slight vagueness I'd experienced after a night without much sleep and with ... a lot of excitement. We talked about plans.
Colin had prepared a variety of options, as I'd requested, the three most developed ranging from a very basic renovation of the current near ruin, bringing it up to modern minimum standards, through to a comprehensive eco-workover, including heat pumps, wind and solar electricity generation, triple glazing and thermal sumps, reed bed sanitation ... the works. I gave them a brief scan they were impressive pieces of work, detailed and comprehensive before indicating the third version.
"Its Dave's decision, of course," I told him, "but he'll go for the full option, I know, so I think we need to work that one up to the stage we can begin tendering for the building work" He looked a bit dubious, pointed out that it was going to be expensive, might be seen as over-the-top by some. I agreed that this was true, but, "Two points, though ... firstly, if the North Atlantic Gyratory does finally switch off, this is the sort of building we'll all need; secondly I know Dave ... and I know that he knows we'll only get one chance at this, so best to do it well. So how soon can you give us the specs? The bill of works or whatever you call it?"
He looked a bit dubious. "Umm, we can do it quite quickly, probably, but to be honest we normally contract this sort of thing out to specialists. If I can get them the plans, and mark it up as urgent, we could probably get it to you in a couple of weeks?"
"So mark it as hyper urgent and get it back to us by next Wednesday, OK?"
He didn't even try to argue. "Oh ... right ... but I need to spend some time with the guys who'll be doing the calculations, so I'll need to go back to London, then ... well, it might be possible."
"Good," I grinned at him. "How much more have you got to do around here, anyway?"
"Not a lot to be honest talk to your teacher friend Jane about her initial results she said she'd be able to identify the really high value parts of the existing site even at this stage, so we can mark them off on the plans, structure the landscaping works around them"
"Right, so get hold of her this afternoon, or this evening, you could be back in London tomorrow lunchtime. Gives you almost five days to do the work, get it back to us." He did look like he might be about to protest, for a moment, then remembered who was paying the bills and nodded. I allowed myself a brief moment of satisfaction it was good to be a bastard at times then became aware of one of the hotel's staff ... Charlotte, I think her name was ... trying to attract my attention
"Ms Jenner? There's a phone call for you ...
Except, of course, that I knew how to make what you might describe as English coffee. Niusha was polite, but you could tell it wasn't really her thing. I raised a quizzical eyebrow, engaging with her more to avoid Naz's continuing rant than anything else.
"Sorry ... I'm Iranian. And while I might not have lived there since my teens, this is still not coffee, in my opinion: It is slightly darkly coloured water. I will have to educate you about this, I can tell."
I was about to say something witty in response there was something I really liked about her attitude the provocative grin she gave me as she disparaged my last remaining competence but I was distracted by Seff putting the phone down, at long last, and doing so with a violent gesture and a vehement burst of guttural German. Now that didn't sound good, I thought.
Actually, Seff didn't carry on yelling, just expressed her frustration briefly, then sat at her desk, not saying anything, not looking at anyone. I got Naz to shut up by yelling at him, quite loudly, I'm afraid and then went over to Seff, crouching down beside her. She looked a bit surprised to be the centre of attention, nodded jerkily when I asked if she was OK.
"Yeah ... sorry ... just a bit of an over-reaction, probably. Its just that I've been talking to FreiBank the people from Baden-Wurttemberg, you know? and they weren't being terribly helpful ... or candid. They have sent the preliminary data you asked for you'll see their e-mail but ... I don't know ... something's up. They were also supposed to finalise a contract pay us money in other words ... and I can't find anyone who can tell me why they haven't ... or when or if they will."
I picked up on the edge to her voice. "It couldn't just be an oversight, I suppose?"
"A bank that size? Overlooking a contract? No."
OK. So how worried should I be? Well, for better or worse, for the moment I wasn't all that bothered ... or, rather, I felt that I had more urgent things to worry about. Yes, they were just about the nearest thing we had to a paying customer, so far, but this was one of the contacts we'd been working on that I just had a bad feeling about. So I wasn't going to loose sleep over it just yet. I stood up, gave Seff my best reassuring smile, said, "Well, lets file it under curious for the moment. I'll have a look at the preliminary stuff as soon as I can. Meantime, I think its about time we got organised."
"Gareth I think you need to talk to Debbie ... I'm not going to be able to help much with your questions, largely because I haven't got a clue what you're talking about. So ... why don't you take yourself off to Cumbria for the weekend ... kill a few birds with a single stone. That way you get to meet Debbie, at last, see where we're planning on working from and resolve the contracts stuff. If its OK with Debbie, obviously, but if it is, we'll pay hotels, fares all that stuff ... OK?"
He nodded, so I turned to Seffi. "Can you give Debbie a call its snowing up there, at least that's what Radio 4 said this morning, so she might well be in the hotel. If not, leave a message but check its OK for Gareth to come up, and if so, sort out the necessaries."
"Naz, sit down behind a computer and do whatever the hell you need to do. Then, at some point, you can tell me about what you've achieved show me a revolutionary turbine blade or something sparing me the details of just how clever you've been in the process. Not that I'm not interested, but you lost me sometime in the first twenty seconds of the explanation." He grinned, already lost in a sea of equations, algorithms, whatever. He'd emerge eventually, I knew.
