Uncle Frank Swam The Channel

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Uncle Frank swam the channel. That’s what I was told when I was a kid. Not by him, but by his wife, my Aunty Flo. She’d be in the kitchen cooking Sunday dinner and we’d all be sitting at the big table in the room next door. She’d say the same thing every week. “You lot better eat all this up or you won’t get big and strong like your Uncle Frank. He swam the channel you know!”

Uncle Frank would just raise his eyebrows and look slightly embarrassed. He never commented on it.

My earliest recollection of Uncle Frank was when I was five years old. He was the biggest man I’d ever seen and just looking at him made me cry. I’d run to mum for a cuddle whenever he entered the room frightened to look at the giant that wanted to pick me up.

But by the time I was seven he was my favourite of all the great Uncles and I’d look forward to our visits to their large house in Stamford Hill, North London. He was married to my Granddads younger sister, Florence. Although her name was posh, “Flo” certainly wasn’t. She could swear better than most men and could down a pint of beer in seconds. I never saw her without a cigarette hanging out the corner of her mouth. Flo was a formidable woman.  Frank on the other hand was a gentle giant. Well over six feet tall with hands the size of shovels. Car mechanic by trade, he could strip an engine down, clean every piston and valve and put it back together again in just a few hours on a Saturday afternoon.

They never had kids of their own. Flo had been a bit of a wild child in her teens and secretly visited a lady who did something quite extraordinary with knitting needles. Her “insides” were never the same. By the time she met Frank she knew she couldn’t have children.  I suppose that’s why they treated Mum and Dad so well, they were like the kids they never had and me and my sister were like their own Grandchildren.

After dinner on Sundays we’d play cards at the big table. We’d play Whist, Solo, Pairs and Newmarket. Then Uncle Frank would go and get the Shove ha’penny board and challenge me to a game. He always won! As we left, Aunt Flo would give us each a bright shiny silver half crown. “Ice cream money.” She’d say.

I was twelve years of age when he died in 1970. I remember the day well. I came home from school and Mum was crying in the kitchen. I asked her what was wrong. “Your Uncle Frank’s had a heart attack. He’s passed away.” He was just fifty four.

For some reason I can’t explain, I wanted to go to the funeral. I’d never been to one before. I’d had old Aunts and Uncles die before and my Granddad was buried just the previous year, I’d never thought about going to any of those. Besides, funerals weren’t a place for kids in our family. But Uncle Frank was different, I felt as though I “needed” to go. To my surprise, Dad agreed.

I remember sitting on a long wooden bench alongside Mum and Dad in a Church somewhere in North London. Uncle Franks Coffin was in front of us and we sang hymns. A man I’d never seen before stood up and walked to the front, he put his hand on the coffin and started to speak.

“Me and Frank were mates. Good mates. We signed up on the same day. Did our training together and soon found ourselves in France fighting the Germans.”

He paused, composed himself and carried on.

“Things didn’t go according to plan over there and we ended up on sitting on a beach waiting to be picked off by German planes. There were thousands of us. None of us really sure what was going on or what we should do. After three days a rumour started to spread that boats would soon be arriving to take us back to England. All we had to do was wait.”

He looked at the coffin and smiled.

“But Frank wasn’t convinced. At twenty four he was the oldest of our small group and by far the biggest. We all looked up to Frank, literally! He kept saying the longer we waited the more chance we had of being gunned down on the beaches. Frank had a plan. He’d swim back to England. It was only twenty or so mile, he was sure he’d make it. We all thought he was mad or just larking about, but first thing the next morning Frank put down his rifle, took off his belt and heavy boots and started walking towards the sea. We saw him wade in and start swimming. It wasn’t long before he was out of sight. To be honest I never expected to see him again. It was another day before the rest of us were lined up and marched into the sea. We could see small ships in the distance and only my head was above water by the time I got to one of them. It was a small fishing boat out of Gravesend. Two blokes hauled me aboard and gave me a blanket. They took as many of us as they could then turned around and headed for Dover.”

Again he stopped and looked at the coffin before continuing.

“And guess who was there waiting for me? Thousands of men all along the seafront, utter chaos everywhere and who was the first person I see? Yep…me old mate Frank. Large as life, with a big smile on his face.”

He paused for a few seconds.

“Did he really swim the channel? I have no idea because he never spoke about it. Every time I mentioned it he just shrugged his shoulders and changed the subject. But you know what? I’d like to think he did.”

He gently tapped the coffin then sat back down.

That was almost fifty years ago and I think about Uncle Frank often. He swam the channel you know.

 

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Gabby.

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In December 1976, me and my best mate Ray were squatting in a disused terraced house in Hanbury Street just behind Brick Lane in East London. The whole area was a dump back then, a place that had changed little since the end of the Second World War. The Irish and the Jews had moved out and been replaced by the Pakistani and Bangladeshi community. Bomb sites, derelict buildings, littered streets and the smell of curry are my main memories of that time. Oh yeh…and the cold. It was bitter cold. The scorching summer had given way to one of the coldest winters on record. Most days in December the temperature didn’t get above freezing and the nights went as low as minus ten.

