Jogging along, p.1
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       Jogging Along, p.1
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           James Birk
Jogging Along

  James Birk

  Copyright 2013 James Birk

  Chapter 1

  It was typical of the sort of efficiency that I’d come to expect from Freedom Financial Services that my induction into the company came a full eight months after I had begun my employment with them. The induction, though now fundamentally pointless in terms of welcoming me to the company, was nonetheless a box-ticking exercise necessary for Human Resources to sign me off as a fully-fledged and competent member of the FFS family. I was only too happy to oblige, for it was common knowledge that a sojourn with the training team was the next best thing to actually having the day off work, as it generally meant a leisurely ten o’clock start and a positively premature finish at quarter to four. This abridgment of the working day was further augmented by a generous seventy-five minute adjournment for lunch and two fifteen minute coffee breaks. If this were not reason enough to celebrate, the day’s agenda also allowed for a thirty minute ‘meet and greet’ session at the top of proceedings, complete with complementary tea or coffee and a tantalizing selection of biscuits that stretched beyond the run-of-the-mill bourbons and custard creams and into the exotic realms of Jammie Dodgers and, if rumours were to be believed, chocolate Hobnobs. In fact the induction day really only had one negative aspect as far as most of the participants were concerned.

  ‘A test!’ snorted Tim into his third coffee of the morning, an impressive fifteen minutes into the ‘meet and greet’, ‘I’m expected to pass a test in order to be permitted to continue doing my worthless job!’

  ‘I don’t know what you’re worried about,’ I said as we looked at the sheet of headed- paper that listed the day’s agenda, which included the offending assessment, ‘an academic genius like you will pass it easily enough. It’s not going to be harder than your MA is it?’

  Tim stretched himself up to his full six feet and five inches and looked down at me with derision, ‘I have an MSc dear boy not an MA.’

  ‘Same difference,’ I shrugged knowing full well that this would annoy him even more.

  ‘I am a Master of Science, not a Master of Arts,’ he replied haughtily, ‘and that is hardly the point.’

  ‘Well, what is the point then?’ I asked, ‘as far as I can tell, this training day is just an excuse to skive off a pretty dull job, drink lots of coffee, eat a free buffet and clock off early. I will take as many easy multiple choice tests as they can throw at me if it means I don’t have to listen to Kirsty explaining to us how we have ‘pacifically’ failed to meet the inputting targets that she ‘pacifically’ set us!’

  This made Tim smile, ‘She does love the world’s largest ocean doesn’t she?’

  Kirsty was our ineffectual line manager. She was actually not a bad boss, as generally she was too busy shirking her own responsibilities to notice our constant skiving, but as she was nonetheless a figure of authority we still felt the need to make fun of her from time to time.

  We continued our debate about the merits of the forthcoming assessment, before being interrupted by the member of the training team responsible for leading the day’s proceedings. Roberto was not of Italian origin as you might assume by his forename, he originally hailed from Reading and he had moved to Cardiff for love in the early nineties. This much I gleaned from his introductory speech, although he didn’t elaborate further on the origins of his Christian name or indeed who the lucky recipient of his love may have been. What I did discover was that he was as patronising a man as I had ever encountered, seemingly adopting the assumption from the beginning of the day that he was dealing with a room full of idiots. A positive aspect of his supposition was that the day’s objectives seemed to be achievable by almost anyone with a basic understanding of the English language and the capacity to count into double figures. Consequently Tim’s irritation about having to pass a test was founded more in principle than in any genuine fears that he would fail it. Nonetheless there was an audible apprehension about the examination from at least half the participants of the course so Roberto took a few moments to reassure us all in soothing, condescending tones that he fully expected us all to make the grade, and that should the unthinkable happen, then the company policy permitted us to have at least two more resits over the coming months before the Stormtroopers in Human Resources would eventually be unleashed upon us.