"And Niusha, when Seff has a moment free, I need you to talk to her in some detail about just what we're trying to achieve here, what you're likely to have to cover for. And when you've done that, I'll take you and Seff out for lunch ... and we'll try and find some coffee that you'll actually enjoy ... and you can educate us. Now lets get on with things, OK? We have a business to run, here ...
It was Seffi on the phone, sounding surprised but pleased to have caught me first time. Well, I was pleased to talk to her, too ... pleased that she sounded happy, not too stressed ... even if the office sounded busier than usual in the background. As usual, she wasted little time on idle pleasantries and quickly explained the call: Would I be OK with the new Legal Bloke coming up at the weekend some stuff he wanted to talk about re the contracts between us and PCW/Carla which was OK by me, did I know if the Albion had a vacancy for Saturday night well, yes, they did, even if they didn't know it yet and if she was booking train tickets, should they be first class or standard.
"Hell, Seff ... he's a lawyer ... probably sue us if he realised that everyone else around here tends to travel first these days ..." Except me, I thought, ending the call with a feeling of relief. With Dave running the show pretty much on his own you just never quite knew what surprises might be in store...
So I walked back over to Colin feeling almost light hearted, watching him watching me with an eager, almost puppy like expression. In fact, I'd almost got back to his table when Charlotte called my name again.
"Ms Jenner? Another call, I'm afraid ..."
Niusha and Seff hit it off right away, sitting drinking tiny cups of pretty much solid caffeine outside an Iranian café N knew just behind the British Museum. I admit I was fascinated by her, the easy way she lived across her two cultures, her obvious confidence and competence at work, her deep affection and respect for her homeland. She'd shrugged off Seff's query about the headscarf no, it wasn't religious, just cultural ... she'd left Iran because her professed atheism and socialism had made her unpopular in certain quarters, did not see any reason to abandon a mode of dress she felt comfortable with just because she was now living in the UK. Which was hard to argue with, not least because some women and Niusha in particular do look very nice in a scarf ...
I also knew that May was very impressed by Niusha, so I asked her for a while about her experience with CareSpan. Turned out that she'd been one of the people that our CastList work had really impacted on, in her case moving her from PA to the finance director to a free floating role co-ordinating the whole central management team. Which, as she put it, was the job she'd been born for ... no two days the same and every day a problem to be solved. Seff and I laughed at this, said almost simultaneously that we felt that the new placement might prove to be similar in that respect, at least.
When we got back to the office, Seff took Niusha through the work we had planned and in prospect and began to introduce her to some of the systems she'd invented. Naz appeared not to notice that we'd even come back, sitting in his corner typing very rapidly, taking time every now and then to jot something down on a note pad on the desk in front of him. I did take a brief look over his shoulder at his screen, saw quantities of what looked like very complex code, went back to my own desk. He'd come round soon enough, I knew, and in the meantime, I needed to make a start on the FreiBank stuff. And quickly realised that I had a problem.
OK, so all I had to go on were the psychometric data on the banks top hundred or so executives and traders ... all anonymised so that I couldn't even tie it into roles or grades which could be useful when beginning to sketch out a plan of action. In this case, though, there simply wouldn't have been any point. Not only would that approach not work, but, I quickly realised, neither would any of the others. It seemed that on day one of job one, I'd discovered the fatal flaw. Oh, bugger, I thought.
Actually, the problem was not entirely unexpected, just vastly more apparent than I could have imagined in my most cynical moments. I was used to working with charities and there are a lot of reasons why people choose to work in that field some people Want To Do Good, of course, others want a family / gay / difference friendly environment, some people see it as an easy life, a cushy number ... though the latter don't tend to last long. In any case, the diversity of the workforce offered opportunities for constructive change. The gentlemen of FreiBank, on the other hand, had a single, universal driver, every single bloody one of them motivated by exactly the same thing.
They wanted to make money, lots of it. And from the psychometrics, each and every one of them would be quite prepared to club new born babies to death with his grandmother to do so.
This was, I realised, going to make it difficult. Identifying alternatives, introducing new factors, changing things around a bit ... what we were planning to do, in other words ... simply would not work. From these results, if it didn't make shed loads of wonga, they wouldn't be interested. It was depressing. It really was.
In fact, I struggled on with the data for a while, drilling down into the level two stuff that this particular organisation had provided. These supposedly indicated more subtle character traits / predilections on a level which HR people rarely bothered with I wondered whether whoever had set up this system had encountered the same issues but it didn't help all that much. A few people were marginally honest, while a few appeared to have major antisocial personality disorders, but on the whole the initial impression that these guys were one self sustaining, homogeneous mass was hard to refute. So I made some more coffee, spent some time looking out the window. I find this effective, problem solving wise do nothing and often things come right all on their own and in this case my superstition was justified gratifyingly quickly.
Specifically, Seff looked up from where she was talking to Niusha going through the contacts lists, giving thumbnails sketches of the various individuals she'd been dealing with in getting things even as far as they had with some of our prospective clients and waved to attract my attention. "Think we may have an explanation for FreiBank's evasiveness earlier on, she said ... just got a non-work e-mail from one of my contacts there ... think its been written in a cafe or something."
Something in her tone ... a sort of grim satisfaction, I think you could call it ... caused me to get up and go over to her desk, leaning over between the two of them to read the message on her screen rather than have her forward it over to me. Interesting, I thought ... definitely wouldn't want that in your work sent items folder ...