We called it the place that God forgot.

Although there was running water, there was no electricity in the squat, so to keep warm we broke up wooden crates we pinched from the local fruit market at Spitalfields and lit them in the old Victorian fireplace in the big room downstairs. Each night we’d take it in turns to stay awake and make sure the fire kept going, scared that if it went out the cold would kill us in our sleep.

Five of us shared the house. Me, Ray and three guys from Leicester.

Like over a million and a half other people in the country we were all unemployed.  Our Giros were sent to the local Post Office because we were of NFA (No Fixed Abode). Wednesday was the best day of the week. We’d pick up our Green Giro cheques, cash them straightaway and then go off and buy cheap cider. We never bought food, the market at Spitalfields was just over the road and there was always plenty of Veg laying around on the street to pick up and make soup with. We’d found an old Copper pot on one of the bomb sites and this became our soup making machine. Basically we’d fill it with Veg and water and place it in the fire for a couple of hours. Hey presto…Soup!

So our staple diet was Soup and Cider. Apart from Ray…

Ray was a live wire, a nineteen year old kid who had no fear. If it could be swallowed, sniffed or injected, Ray would try it. Most of the time he was off his face. While I went off to buy Cider, Ray was in darkened doorways buying gear from blokes who looked like characters straight out of a Dickensian novel.

On Christmas Eve the three guys from Leicester announced that they were going home. They were planning to hitch hike all the way and stay with a mate until New Year. Me and Ray wished them luck and walked with them to the start of the A1 at the Barbican. We saw them jump into the back of a Transit Van on its way to Milton Keynes. All going well, they’d be home by the end of the day.

As we started to walk back to the squat Ray said he had to go and get some “Special Gear” for his Christmas treat. He wandered off in the direction of St Pauls and I decided to spend what little money I had on a half bottle of Whisky.

I got back to the squat first and made up the fire. We had plenty of wood stacked up in the corner of the room to get us through the next few days. There was also a large stash of Veg ready to make our magic Soup. Ray got back about an hour after me. He had the biggest smile on his face. He’d scored his “Special Gear.”

A few hours later we were sitting round the fire waiting for our pot to boil when we were suddenly aware of a figure at the door.  It was a young girl, maybe twenty, asking if she could join us for a few days. She had a posh sounding name but suggested we call her Gabby. Her only belongings were a sleeping bag and a toothbrush.

We couldn’t refuse, it wasn’t our house after all and besides, we welcomed the company. She sat down and we gave her some soup.

She said she was from “Up North”. But she never said where and there was no trace of an accent. She was wearing an old Army Trench coat and Dr Martin Boots. Her hair was dark brown and cut short in “Punk” style. She wore no makeup yet she had a stunning natural beauty. I think secretly we both instantly fell in love with her.

She had the strangest tattoo around her wrist. Like a bracelet made of heavy chain. Each link was a different colour. It must have taken hours to do and yet when we asked her about it she said she couldn’t remember it being done. How weird is that?

She had a wicked laugh, like she’s just been told the dirtiest joke imaginable. It was infectious, when Gabby laughed, we all laughed.

Within a couple of hours it felt like we’d known her forever.

At midnight we wished each other a Merry Christmas and I opened the whiskey. Ray took a mouthful then rolled up his sleeve and tied his leather belt tight around his bicep. He found the vein he was looking for, slipped the needle in and pressed slowly to inject the lethal formula. I’d seen him do this hundreds of times so I took no notice but Gabby looked horrified.

Within a few seconds he was away with the fairies. Slumped back, eyes rolling, in a place where Ray loved to be. His own world.

Me and Gabby finished the Whisky and I fell asleep.

I awoke three hours later. What I saw has stayed with me for over forty years.

Gabby was standing over Ray, she was holding the ends of her trench coat up high and with the glow of the fire behind her it looked like she had a pair of golden wings. She was speaking softly in a language that I didn’t recognise, it wasn’t a chant or a song but it had rhythm that was mesmerising.

For some reason that I can’t explain, I couldn’t move. I just sat and watched as Gabby continued to speak and then slowly, and maybe it was the whisky because this is gonna sound weird, began to rise off the ground. She looked like she was floating!

There was a flash, maybe something on the fire exploded, I can’t be sure, but Gabby was gone.

Ray sat up straight and took a deep breath. He looked at me as if he’d never seen me before. Utter bewilderment on his face.

“What the fuck just happened?”

I shrugged my shoulders, not sure what to say.

“I have no fucking idea.”

We sat there in silence for what seemed like ages. Then Ray stood up.

“I’m going home. My mum wants to see me.”

And he was gone. He just walked out of the house at 4.00am on Christmas day.

Me? I took my time. At 7.00am I walked just two hundred yards to Spitalfields Church. I’ve been there ever since. And now, forty one years later I’m the Minister there.

Ray? Well, he’s a big wig in the City. But he donates a large sum every year for our homeless shelter.

And Gabby?  Well here’s the thing… the posh name she mentioned when we first met her was Gabriel.

I don’t believe in Angels but maybe…just maybe.

