[Updated 1.6.20 for clarity]
People say. People say this and people say that and rarely do I pay them any heed. But, more than one person has said to me I ought to share this story. I do concede that on occasion I am guilty of enhancing a story. Not to make me look better but because it is a yarn designed to amuse and inform. What I am about to tell you is as close to the truth as I can remember.
At the turn of the century, things eventually started to go my way when I had a ‘Through The Looking Glass Moment’ in my career. I was in my v. early thirties and relatively recently married. I was doing a job I didn’t enjoy but one that provided the income I required, mostly because I had been idle at school and had relatively fewer options. Having suitably hampered myself by not lifting a finger at school and not going to University because I already knew it all, I couldn’t walk into a plumb ‘degree only’ job and so started with a bump at the very poorly paid bottom of the heap. Sales was where one made any money in this case. I was moderately good at it but really didn’t enjoy it. This next job was the exception that proved the rule. The ‘Looking Glass Moment’ I mentioned earlier was when I somehow blagged a job with a small sales consulting firm in the early 2000’s.
God knows how it happened but perhaps it was a case of ‘Fortune favours the brave’ or, more likely, the IT world was quietly going mental in the dot-com boom? Or, perhaps, they weren’t paying too much attention and I snuck in under the radar? I won’t bore you with how I got there but get there I did and I found myself on the receiving end of a conversation that involved the words, ‘We’d like to offer you a job’ and, ‘I’m afraid the starting salary is only $167,000.00?’ One-hundred-and-sixty-seven-thousand-dollars. For listening to the sound of my own voice? Yes please. You may ask why it was US Dollars? They were far too busy ploughing forward taking over the world with ‘e-everything’ to bother with local currencies, so it was US dollars, take it or leave it. I most firmly took it and managed to struggle out the words, ‘Well, I suppose that is fine as a starting salary’ whilst doing my best at holding what I imagine was an extremely poor poker face. It was the time of complete corporate madness.
Money wasn’t real, everything was going online and everything was overvalued. Not by a little but by a lot. Talk about The Emperor’s New Clothes. It was simply surreal. We travelled everywhere in Business Class, often being upgraded to First as it was always full fare and always fully flexible. The client was paying, and so you bought the ticket that gave the best Airmiles. I earned Airmiles like they were going out of style. Lots and lots of Airmiles and with the Airmiles came the highest frequent flyer status. Having a BA Gold Card was very helpful for the frequent traveller, as we are about to find out.
Like all booms, the dotcom boom did just that. It went boom in a spectacular way. How’s this for speed? speed? My four-hundred-thousand quid of share options lost all of their value in three days, and by the fourth I would have had to buy them back. For some time, the more sensible financial press was looking askance at the wisdom of twenty-somethings tearing back and forth to the US. I mean, they are clever, enthusiastic, hardworking and more susceptible to being fawned over and told they are simply the cleverest but they seemed barely out of nappies, had no solid business experience and yet had become the Masters of the Universe for many. One of the main players was an online fashion retailer called Boo.com and when everything imploded, the Financial Times had the best headline. It simply read, “Boo Hoo”.
My wings were clipped back in a brief meeting with the European Operations Director (also a John if memory serves but definitely not a cool one) in which he told me there was good news and bad news. The bad news is that I was sacked: and before I could get a word of query out, he told me that the good news was that I had been rehired as an Independent Consultant on $1500 US a day plus all expenses. At the then exchange rate this was just shy of £1000 a day. I signed the paper with nary a thought. Amongst the collapse my lot seemed to be getting better and better. What I had failed to spot was that this was them trying to unload overhead and make me into someone who could provide a service to the end of their existing contracts and then be cut loose. Things rapidly moved from 10 days’ work a month to scraping around and begging the scheduler for the dregs. A few days here and there. Not the worst money but quite limiting as you were always poised, ready, like a coiled spring, as it turned out for nothing to happen.
One of my final gigs was for Fujitsu Siemens in Russia and it was for 3 days of course delivery. Something I was good at, enjoyed even. My then wife then was pregnant and very close to dropping our sprog, closer in fact than either of us imagined and money in the bank was a Good Thing. By then, even the myopic and naïve young me could see the writing on the wall and the futility of scrabbling around for the scraps with much more experienced consultants who had been doing this far longer than I had. The previous time I had gone to Moscow (for another client), I was less than amused as, when leaving, I was arrested at the airport. It scared the living shit out of me and I felt terribly foolish as I had not realised it was merely the usual thing of trying to extort a bribe from a suitable looking Westerner. I didn’t end up paying anything because it did not take them long to realise that they had picked the wrong target. I was just terrified and didn’t know what was going on so must have seemed like a total dipshit who wasn’t just playing hard to get but was genuinely stupid. All I could picture was me in an unacknowledged cell deep under the Kremlin having my fingernails pulled out. I blame this level of internal panic and overactive imagination on watching far too many James Bond movies growing up. After a credible Herr Flick lookalike (sans evil monocle) got so exasperated with my dumb responses I was just thrown out of the room that the other copper had detained me in before summoning the scary goon. I just stuffed the contents of my freshly rifled suitcase back in willy-nilly and tore over to the BA Check-In desk. I could not leave fast enough and swore I’d never return to this corrupt hole.
