Blogger's Digest: a Novel
I was sat in a small meeting room in the headquarters of the investment bank from which I had resigned.
"Why do you want to come back to work for us?" asked the lady from Human Resources, who was interviewing me.
I had passed three rounds of interviews, and this was the final interview, which would include salary negotiations. It was also an opportunity for Human Resources to veto my re-employment, if they felt that there was any reason why I should not be allowed back into the firm. This lady from Human Resources was giving me a grilling.
* * *
After nearly two years of back-breaking labour, spent covered in brick dust, plaster and with fibreglass insulation irritating my skin, earning a modest income as a self-employed electrician, I'd had quite enough of living the dream; being my own boss wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
My customers had been mostly nice people, but one or two had formed the mistaken belief - due to watching too many sensationalistic TV programs and reading the Daily Mail - thinking that everybody they dealt with in the building trade was a rogue trader; a cowboy. There was a general impression that the work I did was easy money, when in fact I often under-charged my customers, because I wanted to build my reputation for value-for-money. I wanted to get word-of-mouth recommendations, but it took a lot of time and effort to establish my business.
It wasn't helpful that every customer thought that they were a master of price negotiations, and that my quotations included exorbitant mark-ups, on the assumption that I would be beaten down on price. Pay less; get less - that's the simple rule of thumb when dealing with tradesmen, engineers or other professionals. I'm not saying that I cut corners, but you can be damn sure that charged for every single item which wasn't on the original quote, if the customer had insisted on haggling over my original quote.
One particular awkward customer had caused an almighty scene and threatened to make a complaint to the professional body I was a member of, demanding to have me struck off as an approved and certified contractor. She was upset because the invoice I presented her with included a lot of extra things, which she had asked me to do, which had not been part of the original quote. I had told her - verbally - that I would have to charge extra for the time and materials, to which she replied "just add it to the bill". After patiently and calmly explaining that I was not operating a charity, and that she, as a first-time property developer, must understand that my time and materials must be paid for, or else I would make a loss, she continued to have a tantrum. I lost my patience and said that I would begin the process of removing all of the wiring which I had installed. She thought I was bluffing, but as took my wire cutters out and made the first moves to begin to sever all brand new cables, she quickly backed down and agreed to pay in full.
A couple of weeks after the incident with the customer who had threatened to make a complaint against me, she phoned me and begged me to come back to do some more work for her: word had got around that she was a hopeless dreadful amateur wannabe property developer. She had been effectively black-balled by the local tradesmen, who all gave her quotations which were ten times the amount they would normally charge, because she was such a pain to work for.
The customers who accepted the original quotation and paid their bill quite gladly, were unfortunately far fewer than those who tried to haggle and then grumbled about parting with their cash. It was dirty hard physical work, and there was little gratitude from the customers.
A dangerous electrical installation had nearly killed the young daughter of a customer - she had been mildly electrocuted when he had removed a vital piece of safety equipment while doing DIY. This customer was aggrieved that I had immediately cut all the power to his house until the fault was rectified. It was a very modest sum of money for the remedial work, but this man remained utterly convinced I was trying to rip him off. I feared that he would make matters worse if I left the property unsupervised. I had seen screwdrivers, spanners and pieces of thick wire, jammed into fuse-boards, where somebody had been so desperate to restore power that they decided to do away with a vital piece of safety equipment. I tried to explain that her mild electrocution could easily have been fatal, but he was hung up on the work "shock".
"She just got a shock, is all that happened" he said, repeating himself.
"Yes. The soles of her shoes, wool carpet, underlay, wooden floorboards and everything else between her and the ground insulated her from getting a much bigger shock. If she had touched something like the taps in the bathroom or kitchen at the same time as any of the earthed electrical appliance, she would be dead" I patiently explained.
"But she's not dead. She just got a shock."
"Yes. Every electrical appliance in your house that has exterior metal parts, like your kettle, your toaster, your microwave, your heated towel rail - all of these are currently live because of an electrical fault."
"Why didn't the fuse trip then?" he asked.
"Because you removed the earth rod" I explained.
"But that was months ago. Everything was working fine."
"It was working fine, but it was a death-trap waiting to happen. By removing the earth rod, as soon as you had an electrical fault, everything electrical with metal parts is now capable of electrocuting you."
"But it was just a shock."
"If you touch something live with your hand, you get a shock. It hurts. If you touch something live with your hand while your other hand is touching something grounded then you are going to die." I explained, realising that it was a futile waste of my time, but trying to be patient.
"So we'll be OK? We just won't touch anything made of metal until this gets fixed?" he asked, with his voice and face lit up with the hope that he could avoid paying the modest amount of money to rectify the fault.
"No you will not be OK. Your electrical system is lethal and I have condemned the installation. I cannot restore your power until this is fixed"
"You're ripping me off. This is blackmail."
"Sir, I assure you that all I want to do is make sure nobody is killed."
"Are you trying to tell me that just disconnecting that one skinny little green wire has broken my whole electrical system?" he asked.
"Green and yellow" I corrected him. "4 millimetres thick is not skinny, and it's a vital part of your electrical system. Without it the fault which has developed has made your entire electrical system lethal. I suppose you are correct: your whole electrical system is broken, although the remedy is quite quick, simple and inexpensive, as I explained."
"If it's so inexpensive, why don't you just do it, given that you seem to care so much about safety and wotnot?"