Room 7. ( Kiss Chase)

7

When I was seven years old I played “Kiss Chase”. I chased the girls and when I caught them we kissed. They were easy to catch because they wanted to be kissed. At eighteen I was still chasing, still catching and still kissing.

At twenty I finally caught the girl of my dreams. Kiss Chase was over for me and for the next thirty five years I kissed only one. But sadly her kissing days ended far too soon.

So now, as I move closer to my sixtieth birthday, the chase is back on but it’s much harder. My legs don’t run as fast as they used to and the girls have been kissed so many times that they’ve grown tired of the game.

A few weeks ago I started internet dating. No more running around getting out of breath, I simply click a button and see if they want to play. Some do and some don’t.

Don’t get the wrong impression. I’m no pervert, no sexual predator. All I want is good company, a nice meal and maybe a kiss at the end of the evening. That’s now my idea of “Kiss Chase.”

Tonight I’m meeting Dorothy for the first time. We’re having dinner at The Wentworth Hotel. I don’t know much about her, just what I’ve read on her profile page. She’s the same age as me, divorced, has two grown up children and three grandchildren.

I’ve arrived early. Dressed in my best suit and smelling of Paco Rabanne. I’m now on my second glass of Pino Grigio and sitting at our reserved table. She said she’d be wearing a coat with a fur collar and I’m nervously waiting.

And now I see her. She’s tall and slim with short blonde hair and wearing her coat. She’s walking towards me and smiling. I stand up and greet her with a handshake.

“Dorothy?”

“Charlie?”

We both nod and take our seats. I start with small talk.

“Did you find the place okay? It’s not posh but the food is good.”

She seems to be looking me up and down, not in a bad way, but as if she’s thinking about something.

“Yes. I only live about three miles up the road so I know The Wentworth quite well. We had my daughter’s wedding reception here a few years ago.

She’s pretty. Great eyes.

I order a bottle of Wine and we both look at the menu. She chooses the Pate to start and Seafood Pasta for her main. Good choice, I decide to have the same.  She’s staring at me and smiling. I have to ask.

“What?”

She takes a sip of her wine before answering.

“Are you the same Charlie Wilson that went to Southbury Junior School?”

I nod and speak at the same time.

“I am indeed. Why, did you go to Southbury?”

Now she’s laughing.

“I did. We were in the same class Charlie. Mr Higgins was our teacher. Remember?”

It was over fifty years ago but the memory comes flooding back. Old Mr Higgins was a tyrant with us kids. Mind you, he had to be, we were a right handful. She continues.

“My maiden name was Reynolds back then. Do you remember me Charlie? Everyone called me Little Dorothy Reynolds?”

I suddenly feel like a six year old again. I remember her well. I had a crush on her from the age of five right up until we went to different Senior  Schools at the age of eleven.

“Little Dorothy Reynolds! Of course I remember you. We played…”

We both say the words together.

“Kiss Chase!”

Our laughter fills the restaurant and people look over and smile.

For the next hour or so we eat our food and talk about the old days. I notice she keeps touching my hand as we talk. Affection…something I’ve not had in a long time.

We’ve both finished our meal and she stands up.

“Won’t be a minute Charlie.”  She turns and walks out of the restaurant.

The last couple of hours have been the best time I’ve had in years. I really like Little Dorothy Reynolds, but then again I suppose I always have. I wonder if this could go somewhere. Possibly the start of something nice. I hope so.

I see her walking back. Her smile is infectious and I can’t stop a massive grin appearing on my face.  She’s not sitting down. She throws something on the table. It’s a room key. Room 7.

There’s playfulness in her voice as she speaks.

“Wanna play Kiss Chase again Charlie?”

She winks, then turns and walks away.

 

Room 7. ( Alan and Gerald)

7

“You’re on the ground floor madam. Room 7. Straight along the corridor and it’s the third room on the right. Welcome to The Wentworth.”

The young receptionist smiled as she handed Tina Hawkins the key to her room.

“Will you be dining with us tonight?”

Tina never replied, just shook her head from side to side and headed towards the corridor. Room 7 was exactly where it was supposed to be, third door on the right. She turned the key in the lock and entered.

It was an average room in every way. Average price, average sized bed, average decor. That’s all she needed. Nothing fancy was required. Besides, most of her time would be spent staring at the ceiling.

Her phone rang. She answered and heard an American accent.

“You there yet honey?”

“Yes. Just arrived. I’m in Room 7. Go past reception and it’s the third door on the right.”

“Good. I’m just pulling into the car park. See you in five minutes.”

She knew nothing about this new punter, just that he was a rich American who was in town for a few days and wanted a bit of “fun.”  That’s all the agency had told her. But they’d promised her eight hundred quid for just one evening. They’d even booked the Hotel room for her. She was guessing he’d probably paid them double what she was getting. That didn’t matter, she could do with the money. Bobby needed new school shoes and the rent on the flat was due Friday.

She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror.

Not bad for thirty eight. She still had the looks of a woman in her late twenties. The gods had been kind and given her clear skin, high cheek bones, good teeth and a great set of lungs.