Still, I needed the money and at $4500 for 3 days’ work I’d put it down to experience and have my bribe money ready for my next pass through the airport. As it happens, I didn’t need it as my departure this time would be even more extraordinary than the last. I had been facilitating a workshop all morning and for some reason my phone had been buzzing away in my trouser pocket. On the fourth or fifth buzz I got to wondering who it may be and suggested that a coffee and cigarette break was in order. I sauntered outside and fished my phone from my pocket and saw at least 7 missed calls from my wife! As she knew the style of my work and is a pretty together person who rarely needed to call, this could only mean one thing. Something was wrong vis-à-vis the pregnancy.
[Before my departure she had urged me on when I was vacillating, based on the fact that the local GP with his little wheel thing had predicted a very early September birth, and the fact that this gig got me home on the 29th of August meant everything would be dandy, and we would be $4500 better off. I was always suspicious of his competence for all things doctoring – think more general bumbling idiot – which should have raised my suspicions. My doubts were further compounded by the fact that the Michaelides clinic in London had based their earlier estimates on some very high-tech and expensive scan where the spine length is measured. This then allowed the dark computational wizardry to give a due-date prediction that reckoned that things would come to a head in late August, and not early September as the idiot GP was maintaining. Common-sense, as is so often the way, was clouded by the promise of the filthy lucre.]
Our conversation was brief, and an abbreviated version follows: ‘Hi, what’s up?’, ‘Nothing to worry about, sorry for calling.’, ‘But you called seven times. That isn’t like you. Are you sure everything is ok?’, ‘Well, my waters broke an hour ago. But it is ok, nothing to worry about as Lydia is taking me to the hospital.’
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck and doublefuck. My wife is in labour and I allowed myself to be seduced into going to Moscow for $4500 dollars. Fuck. What a tit. I am going to miss the birth of my child.
All I could manage to say was that I’d do my best to get home as soon as I could. Simultaneously, I was overwhelmed with such a strong emotion that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and that knocked me for six. I did what any seasoned hobby-smoker would do and cadged a very strong ciggy from the Russian fellow next to me. I demolished it whilst running endless scenarios through my head. None of them involved making it back on time and all of them involved a very pissed off client with no fee for the workshop and business class flights to Russia and a nice hotel falling at my feet. Including the loss of the fee, I reckoned that to get home in the next 24 hours was going to cost me the thick end of ten thousand quid. Still, there are times in life when you just have to suck it up and do the right thing, regardless of cost. It is family and that is that.
I drew breath and walked back into the room to find the client principle there, the CEO of Fujitsu Siemens in Russia. Oh goody. I like to think I explained it all rationally, but I suspect that I just babbled. A lot. As a contrast, he was straight-faced and ice-cool. I was crapping myself further at this point. He paused, looked me up and down, drew breath and asked, ‘Is it your first?’ I nodded stupidly and he beamed at me and ordered me to take his car and driver and get to the airport as soon as possible. I was so grateful he didn’t murder me that I just burst out that I wouldn’t charge him for all the wasted time, flights and hotels etc. He laughed and told me to charge him for the full three days and that he’d sign off all the other expense and why was I still standing there? His car would be waiting outside when I got downstairs. True to his word it was. A bloody great BMW 7 Series limo with properly blacked out windows. A regular mafia mobile, but pretty typical for the Moscow elite in those days.
I remember very few things from the trip to the airport. One is that there is a central lane on the massive freeway to the airport that is reserved for VIPs. It turns out that a great big German limo with black windows is automatic qualification. The driver, a very large gentleman who I’ll call Yevgeny, just pulled into this lane and buried the accelerator and I sunk back into the seat. Blimey, those 12-cylinder engines from Munich really have some welly. I don’t know how fast we were going but I do know it was considerably quicker than most of the other cars I saw. The other thing I recall is trying to get across in basic English that I was arrested for a bribe last time. Yevgeny seemed to be failing to grasp this, and seemed very dismissive of what was to me an extremely important point. Finally, I rang the BA Gold Card line and asked for a place on the next flight. The lady was a little bit hesitant but when I blurted out that my wife was in labour, she changed immediately. ‘Sir, get yourself there. I’ll get you on the next aircraft. Leave it to me.’ That was an amazing bit of service that I will never forget and to this day I get a twinge of guilt if flying any other airline than BA.
It turns out that Yevgeny was listening to me after all and he just pulled up in front of the main terminal. In the UK that would have elicited many armed police and much eating of gravel, hands behind the head and speedcuffs. Moscow in those days had a proper Wild West feel and stopping in front of the terminal in a threatening looking car didn’t raise an eyebrow. Yevgeny uncoiled himself from the driver’s seat and gosh, he was a proper big and scary looking fellow. I think he said, ‘follow-me if you want to live’ but I can’t be certain. Anyhow, Yevgeny just starts barking orders at anyone in a uniform and they stiffen up and let us pass by unimpeded. It was extraordinary. He had either told them I was some sort of vvVIP or else I was radioactive. Either way, they averted their gaze and we just sailed past, me and the giant. He parked me in front of the BA desk without further ado, said something congratulatory in Russian and patted me on the back. Except, in patting me he nearly knocked me over. Strong lad too. They were expecting me so there was a brief glance at the passport, no tickets or any other boring paperwork was issued. A man appeared in a suit and I was ushered to the lounge.