Another false alarm. This time it was a guy called Carol (he said), been given the number by Rosie, apparently. Oh yeah, I thought the wind generator guy, wondering how I could help. Turned out he was at Bowmere station, just come up from London, wanted to come and meet me if that would be convenient? I said something about the snow but he laughed in a way that probably meant something like 'wait until you've been here a few years and see if you still call this snow' and I found myself agreeing to meet him at the old slate works in an hour. Well, I'd been planning to go over there later, anyway...
When I got back this time, Colin was packing up, explaining that he was heading back to his room to get started on the really detailed costings I do so like enthusiasm and even declined my offer of lunch. So I headed over to the café in Church Gate on my own, enjoying the walk in the snow even as I wondered just how bad this place got in the depth of winter. Soon find out, that was for sure, I thought ...
Inevitably, it was Rosie working in the café but for once it was actually quite busy some out of season coach party, by the looks of things and I didn't really get a chance to talk to her until the afternoon shift person arrived, by which time I was on the point of leaving myself, heading for my meeting on site. Still, I waited long enough to say hello, as you do, only then to explain that I had to leave pretty much instantly to meet the oddly named Carol in about two minutes. This produced a surprising reaction.
"Karol," she said, eyes lighting up, "Here? Hang on ... I'll get my coat..."
And so, when I got down to the slate works it was in the company of a very cheerful Rosie, who by that stage was hanging onto my arm and giving me a quick run down on a guy yeah, Karol, not Carol, Polish ancestry, apparently who seemed to be some sort of walking sex god, at least in Rosie's eyes. And, I admitted to myself, silently, she did could probably claim to be something of an expert ...
Actually, by the time we'd walked down the road there was no sign of the mysterious Karol ... just Jane, and a couple of her students, looking busy, and Linda. I shouted hello, wondering how you could survey a site in all this snow. Well, by looking at footprints, apparently ... or at least that's what the students were doing, taking photographs and even casts of the damn things. I wondered whether this would reveal anything interesting or was just a way of giving the pupils something to do. Not for the first time, Jane appeared to read my mind.
"Looks like you've had a pine marten around here last night", she said without preamble, excited as always. I must have looked blank because she laughed. "Be impressed, Debbie ... there's only about twenty of them in the whole of the county ... and to find one here ... not exactly a forest, is it? ... its pretty bloody unusual. We're going to try a trap this evening, see if we can get a live one ... see whether its an adventurous youngster or just a confused elder." She laughed again. "And its not even an endangered species, nationally, so no worries about mucking up all your plans ..."
Which I suppose I should have been relieved to hear but, actually, I was just pleased that Jane was pleased, happy watching her corral the kids into moving onto a different area, explaining where best to look for harvest mice and dormouse spoor, otter tracks and the like. Admittedly, it appeared that the former were best found in owl pellets shit, in other words but conveniently it turned out that we also had owls. Which at least meant I'd have something to talk to Dave about when I phoned him later, I thought, aware that Linda had more on her mind than zoology.
"I was hoping to catch you," she said as I turned towards her. "Its Andy ... he wants a definite yes/no on your renting accommodation." She saw the look on my face, I think, because she went on quickly. "Yes, I thought it was all agreed, too, but apparently he wants to confirm it personally. Which probably means he's going to try and add a few things to the bill ... although you didn't hear that from me, obviously."
Well, OK, I thought, checking with Jane that she'd be OK with taking Colin through the results to date she suggested the bar that evening and with my self that the clothing I was wearing was appropriate. And, yeah ... full waterproofs and a woolly hat. Couldn't have chosen better if I'd planned it. So I nodded to Linda, set off down the hill with her.
Of course, just as we were leaving the car park an old, battered Fiat Panda pulled up a 4x4 version, apparently and this large fair haired guy got out. Karol, I assumed, seeing the way Rosie instantly started in on him, while I made complicated gestures to the two of them that I'd be back as soon as possible, else try the bar later? I hoped they understood, mentally preparing myself for ordeal by lech.
In fact, young Andrew was no more unpleasant than he probably was just by nature of being him. Patronised Linda massively, of course, but didn't try anything on with me not so such much as a lascivious smirk. OK, so he tried to get us to pay for a whole load of the electrical work in his bloody building but that didn't take long to sort out (its true ... all bullies really are cowards) and I got the contracts signed, work to be completed within a fortnight. Which was good. I did think of offering him extra if he would remove himself from the premises for the duration but let it lie. If all else failed, we could always set Rosie on him ...
What Seff had uncovered ... or her mole had revealed, actually ... was that FreiBank were basically on the point of pulling the plug on the whole deal. Which at first struck me as the answer to a prayer even if I didn't know I'd said one but on closer consideration looked rather more problematic. In fact, what seemed to be going on was that PCW had 'indicated' no clue as to how or to whom that they would no longer guarantee us. Not directly financially ... the actual overheads for the work were so small that we could afford to do it on spec, collect the money on delivery to satisfied customer and all that ... but, rather more worryingly, they were no longer presenting us as trusted corporate partners, suitable to be given access to highly confidential and potentially highly profitable information. Which, even I could see, could easily kill the whole thing stone dead. If nothing else, we didn't have either the capitalisation or the track record to insure ourselves against that sort of level of liability so if things did go wrong deliberately or otherwise they couldn't recoup the damages by suing us. And even if they tried, from the looks of this, they'd be second in line behind PCW anyway.