She threw back her blonde hair and let it settle naturally. Good to go.

She heard a knock.  She stepped out of the bathroom and opened the door. In front of her was a short, overweight, middle aged man with grey hair and a big grin. He had a bottle of red wine in one hand and was carrying a small holdall in the other.

“Hey honey. What’s your name?”

He walked past her, put the bottle on the table and the bag on the floor. He sat down on the bed. She closed the door and quickly made up a name.

“Stella.”

His grin was now a full blown smile, showing a set of brownish crooked teeth.

“Nice to meet you. My name is Alan. Looks like I’ve gone and hit the jackpot with you Stella. You are one mighty fine looking woman.”

He patted the bed with his left hand.

“Come and sit your pretty ass down here.”

She had a choice to make. Sit down beside him, get started straightaway and get it over and done with. Or play for time and find out what he was into. She didn’t want any surprises so took the second option.

“What’s the rush? Let’s open that wine first and have a drink.”

He agreed.

“Sounds like a plan to me honey.”

She picked up the bottle and unscrewed the top. She took two glasses from the bathroom, filled them up to the brim and handed one to him. He noticed her looking at his bag.

“I brought someone with me. Hope that’s okay? The agency said it was!”

Her heart sank. What the fuck did he mean? She needed the money but there were limits as to what she was prepared to do for it. She took a large gulp of her wine and put on a brave smile.

“Someone?”

He picked up the bag and placed it on the bed. He slowly undid the zip and put his hand inside. Quick as a flash he brought out what looked like a huge rag doll. It had ginger hair, huge bulging eyes and a mouth as wide as its head. It seemed to be hanging from his arm. And then it spoke.

“Allo, my name is Gerald and this is my good friend Alan.”

As the doll was saying the words she noticed Alan’s lips moving. She’d had to deal with crazies before but this was just weird. The doll was staring at her…waiting. She spoke.

“Hello Gerald. My name is Stella. Pleased to meet you.”

She wasn’t sure if she should be looking at Alan or Gerald. But there was something about the dolls eyes that held her gaze. The other thing she noticed was the dolls lack of an American accent, if anything it sounded like a Londoner.

“Alan’s a bit shy. But not me. I’m up for anything. Now why don’t you two get started and I’ll sit in the corner. I like to watch!”

Just when she thought the situation couldn’t get any weirder… it did. Alan sat the dummy on a chair facing the bed and began to undress. He never said a word as he slipped out of his clothes and within seconds his podgy naked body was on full display.

“Come on love, get your kit off, let’s see what you’ve got.”

As the dummy was speaking she couldn’t help look at Alan’s face. He was good, his lips moved only slightly and he was able to throw his voice a fair way.

Again she made a quick decision in her head. All she had to do was have sex with the short podgy guy while an ugly looking doll sat in a chair in the corner, and looking at the state of Alan she was guessing it would all be over in just a few minutes. Yes it was all a bit weird, but she needed the eight hundred pounds badly.

Decision made, she stripped naked and sat on the bed.

She heard the voice of Gerald again.

“Nice tits. Go on Alan old son. Fill your boots!”

She laid back and looked at the ceiling. Alan positioned himself on top and began his thrusting. As she expected it was all over in seconds. Alan rolled over and lay beside her. She looked over at the chair. The doll wasn’t there.

She was aware of a noise at the bottom of the bed. She looked down and saw Gerald crawling towards her. Eyes and mouth wide open.

“MY TURN NOW!”

____________________________________________________________________________________

The young girl on reception looked at her colleague.

“Did you hear a scream?”

The other girl just shrugged her shoulders.

“God knows what they get up to in those rooms…”

 

Room 7. ( Anita)

7

A series of stories all set in or around the same Hotel Room. Room 7.

The young girl on reception looks at him and smiles.

“Room 7?”

He nods.

“Yes please. “

She takes a key from behind the counter and places it in his hand. She doesn’t have to tell him where Room 7 is, he’s a regular. Same room, same time, every Tuesday. Regular as clockwork.

He walks along the corridor, third door on the right-hand side. He stops outside for a few seconds and then turns the key in the door. Time to see Anita.

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Anita was a dancer at his favourite club in Shoreditch. It was 1998 and Shoreditch was still a shit hole back then. It was where the East End met the City. An adults playground where you could get drunk, snort coke, shag yourself senseless, be sick on the street then walk across the road into a different postcode, straighten your tie and suddenly become respectable again.

She was from Ghana and had the body of a black goddess. That first night he spent a fortune getting her to dance privately for him in one of the booths at the back of the club. Every time she finished he gave her another tenner to start again. At 2am when her shift was over, he was waiting outside. He hailed a cab and took her to the Wentworth just a few miles outside the City.  Although it looked like a posh Hotel it was the kind of place where, if you asked discreetly, you could pay by the hour.

She pulled a CD from her bag and inserted it into a player next to the TV. “Funk Classics From The 70’s”. This was HER music, she was obsessed with it.