The next flight to London was departing soon and I hadn’t had time to get a drink when the same fellow escorted me to the gate. I got on, turned left (other people’s money, always fly Business, until told not to), sank into a big seat and for the first time in several hours I allowed myself to relax as I was faced with three and a half hours of confinement in which I could do nothing at all. A steward appeared, asked if I was the man having the baby. I started to correct him but when I tried the only sound I made was a big sigh. I gathered myself a bit and ordered a scotch and just sagged as the enormity of it all started to hit home. When requesting my third rapid-fire scotch, he politely observed in a Jeeves sort of way that I may want to go easy if I have to drive to the hospital. I explained that I had a driver, and could I please just have the scotch? He demurred and I had a third and then a fourth one. A little voice in my head said four was ample for midday drinking, regardless of the excuse, and I didn’t want to be a dribbling mess before I even arrived. The free booze relaxed not just my body but my sense of time and in no time at all we were landing in London. My mind shifted back into gear and I started checking my watch. My wife’s water had broken at 7:30 in the morning UK time and I was now landing back in the UK at about 6:00pm. 9.5 hours gone and there was a sliver of hope.
I leapt out of my seat to see that the cabin-crew was stopping anyone else from getting off before me. I had something thrust into my hand and when I looked at it they had collected all the remaining bottles of the small screw-top Piper Heidsieck champagne they serve in Club World and stuffed them into a double-bagged plastic bag for me. I legged it up the jetway clanking with free champagne to the shouts of good luck floating up behind me. As I clanked my way through Heathrow, all the time wondering if the handles would hold I resolved to just keep going if they broke. I seemed to be on a roll as, despite my initial fears, the handles seemed to be holding. I must have been waved through immigration but in truth I just can’t remember. I do remember piling out into the Arrivals hall to see the welcoming face of my driver, Derek.
Derek also had a massive German car. For him it was the Stuttgart mob in the form of a big silver S-Class Merc. Derek had been driving me to and from the airport, a weekly occurrence, for the last 18 months so we had an understanding that I would sit back and just leave him to listen to terrible music and drive. I plonked into the back seat and realised that what the Merc lacked was the Gangster Black tinted windows of the Beemer. Because in England, unlike Russia, that is quite de trop. Some tint yes, fully blacked, no.
Derek was very reassuring and just said to me, ‘I’ve never missed any of mine son, and I’m damned if you’ll miss yours.’ All I really remember of that drive is that he hurtled up behind car after car, looming there with his bloody great German tank about 6 cm away from their rear bumper, flashing his lights, hooting the horn and gesticulating. I felt like a Red Sea pedestrian with Moses at the wheel on the M40 that day. That car must have had a big motor too as we were properly shifting and all I could blurt out was that I didn’t want to meet my new child from the A+E department. He just laughed and kept the beast going flat chat to the hospital. Frankly, the time was nearing when I knew I’d arrive. I recognised familiar landmarks as they shot by near to the speed of sound and everything else was starting to become a bit of a blur. I do know that we made it from Terminal 4 at Heathrow to the door of the maternity unit at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford in 42 minutes. Normally a 60-minute drive at the best of times when making progress.
I pelted into the maternity unit towing my carry-on behind me, dressed in a good shirt, chinos and a jacket, and clanked up to the reception desk. The ladies manning the desk, who must see all sorts of freaking out fathers pitch up, looked up calmly as I blurted out who I was there to see. They paused, took this odd sight in and then one of them, having noticed my baggage, rather archly observed that I couldn’t stay the night. I explained that I had come straight from Moscow and they seemed mildly impressed. Score one for me. I’ll bet they don’t get that every day. I was shown to the room, it was 7:30pm and my wife seemed faintly surprised to see me. I had a quick scan around and realised that our family still consisted of only two, heaved a massive sigh of relief and barely refrained from announcing, ‘Ta da’ and doing a twirl. It didn’t seem appropriate given she looked understandably as if the burden of the real work – things like breaking waters, contractions, being sick, having pethidine, being sick some more etc – was being done by her ,with undoubtedly the best still to come. The fact I had made it in time seemed slightly and understandably obscured by the fact that, for a brief moment in time, I seemed to have got rock star treatment. Almost free money, chauffeured limos, on-demand jets, lots of whiskey and a ton of free champagne. Still, I thought I had done well but it was probably best to leave it eighteen years or so before really gloating.
I looked at the midwives, told them to make best efforts and thrust the bag of champagne into their hands. My gorgeous daughter arrived at 4:30 am the following morning and as that adventure ended another one began.