I'm not sure that Niusha saw the problem, immediately, but Seffi clearly did. She didn't look too happy ... casting an annoyed glance at Naz, who was still oblivious, wrapped up in his code, typing away ... but not actually distraught, either. I could almost see her brain working, going through all her contacts at PCW, thinking who might be able to provide more information, how she / we might go about getting it. While she was thinking, I filled Niusha in on the implications, watching as it sank in and she had the decency to look quite upset on our behalf. I mean, it wasn't her problem, so ...
By the end of the afternoon I wasn't sure it was my problem, either. OK, so I'd ruled out some of the more extreme suggestions when we'd finally got Naz to engage with reality he'd suggested having a go at some of the gaps in PCW's firewalls he remembered from working there get the information we needed by simply hacking their systems though I didn't think that criminal activity was justified just yet but otherwise Seff sort of took over. She did try phoning Debbie, see if she had any suggestions, but couldn't get hold of her, just left a message to phone one or the other of us she didn't need to describe it as urgent, Debbie would get the point. Then she made a few phone calls not asking any direct questions, just getting a feel for the terrain, as she put it. Which revealed nothing more than the fact that people who'd been fine to chat a couple of days ago were a lot less friendly now.
Which was hardly a surprise. Eventually, we decided we'd call it a day. Naz left first, en route to some university library, intent on blagging some journal articles he hadn't been able to find on public access on the web, followed by Seff, still deep in thought but smiling happily enough as she left, giving me a hug and pointing out that these things had always worked themselves out in the past, so ...
Which left me with Niusha, looking slightly shell shocked after what had, after all, been quite an eventful first day. So I thought it was only polite to offer her a drink.
I certainly didn't want to start drinking on my own. Not in the mood I was in.
We got back to the Slate Works in time to find everyone finishing up, or, at least, Jane and her students were, while Rosie seemed to be quite deep in conversation with Karol ... wind turbines probably not uppermost in either of their minds, from the look of it. So I suggested that we all head back to the hotel, Linda and I joining Jane's students in the back of the college minibus, Rosie swiftly taking up the offer of a lift with Karol.
Colin was already sitting in the bar when we got back, looking a bit anxious there was a message for me to phone either Seffi or Dave, as soon as possible, he said, no details given. Well, OK, but the either or both bit suggested that this was out of the ordinary. I decided discretion was in order, so got Colin to buy drinks for the assembled locals and suggested that he might want to talk to Jane before she had to get the students back into town. Then I went up to my room to use the phone there in some sort of privacy.
I called Dave first, chatted for about ten minutes he was in a bar, of course, this time with our prospective temporary administrator, who he seemed impressed by and then I called Seffi. She was outside the UCL library, waiting for Naz to get something or the other, and thus actually able to talk more openly, not that I learnt much more than Dave had implied, specific information being one thing we were clearly short of. After which, I sat back on the bed for a while, thinking about the news. It was interesting not unexpected, I had to admit to myself and there were people in PCW who might be a little more willing to talk to me than they had been to Seff, people who owed me favours, but that would have to wait till Monday. Anyway, our incredibly keen new Legal Bloke was coming up for the weekend, maybe he'd have a cast iron contractual solution to all our problems. Or, more probably, he wouldn't. Ah, well, I sighed inwardly, then decided to change ... put on something nice for the evening, act happy ... however I felt inside.
Back in the bar, I found that Linda had volunteered to take both minibus and students back to the college she was insured to drive it, apparently and so, to my delight, Jane was still around, deep in conversation with Colin when I joined them, accepting the drink that someone had bought me. Otters, they were discussing ... not that Jane had found any traces of them, but apparently the beck had potential as a breeding site, so that we 'should' be taking their needs into consideration in our planning, and ... I smiled inwardly at Colin's rapt attention, I suspecting that architects didn't come across enthusiasts like Jane very often ... wondered whether I should step in before we found ourselves building a full scale nature reserve rather than the offices and accommodation that we'd planned. And then I thought ... nah ... the more right on commitments we made, locally, the harder it would be for PCW to take the thing back. And if they didn't, well ... I'd quite like to see an otter from my office window ...
Elsewhere, well, Rosie and Karol were still catching up with old times or something but eventually Rosie came up for air long enough to notice that I was back, asked if the message had been important. I sort of side-stepped the issue, instead telling Karol what Dave had said about Naz's new obsession, how he thought he might already have a revised turbine blade for them, just wanted to check some of his calculations over the weekend. Surprisingly, Karol got quite excited about this ... they had some sort of crux business meeting the next day important enough to schedule for a Saturday, anyway which is why he'd wanted to talk to me so urgently, get some idea of whether we might be a customer. I'd actually forgotten that I'd agreed to meet with him in the first place but we swiftly got into work mode, talking options, opportunities. I began to warm to the guy there was a streak of arrogance about him a little self-satisfaction that grated with me but I couldn't help but admire his enthusiasm. Even if the abrupt shift in topic obviously piss off Rosie ... who turned to engage with Jane and Colin ... who were now onto bats, I noticed ...
We ended up in the pub by Euston that I'd first taken Carla to. There was nothing deliberate in that ... its just that, whatever the tourist board might tell you, there just aren't that many decent pubs in London. Anyway, the Arch also had the advantage that it didn't get completely packed even on a Friday night until quite a lot later on, so we got a table to ourselves. And I'd even made it to the bar, pint for me, white wine for Niusha, and back again ... before my phone rang ... Debbie, of course, now back in her hotel. I filled her in as best I could and we briefly went into some options, agreed to talk again the next day ... when I was somewhere a bit more private.