“Yum Yum” by The Fatback Band boomed out loud as they explored each other’s bodies, she grinded down hard on him as each bass note shook the tiny room. When they finally laid back exhausted and covered in sweat she insisted on listening to the whole CD. All seventy minutes of it. After each track she told him who the artist was, who wrote the song, who the bass player and drummer were, what year it was recorded. Yep, she was obsessed with the music.

It became a regular thing. Every Tuesday after her shift she’d meet him at the Wentworth in Room 7 and every time she’d bring along another CD. The Ohio Players, Fat Larry’s Band, Brass Construction, Parliament and War were all played loud in that room.

They became close.  He never asked her about her work or if she saw other men and she never asked about his private life. He doubted she ever knew about his two failed marriages and three kids. Probably for the best, no point in complicating things.

They both had habits. He knew she was using. But he never judged. How could he? He snorted coke, smoked weed and drunk the best part of three bottles of Scotch during the week. It’s what got him through the day. An escape from the reality of what was a really shit existence. Her habits were much harder, but then they would be, her life was harder than his.

Then one night she just wasn’t there. He waited until it was light then went home. He went to the club the next day but there was no sign of her. In fact, he went back every day for the next two weeks until one night he heard the news from one of the bouncers. Anita was dead. Found at her flat. Overdose.

That was two years ago. He still sees her. Even though she’s gone. But he has to play the music, HER music. In THEIR room. She never speaks, just smiles, then dances. Sometimes she’ll blow him a kiss or give him a wink. That’s enough for him, it gives him the strength to carry on.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

He takes the CD from his jacket pocket and slides it into the player. He hears the familiar click and whirling sound. He waits. “Galaxy” by War booms out and suddenly she’s there. Standing in the corner smiling at him. And she begins to dance…

 

Butcher Boy2. Post Office Days 19.

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Monday morning came around and we all noticed an empty seat. Graham announced that Sheila from Aldershot would no longer be on the course. She was a mum with a six year old child and hadn’t realised how much time the training would take up. Apparently she told Graham on Friday before she left. So now there were fifteen of us.

Graham began week two.

“Today will all be about objectives. Setting them and achieving them.”

My first thought was…boring!

Graham continued.

“Every time you go to a sales call. You need to write down what your objective for that call is. Everyone agree?”

We all nodded. Seemed logical.

Graham continued.

“Good. Let’s say it’s a customer you’ve never been to see before, but you know they spend a thousand pounds a week with another Parcel carrier. But that’s all you know. What would be your objective for that call?”

Danny spoke up straightaway and shouted out.

“Go in and get all the business.”

Graham smiled.

“Okay. But…you don’t know the name of the other carrier, you have no idea what they’re paying for the service, you have no idea what products they send or what weights they are, you don’t know if you’re seeing the buyer or his assistant or just someone in the postroom. You don’t know if the parcels are sent from the premises you are visiting or somewhere else. You don’t know if they go to the UK or overseas. Still think you can just walk in and get all his business?”

That threw us a bit. It was possible, but unlikely.

Graham wrote five letters on the flip chart. SMART.

“All objectives have to be SMART. Specific…Measurable…Achievable…Realistic…and Timed.”

We all took a few seconds to take it in, then Graham went into detail.

“I’ll give you another scenario. You’re going in to see a new customer. All you know is that they sell Photocopier paper and the name of the buyer. Would your objective be to get all their business at the first meeting?”

I spoke up.

“No. Because it’s not realistic?”

Graham nodded.

“That’s right. It’s Specific, because you’re saying ALL his business in the first meeting. You could even say it’s Measurable, because you’ve said ALL of it. It’s Achievable, because it could happen, and it’s Timed because you’re saying in the first meeting. But it’s certainly not Realistic, not in just one meeting. So what should your objective be?”

Danny shouted out again.

“To get SOME of his business?”

Graham looked over at Danny and shook his head.

“No you crumpet! Think of SMART. Is getting SOME of his business SPECIFIC? No it’s not. Is it TIMED? No it’s not, when will you get SOME business? Today, tomorrow, next week, in a year’s time?”

We all began to understand what he meant. Danny started to go red faced. Graham asked him again.

“Come on Danny, think about it. What SHOULD your objective be, using the SMART technique?”

Danny took his time. We could actually hear the wheels in his brain going round.

“Okay. My objective for the first meeting would be… to gain as much information as possible about the buyer and the company and then set a date for a second meeting.”

Graham smiled.

“Well done Danny. It’s good. Not quite correct but it’s better. If you’d have said set a date for a second meeting within two weeks, then I’d have given you a gold star!”

Graham laughed and we all joined in. He had a way of knocking you down then building you back up again in just a few minutes.

What he was telling us made sense. The rest of the day was spent looking at different scenarios and setting objectives for them used the SMART technique.

The second week was more intense than the first. Long days in the classroom and evenings spent discussing what we’d learnt ready to do a presentation the next morning. Of course The Naughty Boys were always the last people in the bar and quite often we’d raid the Wine Store and pour good red wine into mugs and take them into the lounge and pretend we were drinking coffee just in case anyone turned up. But most of the time it was just me, Danny and Greg talking about the course like excited school kids.