  If anything made me less complacent about sitting the test, it was the threat of the HR machine having another reason to reprimand me, as I had only just concluded a lengthy battle with them. It had been regarding a missing reference from a Saturday job that I had left some eight years prior to joining Freedom Financial Services. One of the criteria for being allowed to join the company had been a complete ten year reference history and I was actually a little sad to discover that at the age of twenty-eight, it was now ten years since I had left school and I was now old enough to have a decade of work experience to call upon. Admittedly some of that history was made up by part-time positions and holiday jobs from my university days but it was still a reality check that I was perhaps not as young as I perceived myself to be. Aside from the one omission, my fairly complicated reference history was otherwise immaculate but this was of no consequence to certain HR jobsworths who were intent on following disciplinary procedures should I fail to produce that one outstanding testimonial from a retail outlet that had long since ceased trading. I was fortunately able to escape removal from office on the grounds that the unaccounted for period of my life had already been covered by an endorsement received from my university tutor, as it turned out that they did not need work references for the periods that I was in full-time education. Apparently I had been dragged over metaphorical hot coals for missing paperwork that was superfluous to requirements. Still, they had certainly shown their teeth and freshly wounded from that confrontation, I didn’t want to rock the boat by failing a straightforward multiple choice test.

  After Roberto had finished his welcome speech, all of the participants were asked to introduce themselves to the group in a couple of sentences. A nervous middle-aged woman started us off.

  ‘Hello my name is Sheila and I’ve been with FFS for three months, working on the Fusion team.’

  Roberto then theatrically encouraged a chorus of ‘Hello Sheila!’ from the rest of the delegates.

  Though short and sweet, this proved to be the model that everyone else chose to follow. Alongside Sheila, Tim and myself, we also had Tom and Keith (two smug-looking recent graduates who worked in ‘Investments’) Charlotte and Beth (two twenty-something girls also from ‘Fusion’) and Ben (a seventeen year old from ‘New Business, the section that Tim and I worked in, although Ben was from a different team and I didn’t actually know him).

  After the introduction we killed more time with an ‘ice breaker’ activity, which consisted of two teams building bridges (both physically and metaphorically) out of some Lego bricks. To my slight shame I got a little carried away with the competitive element of this activity and with the added incentive of being on the opposite team to Tim and, for some reason, being made team captain I urged my squad of Sheila, Charlotte and Ben on to what I thought was certain glory by constructing what could only be described as an ‘overpass extraordinaire’. Alas we were not victorious, as the other team, containing Keith, who was a structural engineering graduate, erected a plastic viaduct that could actually take Tim’s considerable weight without collapsing.

  The ice was suitably broken and Roberto then proceeded to take us on a whistle-stop tour of the history of FFS. We learned that Freedom Financial Services had been founded in London in 1845 by Messrs Robert Hawley and Adam Lowe and that up until the mid-nineteen eighties they had traded under the name Hawley and Lowe with moderate commercial success. In 1985, however, a young upstart
named Brian Johnson had come up with the idea of rebranding the company as FFS, which had coincided with a huge upturn in the company’s profits. For that stroke of ‘genius’, Mr Johnson had become a very rich man. My audible suggestions for a further rebrand were met by howls of laughter from Tim and a very noticeable if brief lapse in the cheerful avuncular temperament of Roberto. His eyes narrowed and for a very brief moment he glared at me with real contempt. Before anyone else had noticed, he had gathered himself and once again bore a much more benign countenance. I made a mental note not to upset him again that day.

  The history of FFS was followed by the first scheduled coffee break. By the end of this Tim was up to his fifth cup of the day, partially because Tim was something of a caffeine addict, but primarily because he was a coffee snob and this was the first time in living memory that the standard of beverage on offer had matched his own exacting requirements. In fairness FFS did rather generously provide an unlimited supply free hot drinks to its staff but they were from a machine and Tim generally snubbed this workplace perk, choosing instead to arrive at the office with an overpriced Americano purchased from one of the well-known high-street chains en route. Having managed to miss breakfast in spite of the delayed start to my working day, I loaded up on bourbons, which were, disappointingly, the only biscuits that had survived the earlier ‘meet and greet’ session.