Not, as I hastily explained to Niusha, that I had any problem with discussing stuff in front of her but ... well ... walls have ears ... and PCW employed a lot of people, some of whom presumably commuted through the station. She smiled, nodded, accepted the explanation in good grace, even as I sought frantically for a change of subject. Unfortunately, the only one that sprang to mind was the subject of her Persian-ness. a subject that, like all refugees, I knew that she'd be heartily sick of discussing with ignorant Brits. Finessing the situation as best I could, I explained my difficulty instead. Rather than look annoyed she gave a full throated laugh, seeming pleased that I'd spotted the problem, amused that I'd failed to avoid it anyway.
"Actually," she said, "its probably as well to get it out of the way. Women in head-scarves are not often seen drinking alcohol not in public, anyway and in any case there are things about me you should probably know if we're going to work together, even for a while." So she gave me her potted history grandfather and an uncle or two murdered by the shah, father surviving for a time under the Islamists because of this and despite his role in the Fedaian leftist opposition to both regimes, eventually leaving the country only in the late 80s after yet another spell in prison ... and in the knowledge that his only daughter Niusha was beginning to attract the attention of the secret police in her own right. And so he came to the UK, then a more welcoming place for refugees, where he had family, and where N had been able to attend University.
I asked her about her own politics ... thinking, from the little I knew, that the Iranian left had been heavily influenced by Soviet style communism what with the shared border and all and wondering where her unique experience of the world had left her, philosophically speaking. Her answer surprised me.
"I don't think I would describe myself as a socialist, any more," she said, sipping the wine. "I think I'm probably more a syndicalist, if anything ... at least the system of local, autonomous groups organising production and distribution, co-operating within and between each other for the common good ... strikes me as a pretty humane way of going about things. At any rate, we should be free to co-operate not to compete ... life is about more than profit and loss, I think ... which is maybe why I work for a charity, try to live as well as I can, even in a corrupt and decadent world ..."
I nodded, hearing her echo some of my own thoughts, albeit from a very different perspective. "Only problem with syndicalism, of course, is that its plausible in an agrarian economy Spain in the Civil War period being the obvious example but difficult to pull off globally." She started to interject, but I went on quickly. "No, I'm not defending globalisation per se, not at all. I think the world would be a better place if I couldn't buy fresh flowers in January well, not air freighted African ones, anyway and of course there are alternatives to most big centralised institutions and facilities local government, distributed power generation, whatever that equally probably couldn't be any worse than the current approach. But there are advantages to working on a global scale its at least theoretically possible to equalise the distribution of food, for instance using a surplus in one part of the world to compensate for a drought or a famine in another and then there are things that are just inherently rare or hard to do. I might not need Kenyan roses but if I was dying of the relevant disease I would probably be grateful for drugs derived or extracted from some other African plant ... or access to an MRI scanner using magnets made from rare metals not found in the UK ... whatever."
"Yes, of course," she said, nodding vigorously, "but the advantage that we have, today, over your rural Catalans, is that we have infinitely better communications. The internet doesn't have to be a means for ill informed people to share and reinforce their prejudices but at least in theory, again it could provide the means to enable trade fair trade, equitable and transparent trade between a plethora of local communities, local groups ... and actually enable some of those groups to specialise to produce unique services or ... art, even without becoming privileged classes, parasites on the productive cadres ...
We both smiled at that lapse into Trot-speak and I took a rare sip of my pint as I thought about what she'd said. I was impressed by the enthusiasm, sure, but there was a definite problem. Which was, I said, the internet itself. "Like it or not, its a hi tech system. OK, maybe you could restructure the thing to act as a sort of really complex chain of very small local networks take away the DNS level and in effect that's what it is, crudely speaking but transoceanic cables do not get laid by a bunch of enthusiasts. More to the point, even the computer you use to access the thing even the phone you use to access it, these days does rather depend on massively complex ... and very expensive to make ... chips. There are what, three chip foundries on the planet capable of producing top flight CPUs? Whoever has control of them is going to be more equal than most, I'd have thought ... even if your local groups could support some sort of taxation tithing? - system that would allow you to build or replace them, educate and train the people you'd need to operate them."
I paused for breath and she jumped straight back in. "Yes, I know that and it is a problem. But one thing you might not have thought about: The crux is organisation, right? Or rather, the ability to co-ordinate rather than command diverse interests to ensure the common good, yes? That way you can keep your chip foundries, your elite Universities, whilst still eliminating a lot of waste and our currently obscene levels of inequality. You just need some way of objectively and overtly identifying and balancing the needs and desires of all involved, surely?"
I nodded. Seemed a bit utopian to me but I couldn't immediately see any major flaws in the logic just minor details like what the fuck an 'objective and overt' system to balance needs and wants across the globe might look like. I said as much ... and she looked triumphant.
"But, Dave, isn't that precisely what CastList is designed to do?"
After a while, bats seemed to be a really attractive topic. I was, by then, wedged in a corner with Karol entirely dominating the conversation ... and me. OK, so he and his friends had devoted three years of their lives mortgaged their souls, worked night and day, blah, blah, blah to develop their particular product but ... honestly ... it just wasn't that interesting. I felt a headache coming on, but still couldn't find a way to break the interminable flow of words that was washing over me. I really didn't want to be rude and, anyway, wasn't sure that rudeness, as such, would actually work ... there was definitely an arrogance in Karol, a fundamental assumption that people would be interested in him, that might need actual violence to break. And I didn't quite want to go down that route ... yet. So I kept careful control of my facial expressions and sat back and hoped it would end, soon.