By the end of week two Graham had taught us how to set objectives for a sales call, gain as much information from the customer about his business by using open and closed questions, and how to identify potential problems within his current situation. We’d done countless role plays and then watched them back so we could see where we needed to improve our technique.

Friday came and we all left Coton House and headed for home. The next week I had to report back at London Sales Office to spend the week out with an experienced Sales Rep.

His name was Tony and he covered parts of the City. Two postcodes to be exact, London EC1 and EC2. He’d been in the job for two years and been with the Post Office for sixteen. He was around forty and looked every bit a salesman. I instantly liked him.

“Hiya mate. You drew the short straw and got me for a week. We’ve got loads of good appointments booked in and we’ll also be doing a few cold calls. Sound okay?”

I nodded.

“Yep all good with me.”

He poured us both a coffee.

“Did you drive in this morning?”

“Yeh, I parked in the car park behind the office.”

Tony seemed surprised.

“Leave it at home this week mate. Get a train in. In the City we either walk or take a train. Keep all the tickets and we’ll fill out an expenses form on Friday and get one of the Managers to sign it off.”

Music to my ears. I get a Company Car, yet use the train and get my fares refunded!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Butcher Boy2. Post Office Day 18.

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Our session in the bar wasn’t massive, just a few pints and in bed by midnight.

The presentation was written out on a flip chart and all three of us were prepared to do it if called upon by Graham.

At 7.58am all the class were sitting at their desks and waiting for Graham’s arrival. At exactly 8.00am he walked in, put his briefcase on the desk and pointed a finger at me.

“Joe. Over to you.”

Now I’ve never had a problem speaking in front of lots of people, so I wasn’t nervous. Working in the Butchers Shop was, at times, like being on stage, you always had an audience watching your every move. And working for years with a character like Roy had made me a bit of an extrovert. But just as I was about to start, the door opened and in walked John Fowler, the Head of Sales and Marketing Training. This was the guy the Post Office had paid a fortune to get from The Mars Corporation. The whole room, including Graham, seemed to sit up straight and pay attention. It was like royalty had just entered the room. He looked over at me and nodded.

“Don’t mind me. Just carry on.”

That was easy for him to say. He wasn’t the one standing in front of fifteen students, an experienced Sales trainer and quite possibly the best Salesman in the world!

For the first couple of sentences I could hear the tremble in my voice, but after a few minutes I was in full flow and enjoying the experience. I even chucked in a bit of humour and made everyone laugh by mentioning how Danny had almost bought a tie during his role play the previous day. After fifteen minutes I was done and sat back down. Graham then went round the class asking each of us what we’d learnt from the evening’s discussion.

John Fowler continued to sit and watch until Graham had finished. Then he stood up and walked over to where Graham was standing. I was looking forward to another one of his motivational speeches.

“Okay everyone. Good work so far. I want you to remember one thing. Selling is just a conversation between two people. But it’s a conversation that you have to be in control of. You have to direct it where you want it to go but without the other person realising that it’s happening. It’s a skill that hopefully you will learn by the end of this course. It doesn’t matter what you’re selling, it could be a product like a tin of beans or a service like Office Cleaning. It’s all the same process. Now then…any questions you’d like to ask me?”

The room was silent for a few seconds then the guy from Croydon raised his hand and asked a really good question that I hadn’t thought of.

“I noticed that you said “hopefully” we will learn these skills by the end of the course. What happens if we haven’t? Is there more training?”

John Fowler smiled.

“That’s a good question and something I’m pleased you’ve brought up. There are sixteen of you on this course. It’s unlikely that sixteen of you will still be here at the end of it. Personally, I think twelve of you will make it. One or two of you will quit before the end. You’ll realise that it’s not for you and Sales isn’t really your thing. Others will be told by my team that they’re not good enough and haven’t achieved the required standard.”

There was a stunned silence in the room. No one had expected that we could actually fail the course.

John continued.

“You’ll be assessed every two weeks. You’ll be told your strengths and weaknesses and what areas you need to improve in. The rest is up to you. Improve, work hard and learn and you stay, do the opposite and you leave. The people that we want representing The Post office need to be committed, skilled, professional sales people, and that’s exactly what you’ll be if you complete this course. Okay, I’ll let Graham carry on.”

And with that he walked out of the room.

His words really hit home with me. Up until then I’d thought of Coton House as one big jolly up, but now I realised I had to take it seriously. Failure just wasn’t an option.

The rest of the week we worked long hour’s fine tuning our opening techniques. The format was the same, lots of role plays and then evening discussions followed by a few drinks in the bar till midnight. At 1.00pm on Friday afternoon Graham told us our first week was over. I was completely knackered. But I’d loved it.

I have to confess I slept most of Saturday and before I had time to take it all in Sunday afternoon was upon me and I was once again heading up the M1 towards Coton House.

By 8.00pm The Naughty Boys were once again sitting in the big lounge and drinking large amounts of our special “coffee”.

 

Swimming In The Rain.

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A fictional short story in under 500 words.

That summer.

How can I describe that summer?  The word “Perfect” seems appropriate.