  Post coffee break and we were onto the unit entitled ‘FFS today’, which was designed to tell us what an exciting and innovative company we worked for. Roberto was all enthusiasm and animation as he expounded on the company’s many virtues and I couldn’t help but reflect on how excited I would have been about working for FFS if the induction had actually happened on my first day of work rather than my one hundred and eighty third. As it was I remained unimpressed, although I was conscious to remain alert for any likely quiz topics in order to ensure that I didn’t fail the ‘impossible-to-fail’ test.

  It was hard to explain what FFS actually did without assuming the mantle of an incredibly dull financial advisor, but Roberto did his best to inspire us. In essence, it seemed to me, that the purpose of FFS was to sell various financial products that, when held up to any kind of rational scrutiny, served absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Nonetheless the range of pointless products on offer was quite staggering and after forty minutes of listening to Roberto putting his cheerfully condescending spin on them all, I was almost ready to part with my hard earned cash to purchase some ‘peace of mind’ as he so eloquently put it.

  Fortunately lunch arrived not a moment too soon and we were awoken from our fiscal reverie by a feast that was fit for a king. Well maybe not for a king but it was certainly fit enough for a group of low-grade employees on a training day that needed to be sold on the company dream. It was a quite a spread and I was grateful as the effects of the bourbons were wearing off quickly and hunger was setting in.

  During my childhood, whenever my mother threw a party she would put on a buffet. It was usually an effort of epic proportions, a perfectly balanced banquet of delicious treats. When my mother did this she insisted that every single guest at the party had to have visited the table before I was permitted to start filling my plate. The reason for this was that I had something of a reputation as a big eater, and could generally be counted on to take more than my fair share of the delights on offer, so as a precaution to safeguard the rest of her guests, my mother wisely kept me at bay until everyone else had had an opportunity to sample the savoury bliss of the home-baked dishes on the faux-pine dining table.

  Unfortunately the imposed good manners of my matriarch had stayed with me outside of the family home and it was not until Tim had loaded the best of the offerings onto his plate that I sprang into action. My only real competition was Keith, the others had all gone for more modest helpings so there were sufficient amounts left after Tim’s destruction of the sandwich trolley for me to fill the void, but alas there were none of the delicious king prawns in pastry left, and I noted Tim had about eight on his platter. Roberto, who had briefly left the room upon the arrival of the food, returned and gave Tim’s plate a look that again belied his mask of the benevolent teacher. There was a greenish tint to the eyes that stared at the savoury shellfish that Tim was selfishly munching on and I was glad to have passed the mantle of public enemy number one to my colleague.

  With the buffet consumed there was still ample time for me to stroll back to my flat on City Road to watch some day time television, as was my usual routine (one of the benefits of living so close to the office) and I caught twenty minutes of a programme where members of the public had to try to buy cheap antiques at an auction to sell for profit at another auction. It was utterly compelling and though I had virtually no interest in antiquities, it was with some regret that I had to drag myself away from the screen before I was able to glean whether the contestants had made a profit or a loss.

  I returned to the training room mere minutes before the afternoon session was due to kick off, but it was the two girls who incurred the subtle wrath of Roberto this time by strolling in five minutes late carrying shopping bags.

  Fortunately he was able to mask his obvious anger because the afternoon talk was on a more serious topic and away went the jolly facade and out came an equally caring Roberto, but this time with a touch of gravitas. We were to learn about the evils of money laundering and what we, as employees of FFS could do about it. As far as I could tell that was nothing, unless the Fusion and Investment teams had significantly more important jobs than us in New Business, but it didn’t stop Roberto going into considerable detail about the potential punishments that lay in store for each of us should we ever find ourselves involved in such things. In an effort to lighten the mood we were then asked to get into groups to prepare a presentation on one of the topics that we had covered that day in preparation for the dreaded examination. Tim and I were in the same group this time, and naturally he took the lead as, for convenience, we decided to rehash everything we had just heard about money laundering, although why Tim chose to draw a picture of a washing machine on the flipchart to illustrate his points were a mystery to the rest of us. Roberto seemed happy enough though and the other group used no illustrations in their factually correct but fairly boring take on Critical Illness Cover, one of the more useless products offered by FFS.