In fact, I did eventually find a way to end it, all on my own. Any help I might have expected from Rosie appeared to be have lost in her increasing fascination with Colin and not, I thought, the conversation (still about wildlife) that he was carrying on with Jane which is maybe why I resorted to desperate measures: Specifically, agreeing to phone Naz, see how far he'd got, see if he had anything useful that he might be able to send through for Karol to take to his meeting. Not that that was a problem Naz was easy enough to get hold of and more than happy to talk about the subject it was more that accessing the relevant information without a mobile or internet connection was sort of difficult. Of course, I should have got Naz to send what he had to Karol's e-mail, let the bastard pick it up when he got home, but my brain was a bit frazzled by that time and I didn't. Hell, by that stage I was quite prepared to get a bloody taxi into Bowmere, download the file, hand it to Karol and get a taxi back ... hopefully leaving him in town. Karol, though, had another idea.
And so we ended up in his little, allegedly four wheel drive hatchback, driving up the valley and heading for the 'high road' over the tops to the south where, apparently, a good signal could be obtained. I felt highly dubious about trying this with the snow falling as it was but Karol, the Cumbrian, laughed at me, assured me that this was nothing, that the trip would be no problem.
He was wrong. Perhaps deliberately.
OK, I thought, so my pet project had gone from being a corporate white elephant to the potential saviour of the world in only a few hours. This was impressive, I felt, unable to contain my amusement. Niusha picked up on this, of course, and looked a bit put out, briefly, before she grinned, too. "Well, OK ... I'm not suggesting that you should reposition your company in the service of the global revolution just at the moment I think quite a few things might need to happen before we'd need to implement any such solution on a global scale, anyway, to be honest." She smiled, then looked serious. "But, Dave, did you really get into this just to make banks more efficient?"
Which was a sobering thought, or at least would have been if I hadn't already been sober. I decided to do something about this, finished my pint and went back to the bar for another. When I got back, Niusha changed the subject with a smile ... and we talked about our respective families, places we'd visited, places we'd always wanted to go ... standard Friday evening in-pub topics, really. And continued on that line until the place began to get really crowded, noisy enough to make conversation difficult ... and safe for various people to make 'anonymous' comments in Niusha's direction ... about her ethnicity, assumed religion, dress ... etc etc. Never, of course, directly to her or my face, but obvious enough to be uncomfortable. She said she was only too used to this sort of thing ... but it was still unpleasant enough for us to reach an unspoken, mutual decision to leave.
Out on the street Euston Road, clogged with traffic even at this time of the evening we found it was raining. Well, it had been most of the day, so that shouldn't have been a surprise. I guess that I, at least, had got into something of a bubble, while we were talking, temporarily forgetting about the rest of the world. I said as much to her as we stood under the shelter of a convenient bus stop and she agreed. "Yes," she said, "it was an interesting conversation ... and one I would like to continue."
I started to say something about how we'd be working quite closely for a while at least, so ... but she shushed me. "No, I mean now," she said. "So why don't we get out of this rain and go back to my place .... maybe I could teach you about Iranian food as well as coffee?"
Well, he was right about the signal ... strangely, I thought as the 'high' road was still surrounded by higher fells, at least as far as I could tell given the fact that it was night and blowing a blizzard up here. Still, I got the files he wanted Naz had actually done some video simulations as well as all the equations and drawings and took a quick look at my own stuff ... nothing urgent. More to the point, nothing remotely like a leak of my own from within PCW. Well, OK ... like I said, I could follow that sort of thing up next week. I suggested to Karol that we should maybe be thinking of getting back, now that he had what he wanted, given the weather, all that?
"Hey, no rush," he said, turning to me. My heart sank ... I kind of knew this was on the cards. "Its nice up here, just the two of us ... the snow ... why don't we just enjoy the situation for a while?"
I wondered if this sort of approach ever worked for anyone, anywhere, but it certainly wasn't working for me. I picked up my phone again, made a show of looking for numbers. "I suggest you start driving or I'm going to phone the police or whoever it takes. Is that clear? I do not want to be here and I am not enjoying your company. Or the view, come to that. So drive ..."
For a moment, I thought he might actually try to grab the phone from my hands but he simply looked smug ... commenting that Mountain Rescue might get up here but no way could the police get anywhere near ... and then reluctantly put the car into gear, slowly turning the thing on the narrow track and edging carefully back down into the valley. I breathed a sigh of relief ... prematurely, as it turned out.
What happened next may or may not have been a genuine accident but the car just didn't stop on one particularly steep bit of the descent, failed to make the turn at the bottom of the slope, and ended up ploughed into a ditch, quite deeply buried in a snow drift. Of course, Karol found this hugely amusing, particularly my obvious fear as he lost control of the thing. He was still laughing when he told me not to bother with my phone we were out of signal again. I started to clamber out the car, anything to get away from him. He grabbed my arm, pulled me back inside, quite roughly. "Its a long way back down into the valley, not a long drive but a very long walk ... in this weather ... and dressed as you are. Oh, you are quite beautiful but ... not well equiped ... for the elements ... I'd say. And without a torch you'd never keep to the road, go wandering off into all sorts of drifts and gullies ... and all in a pair of trainers. I really think you'd be better staying here ... Why, there's even a sleeping bag you can share ... if you'd like ..."