I was thirteen and on holiday with my parents in a beat up old caravan owned by my Dads sister. Aunt Sheila.

Mum and Dad were going through a “bad patch”. A term used a lot in our family. I remember when I was seven staying with Nan and Granddad till things were “patched”. And after two weeks they came to pick me up and I heard Mum saying “It’s okay, everything is patched up now.”

I never liked the word “patch”. I associated it with bad things.

The Isle Of Sheppey sounded mysterious. I told my mates at school that I was spending the summer holidays on an Island in the middle of the Ocean. Only certain parts of that statement were true.

Sheppey was where the North Sea collided with the English Channel and Leysdown-On-Sea was where the water was bitter cold and dark in colour. But it was the sea, and sea needed to be swam in.

I swam in it every day. My teeth chattered and my body shivered but I had to go in. My swimming trunks were handed down from a cousin who’d outgrown them but were still too big for me and I spent most of my time trying to keep them up. I swam with one hand while the other held onto the trunks. I swam in circles.

One week was all we could afford. We didn’t have to pay for the Caravan of course but there were still expenses. Petrol there and back, a few drinks in the club house in the evenings and fish and chips for tea every night. And Dad gave me fifty pence everyday for pocket money.

I went out at ten o’clock in the morning and came back in time for tea at six. I walked for miles during the day and tried to explore as much of the “Island” as I could. I found small bays where I caught crabs on a hand line and tried to sell them to the local shops for just a few pence. One day an old man bought seven and gave me his loose change. It was over one pound. I felt like a millionaire.

I swam in the shallows and dived for Oysters hoping to find Pearls. I found Cockles and Clams and even a small Dogfish, but no Oysters. It didn’t matter I was on holiday and that was good enough so I threw everything back into the murky water.

On the last day I was swimming far out. I was about fifty yards from the beach near our Caravan Park, I started to swim to shore. I saw two figures on the beach. It was Mum and Dad. I stopped and trod water. I saw them kiss and then embrace. It started to rain.

As I said. That summer was just perfect.

 

Butcher Boy2. Post Office Days 17.

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Graham wasn’t kidding about the long hours. Although our hangovers had passed by lunchtime our brains were now aching from taking in so much information. We went through open questions, closed questions, when to listen, when to speak, when to pause, when to lean forward, when to lean back, observations about the buyer, observations within the room, how to recognise a buying signal and how to recognise a potential objection and all this before lunch, which today would only be thirty minutes.

In the afternoon we put our theory into practice with role plays, splitting into groups of four.  One person would be the salesperson and another the customer, the other two would watch, take notes and identify the good bits and the bad. Each group was being filmed so they could watch it back later in the day.

Each role play would last twenty minutes, it wasn’t a full sales interview, just the opening to see if we could get the buyer to open up and give us as much information as possible about the company and just as importantly the individual sitting in front of us.

Before we started the person playing the salesman was given a short written profile with some basic information about the customer. Just the Company name and what they did and the name of the buyer.

The person playing the buyer was given a much longer written profile with much more detailed information. It was the salesman’s job to try to get as much information as possible from the buyer without it sounding like an interrogation!

Danny was in my group of four along with a lady from Nottingham and a guy from Croydon. We each took it in turns to be the Salesman or the Buyer and then do the critique. After about two hours we’d each had out turn and were sitting in a small room, just the four of us, waiting to watch the replays. It was the first time I’d ever seen myself on film. It felt weird. I suddenly noticed every small detail of my behaviour and mannerisms. To be honest I thought my performance was pretty poor. Twice I ran out of things to say, I paused just a little longer than was natural and it was obvious I was struggling to think of the next question. But Danny was worse than me. He completely lost the plot after ten minutes and started asking the most ridiculous questions.

“I really like your tie. Where did you buy it?”

The guy from Croydon who was playing the buyer couldn’t keep a straight face and began to laugh but composed himself and answered.

“Marks and Spencers. Six quid.”

Danny kept going.

“Which Branch?”

Again the Croydon guy answered but was giggling as he did so.

“High Street in New Addington.”

Danny didn’t know how to respond, he had run out of ideas. The words were just tumbling out of his mouth.

“Nice colour!”

That was it…all four of us just fell about laughing. Graham had been watching and shouted out.

“Stop, stop. What the fuck are you doing Danny? Who’s the salesman here?”

Danny looked at him.

“Me.”

Graham stared at him.

“Exactly, so why are you trying to buy his fucking tie?”

And with that comment Graham started to laugh out loud and I thought the woman from Nottingham was going to wet herself!

By 6.00pm we’d watched all the playbacks and had a really good laugh at every one of them.  Not one of us got all the information there was to get from the buyer and some, like Danny, had gone completely off track. It was obvious to all of us that this selling business was harder than it looked. But it was only day two and we still had a lot to learn.

Graham brought the day to an end.