  The second scheduled coffee break arrived and Tim, now visibly high on caffeine, continued his efforts to ‘get his money’s worth’. As the coffee trolley was wheeled away a theatrical cloud descended over Roberto.

  ‘Time for the test,’ he declared, ‘now don’t panic, there’s nothing on here that we haven’t discussed today.’

  We were permitted twenty minutes to complete the test. I finished in four. Only Sheila was still writing when the test papers were collected and for all his compassionate words, Roberto was a strict enforcer of deadlines, virtually wrenching the paper out of her trembling hands. We were allowed to chat during the five minutes it took to mark the papers and then our fates were announced. Sadly it seemed Sheila would need to retake the test having just missed out on the pass mark. Stoically she held back the tears as it was revealed that the rest of us had passed, albeit only just in the case of Beth and Ben. Charlotte had surprised herself and everyone else with a convincing ninety-five per cent which beat Tom and Keith, much to their obvious embarrassment (it turned out that they had much better jobs than the rest of us within the organisation). She had also equalled Tim, who feigned ambivalence until my result of one hundred per cent was read out by Roberto, with patronising pride. He presented me with a fun-sized mars bar for coming first and for a moment I noticed a genuine look of jealousy on Tim’s face. The moment passed and instead he mocked me for trying too hard, which of course I had, because an on-going battle of one-upmanship was one of the few things that got both of us through our working day.

  As if to draw attention away from the visibly deteriorating Sheila, Roberto unleashed another ice breaker on us. His pièce de rés
istance on training days, he announced, was to make sure everyone went home feeling good about themselves and good about everyone they had met that day.

  ‘What we’re going to do now,’ he revealed conspiratorially, ‘is we’re each going to reveal to the rest of the group something about ourselves that makes us special, and unique.’

  The sea of blank faces in front of him was obviously unexpected, but he did his best to appear unfazed.

  ‘I believe that everyone has at least one thing that makes them special,’ he went on, ‘some of you may have more than one, but all I want is one. I’ll start us off; the thing that makes me special is that, in my spare time, I make ice sculptures.’

  I had to hand it to him that was pretty good. At once the room was full of questions – did he do it for money, was he any good, how did he get into it... but he waved them away.

  ‘I do it for pleasure, not money,’ he smiled in his uniquely superior way, ‘but yes, I have enjoyed some commercial success.’

  ‘How much commercial success?’ asked Charlotte.

  ‘Enough to earn a comfortable living,’ he replied, ‘but of course I would never want to give up my job here at FFS and have to give up meeting such lovely and fascinating people as yourselves.’

  He was good, I thought.

  ‘But I’m not here to talk about myself,’ he continued earnestly, ‘I want to hear about all of you. What makes you special?’

  In truth, I was unprepared for quite how ‘special’ everyone actually was. Tom was a qualified pilot, Keith had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Charlotte was an operatically trained singer and Beth had represented Wales under-fifteens in netball. Even seventeen year old Ben had had trials for Swansea City and was a Sunday league player at quite a high level, which just left Tim, Sheila and I. Sheila played a blinder with her ‘three beautiful children’ and Tim, who I was expecting to go with his substantial academic achievements, shocked me by revealing that he had regularly competed at national level in archery, finishing third in the National Student Outdoor Archery Championships in the final year of his undergraduate course. I sat there visibly stunned.

  ‘Archery?’ I mouthed at him

  He sat there smiling smugly having played his trump card.

  And suddenly all eyes were on me.

  ‘And what about you Chris,’ gushed Roberto, ‘what makes you special?’

  The silence seemed to go on forever. Eventually I spoke.

  ‘I just got a hundred per cent on that test,’ I mumbled ‘and I won a fun sized Mars bar.’

  I wasn’t being facetious. It was all I could think of.


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