I checked the phone, anyway, but of course the bastard was right ... no signal. I looked down the into valley ... where I could just occasionally see the lights of either a farm or the Old Hotel glimmer through the snow ... probably too far to get to. I cursed myself for my own stupidity in getting into this position, for not taking time to put on boots, proper insulation. But then, I'd been doing him a favour, hadn't I? Just a quick drive up the valley, then back to a nice warm bar ... no need to dress up, take a torch, any of that. I cursed Rosie for not telling me or not knowing that her 'sex god' was a dangerous arsehole. I was still cursing as he reached out to pat my arm, went to hug me ... like he wanted everything to be OK, to look after me.
I got him in the midriff with an elbow, accurately if not particularly hard, causing him to swear and double up for a second, real anger in his eyes, now. Yes, he was calling me a stuck up southern bitch, I thought, somehow still not quite believing that this was actually happening. He went to grab my hair, and I rolled away, against the door, scrabbling for the release and finally throwing myself out onto the snow. He laughed as I lay sprawled before him, climbing from the care, too, and standing over me, kicking my feet away from me as I went to stand up, toppling me back into the snow, my head cracking against the frozen surface of the road. He laughed for far too long, really ... probably playing out some movie cliché in his head. I wondered if the cavalry would arrive, wondered just sort of movie this would turn out to be.
The voice was sudden but authoritative ... and very angry." Fuck knows what's going on, here, but it can stop right now." For a moment, I was confused ... wondering what I was doing aside from my being about to be raped, perhaps? that I could possibly stop ... but then someone threw some light on the scene. Kath. With a torch, pointed directly into Karol's eyes. Oh, good, I thought, as I fainted ... its my sort of movie ...
We were both pretty drenched when we got back to Niusha's place probably the decision to walk rather than get a bus was not the best we'd ever taken but it was warm and she found me an old t-shirt and a towelling robe to wear while my own clothes dried out, changed, herself, into what looked to me like a loose kaftan, though I'm sure it had an Iranian name...
She cooked roasted aubergine with garlic and spices, and a chicken stewed in pomegranate juice, sitting on the floor opposite me as we ate, still talking politics, veering into Farsi literature as time went on. She opened a bottle of palm wine, a somewhat unlikely cultural artefact, I thought, and that got us into a discussion about Islam and whether alcohol was forbidden or not apparently the case is less clear than you might think. Then again, the early Christian church was stridently against lending money at interest, quite relaxed about homosexuality, so ... these things change. The wine was ... interesting, though ... certainly different.
Meal over, we sat in virtual silence, for a while. I was wondering about the time for the last tube, trying to remember night bus routes around here, when she stood up and moved over to sit beside me, lying her head on my shoulder, one arm draped across my chest, pulling herself gently into me. It felt very nice and I stroked her hair the scarf had gone ages ago as we slowly began to lightly kiss, her hands now inside the gown, stroking my ribs through the t-shirt.
All of which made it an inconvenient time for my phone to ring, but I slightly reluctantly broke away from Niusha and dug the thing out ... to find that it wasn't ringing after all. It was very strange ... I'd heard it very clearly, felt the vibration ... but, nope, no ring and no missed calls. I shook my head, puzzled, aware of Niusha looking at me strangely and then I had a very strong urge no, compulsion to ring Debbie. So I did ... giving N an apologetic look, knowing that this was going to be difficult to explain ... was quite possibly the end of a beautiful friendship.
Of course, Debbie wasn't in the hotel ... had just gone out, according to the receptionist ... but eventually I got someone to find Colin the architect, bring him to the phone. And that was strange, too ... he was there, having a drink with some locals that they'd become friendly with, he said, while Debbie had just gone out with the wind generator guy, Karol, trying to find a phone signal. There was something in his voice, though, something that made me think he was worried or, at least, concerned and that things were not as simple as all that. Which got me worried in turn, of course. Especially when I began to think about how I'd come to make the call in the first place.
That said, I couldn't really achieve much just talking to Colin and he clearly didn't know much more than he'd told me like what was so important that Debbie would go out in a blizzard to get a phone signal rather than, say, using a hotel phone ... or waiting till the morning so I ended the call with a request for Debbie to phone me just as soon as she got back. And for him to call me if for any reason she didn't.
By which time, Niusha had stopped looking at me strangely and was now looking quite concerned. Well, OK, I suppose my recent behaviour had been odd, to say the least, and I'm equally sure that I'd sounded worried make that panicy, actually when I'd been talking to Colin. Problem was, I really couldn't explain why I'd even thought about the phone I'd been quite enjoying myself up to that point, was hardly looking for distractions let alone imagined that it was ringing or felt that weird compulsion to call Debbie. I gave it a go, anyway, and Niusha took it well, in the circumstances. At least, she didn't seem to think that I'd just gone nuts.
"Strange things happen in the world," she said, I think reassuringly. "Even to people like us, people who pride themselves on being rational beings, not given to superstition or unfounded beliefs. I think you're very close to Debbie closer than you described to me earlier, maybe closer than you realise ... even than you believe possible. And while I obviously don't believe in psychic phenomena ... well, my grandmother did ... claimed to know exactly when her husband and her children were killed ... even if it was weeks before she was told about their 'accidents' officially."