I'd had too many of these conversations, where customers thought I was providing some kind of free charity service. My customers were generally wealthy, reflecting the local neighbourhood, and none of them were pleading poverty: they all had the means to pay for the services which they requested and required, but they felt as though I was ripping them off, and I could not understand why.
Perhaps I was too kind and patient. Perhaps I wasted too much time trying to explain the complexities and the technicalities of the issues. Perhaps I should have just done what other electricians did, which was to simply hand over a copy of a piece of paper explaining why their electrical system was condemned, and drive off, leaving them without power. Perhaps it would have been better to let the customers come to me, begging me to have their power restored, rather than wasting my breath trying to to reason with unreasonable customers.
I had become an electrician because I thought I was providing a useful, valuable, high-quality and good-value service, which my customers would be grateful for, but on the whole, they had viewed me as a rip-off merchant rogue-trader cowboy, and I'd had enough of it.
* * *
There were 4 seats around a square table in the meeting room. I had chosen to sit adjacent to the lady from Human Resources, because it seemed less adversarial - better to have no barriers in-between us. She studied my face with a piercing gaze, sizing me up.
"Why do I want to come back?" I repeated, rhetorically. "I really enjoyed my time here. It's a fantastic place to work"
"Why did you leave then?" she asked.
"Like I said in my exit interview, I wanted to go travelling. I never had a gap year before or after university. I felt that I should see some more of the world before starting a family."
"You spent two years travelling?"
"I spent a year travelling and a year writing a novel" I lied.
Why would I lie? It seemed to me as though my time spent as an electrician would detract from my spotless CV and the fine reputation I had when I'd left the world of investment banking. I knew that it was acceptable to go on sabbatical to pursue rich-man's hobbies, such as travelling, or to work on a project like renovating a house. The ideal answer would have been to say that I had been building a school in Africa, but I wasn't prepared to lie to that extent.
"What's the book called? Can I read it?" she asked. I had the distinct impression that she was feigning interest, and merely testing me to see if I was lying.
"It's not finished yet. I'd rather not talk too much about it. I'm going to publish under a pseudonym. It's quite personal."
The Human Resources lady shuffled her notes and re-seated herself. She seemed a little irritated, but to continue to press me for more details about what I had been doing since I resigned, would be confrontational and rude. With resignation which was physically palpable, she moved onto her next topic.
"Do you think you'll get wanderlust again? Do you think you'll write another book?" she asked.
"No. The whole point of taking the career break was to get all that out of my system. I can write and travel as much as I want when I retire" I said. "I'm already going to have to work extra hard to make up for lost time" I joked, with a wry smile.
This was a pre-planned strategy. I wanted to hint strongly that I was going to be more dedicated to my career than ever, and that my focus was going to be on building up my pension pot. I needed to send an unambiguous message that I could be relied upon to never take another career break, and that I would work hard until the day I retired. This is what the Human Resources lady wanted to hear.
"Did you know that the role you applied for is based in our Brighton office?" she asked.
"I had no idea" I lied.
"It's also not a front office role"
"Yes. I knew that. I fancied a change. The front office can be a little too intense after a while. I felt that the middle office might suit me, having had some space and time to think about the direction I would like my career to go in"
"Not very many people want to leave the front office. Normally it's people from middle office who want to get into the front office roles" she said, a little patronisingly, but she was probing; trying to find out my true motivations.
"This role sounded particularly interesting though. I felt as though it might be a great opportunity for me to bring some of my front office expertise into the middle office, when - as you said yourself - so few people move from the front office to the middle office."
I was lying through my teeth. I knew that leaving the front office would be considered utter madness by almost everyone in the bank, but I had an ulterior motive, which the Human Resources lady was unable to fathom.
"I would, of course, prefer a front office role. Perhaps you're right. I think maybe I will wait for the right front office role to come up. I'm sorry I wasted everyone's time" I said, and began to stand up.
"No, no. Please hang on, Gavin. Just a second. Please. Sorry. I think we maybe got off on the wrong foot" she said, apologetically and with a somewhat smarmy manner. "We have a great deal of difficulty in finding high calibre people who are prepared to move to Brighton, let alone leave the front office" she explained.
"Oh?" I said, as casually as I could manage, feigning a little surprise. "I suppose that comes as no great shock. Most people want the prestige, the salary and the bonuses, which the London front office has to offer."
"And you don't?" she asked.
"No I do. I worked very hard to get into the front office. Like I said, I think it's best if I wait for the right front office role to become available."
"What are your salary expectations?"
"If I could come back on the same salary, before I left, that would be acceptable. I wouldn't accept any less."
"If we were to offer you a signing bonus, generous relocation allowance, and the same salary, would you consider the Brighton role?"
"I would want a more generous pension contribution, to compensate for the lower bonuses I would get in the middle office."
"Would 12% be acceptable? It's going to be a struggle for me to match the total remuneration you were earning in the front office, but it's the best I can offer."
Jackpot. This is exactly how I had planned the negotiations. Of course I wanted to move to Brighton. My relationship with Caroline was on the rocks and maintaining our London lifestyle had made a major dent in my wealth. If I was going to wear the "golden handcuffs" I was going to do it by the seaside, with a London salary - I could live like a king in Brighton. During my time as an electrician, I had learned to be a little more frugal and careful with money.
I was going back into investment banking, but in the sedate world of the middle office, I could do the job with my eyes closed and my weekly working week would be less than 50 hours - a fraction of what I had been working before.
I had sold out, again, but I was happy and excited about setting up a new life by the seaside.