“As you can see, it’s not easy. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover in the coming weeks. Tonight I want you to work as a team. Talk about the things you learnt from the role plays. What did you do wrong, what did you miss, what questions should you have asked, and what would you do differently next time. Make a list of all of those things and then nominate one person from the group to give a twenty minute presentation to the rest of us at 8.00am tomorrow morning. Oh yes, just one more thing. The Naughty Boys…take it easy tonight. I want you sharp and alert first thing in the morning. “

We all started to pack our things away. But Graham spoke again.

“No, listen up everyone. I’ve changed my mind. I think we’ll have one of The Naughty Boys to do the presentation in the morning. So Danny, Joe and Greg, all be prepared to do it and I’ll choose one of you at 8.00am!”

He smiled and then left the room.

The three of us looked at each other. Fuck!

We went to our rooms and got changed. After a quick dinner in the restaurant we all met back in the main lounge at 8.00pm and started our homework. By the time we’d finished it was almost 10.00pm. Most of the group went to bed, but not The Naughty Boys…we headed for the games room and the bar!

 

Butcher Boy2. Post Office Days 16.

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I might have given the wrong impression about Coton House. It wasn’t just for Sales Training. It was the venue that most courses for Management (PEC and above) took place.  They could be as diverse as Grievance and Disciplinary Procedures for HR staff or a course on Public Speaking for Postmasters.  At any one time there could be fifteen or twenty different courses taking place. The grounds were enormous with lots of new buildings built around the old Manor House. Some courses were just for one day, others might be three days and some (like the Sales course) were for full weeks. If people lived within just an hour’s drive away then they probably wouldn’t stay over.

But everything came to life on a Monday morning. By 8.00am the place was heaving with people. Long queues at reception with everyone wanting to know what training room they had to go to. The restaurant was busy with queues forming for the self service buffet breakfasts.

Me, Danny and Greg were greedily scoffing our eggs, bacon, sausages and beans by 8.00am. We needed it as our system was still full of lager!

At 9.00am we were all seated in one of the training rooms. The desks were in a horseshoe formation and there were sixteen of us on the course. Twelve men and four women. Our tutor was Graham the same guy that had taken me for the PSA course.

We started as usual with introductions. Each one of us had to stand up and speak for five minutes about our backgrounds and what we expected to get out of the course. Everyone apart from me was already a PEC and had just changed roles within their grade. But it was a young course. No one was older than thirty five and the average age was around thirty. All parts of the UK were covered. There were people from Cornwall in the South right up to Big Greg from Glasgow.

The first day went quickly. It was more about listening than doing. At 4.30pm Graham told us the day was over.

“Okay everyone. I’m letting you go early today. You’ve had a lot to take in and I’ve decided that your little brains might be going into overload. But…the rest of the week will be different. We’ve got a lot to get through in week one so the rest of the week I want you sitting here ready at 8.00am. You won’t finish until 5.30pm at the earliest and then you’ll have work to do in the evening in preparation for the following day. If we do that then I can let you go home early on Friday to avoid the traffic. That way you can get back to your families at a reasonable time. Deal?”

Everyone nodded in agreement. Graham continued.

“But as it’s Day One and I’m in an unusually good mood, anyone who wants a drink, I’ll be at the bar when it opens at 5.30 and I’ll be happy to buy you a glass or two.”

That seemed like an offer I couldn’t refuse. I went up to my room had a shower and changed into some casual clothes. At exactly 5.35 I was at the bar with a beer in my hand talking with the rest of the class about our first day. Graham told us what to expect for the rest of the week.

“This week is all about Sales structure. You’ll all learn how to conduct a sales interview. It has an opening and a close and a lot more in the middle. So we’ll be doing role plays. Each evening you’ll split into teams and learn a certain product. The next day you’ll be asked to sell that product to a buyer. You’ll be filmed doing it and afterwards we’ll look at the film and see what you did right and more importantly what you did wrong. These will be long days, so I don’t expect to see you in the bar in the evenings!”

I’m sure Graham was looking at me when he said those final words.

Graham lived just half an hour away and he left us at seven o’clock. We all went off to the restaurant and had dinner. True to form by 9.30pm there were only three of us at the bar in the games room. Me, Danny and Greg. We had a few games of Pool and then played Darts till the barman shouted “Last Orders”. Obviously we got a few in and stayed in the bar until the familiar security guard told us he was locking up and we had to return to the main lounge. We finally called it a night around 1.00am.

My head was pounding when I woke up at 6.30am. I showered, put on my suit and went down for breakfast at 7.15. Most of the others were already there, all looking fresh and ready to go. There was no sign of Greg or Danny. I ate what I could and washed it down with lots of black coffee. At 7.45 there was still no sign of Greg or Danny. I thought about going to wake them but for the life of me I couldn’t remember what rooms they were in.

I got to the training room with five minutes to spare. I was relieved to see Greg and Danny already there, but looking like death. I took a seat next to them.

“Fuck me, I thought I looked bad, but you two…Jesus!”

Danny was as white as a sheet and Greg looked like he’d literally got out of bed and put a suit on. Then Graham walked in. He took a long look around the room at each of us.

“Well, well. I think I can tell who the naughty boys are!”

The whole room started to laugh. All except me, Danny and Greg, we just sort of smiled…