Which was not, when you think about it, remotely reassuring. Even if I could accept that as an explanation and that Holmes phrase about eliminating the impossible and accepting the merely improbable sprang to mind, of course, given that I couldn't think of any other, rational theory it kind of implied that Debbie was in some sort of trouble ... in a blizzard in the mountains. And there was bugger all I could do about it, sitting here in London.
I was in Kath's Landrover when I came round, Jane fussing over me. Turns out that Kath had got to the bar some time after we'd left, decided that the weather was far too bad for Karol's thing to cope with, and headed up the valley to see what if we needed help. Then even the Landie had got stuck in the snow and she'd come up the last bit of the road on foot, finding ... well, you know what. I didn't really take in the details, to be honest, at least until we got back to the bar and someone found me a seat in a corner, shoved a whisky mac into my hands. I drained it in one go.
People were looking anxiously at me, Kath having tersely filled in some of the details while Jane sat and held me, but strangely I felt fine. OK, give it a while and the shock would hit me, but for the moment ... fine. I was even curious for the details ... why Karol did not appear to have come back with us for one ... revolted as that thought suddenly made me. I had quite a few questions, so I started to ask Jane about what had happened. She said nothing, just gestured to Kath, who came over and squatted in front of me, almost like she was checking me for concussion ... as, indeed, she was.
"There was a bit of blood on the snow, a bit of a cut on the back of your head ... don't know whether the bastard hit you or its just from falling over ... but its as well to be safe. You sure you're up to this now? Nothing that won't wait till the morning ..." I assured her that I was.
"OK ... simple enough ... I got up to the byre turn, found, well, Karol standing over you, laughing a lot. So I got him in the torch beam, let him know I was there ... and then you fainted, I think. Anyway, at the time I was a bit worried and I didn't really want to look after you when he was still hanging around ... so I nutted him. As in headbutted him, that is ... didn't knock him out or anything but it got him dazed enough so that I could lock him in his own car then have a look at you. Bastard's presumably still there ... I dare say someone will find him in the morning ... bound to be a shepherd or someone passing by ... and he'd even got a sleeping bag in the car." She looked slightly anxious about telling me this, seemed relieved when I just smiled. I started to say something about us definitely not doing business with him in the future, regretting helping him out at all and she grinned ... and handed me my laptop, phone ... and a data stick. "Found this on his dashboard your data, I believe. Jane, here, thought you might like it back, in the circumstances."
So that was that with Karol. I wondered vaguely how to break the news to Naz that he'd wasted his time, then wondered instead whether we couldn't just start producing our own bloody turbines if Naz's designs were as good as he thought they were and PCW did do the dirty on us even filing a mental note to get Legal Bloke to check out how much of Karol's existing stuff was patented. And then it was back to the group ... accepting Rosie's apology hell, even I knew that if she'd known it would go like that there was no way she'd have let me leave with him reassuring Colin and Jane that I really was OK and giving Kath a truly grateful hug, even as I got Colin to tell me about bat roofs, and otter banks and all the other things that had been decided upon in my absence. I wasn't even that pissed off when someone finally remembered to mention that Dave had phoned while I'd been away...
I stayed on at Niusha's simply because I didn't want to go home. As you might imagine the rest of the evening was a lot less fun. She was very kind, making a lot of tea and the odd cup of her version of coffee, mostly just sitting with her arm around me while I sat, mind whirling through possibilities, obsessively checking my phone every few minutes. Colin had said that they'd be away for no more than hour, had promised to get Debbie to call me as soon as possible. I thought about phoning him again but Niusha stopped me, arguing, reasonably enough, that he would phone me if there was any news, that there was no reason to believe that anything worse had happened than that they'd got stuck in the snow, might have taken shelter in a farmhouse or another pub. Which was true ... it was hardly an unpopulated valley, not known for its killer sheep or hidden cliff faces ... there was a limit to what could go wrong on a simple drive ... even at night ... in a blizzard.
Didn't help, though. I was still worried. Only now I'd taken to wearing a path in Niusha's carpet, pacing repetitively from one end of the room to the other. Until my phone rang, that is.
I had a brief moment of panic it was someone phoning from the hotel landline, from the number but of course I had no idea who. I think I actually did start crying when I found the accept key hand's trembling a bit by this stage and then heard it was Debbie ... Debbie, saying she was OK, safely back in her room at the hotel, sounding a bit weepy, at times, totally exhausted at others. She was OK, she said, repeatedly not even questioning, I realised later, why I'd been concerned in the first place but, yes there had been a bit of a problem, that she'd tell me about it in person, not over the phone, and that Kath had "made things alright" ... before adding a cryptic comment about us needing to find a new source for our wind turbines ... which gave me cause to ponder, later on.
I told her to give Kath a big hug from me and she laughed said that that wouldn't be a problem, given that she was with her at the moment. I made some joke about having strange women in her bedroom with her and she laughed, said that the way things were going Jane the teacher might just join them, too ... at which my mind boggled slightly, before she asked if I was virtuously alone at home ... given that I hadn't answered my home phone. So I told her I wasn't, that I was at Niusha's and that now I knew she was safe and in 'good hands' by the sound of it I'd probably stay (Niusha gave me a quick hug). And so we ended the call, Debbie finishing by saying,
"Just make sure you look after yourself, Dave ... I think its about time I came back to London ... next week, I think ... so it'd be nice if you were all in working order ... and ... oh good ... Jane's come up, too ... give my love to Niusha ..."
So I did. Amongst other things.