Mary Dyson picked up the phone for what she hoped would be the last call of the day. The last eight hours had been exhausting and relentless. Of course, buying on the vast scales she did, or organising others to do so on her behalf, was by its very nature relentless. Items would be sourced, ordered and invoiced: they would be delivered, distributed and consumed; then, sooner or latter the strident cuckoo squark would start again, beaks wide open and demanding their eternal replenishment. It was easy to feel she was accomplishing nothing.
As she dialled the number she realised he felt curiously light-headed. Exhaustion, clearly. She sat back in her chair, her head resting comfortably against the wall behind her so she was more horizontal than vertical and closed her eyes.
The number took some time to connect and, when it did, it was to an unfamiliar ring tone that, for some reason, reminded her of her childhood. In fact, it sounded French.
She found herself wondering what would happen if she just stopped buying things. Next time the armed forces said that they needed half a million night-vision glasses, two thousand boxes of toilet paper or three tons of fish fingers – all of which she had handled this week – she could just say, “no: I’ve had enough. You don’t really need this stuff anyway.” What would happen then? Could she just stop this incessant merry-go-round, or her little part of it?
The ring tone continued in its strange, dreamy way. The last idea started developing itself in her mind. There had been a time, when she was growing up in a small Berkshire village forty years before, when the world had seen to run on less hectic, though more immutable rhythms, those of nature and the seasons on which had been overlaid the various Christian festivals which had played a moderately large part in her family’s life. Now everything ran to deadlines and schedules that often had no particular logic, or even consistency. It was exhausting. She was exhausted.
The ring tone seemed to be getting fainter. Then it was answered.
She made her request but it seemed that she was reading from a script written by someone else in a language that she did not understand.
“I don’t think that timescale is very realistic,” the man said.
Mary took a deep breath and supressed the brief temptation to fling herself forward and bash her forehead against the desk. Today she had fired three procurement sub-contractors and so was in no mood to be messed around.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Well,” the man said slowly. Mary had the image of him flicking through and re-arranging a hand of cards during a game of gin rummy, wondering which one to play.
“Well,” he said in a different tone of voice, implying this time not indecision but the fact that the card was so obvious it hardly need to be played at all. He played it anyway. “Coronavirus.”
Mary’s hand gripped the receiver. “Don’t try me with Coronavirus,” she said. “This time yesterday I was signing a deal for ten thousand sheets for the Nightingale hospitals. This afternoon I organised two years’ supply of Ibuprofen for the RAF.” She now had the image of herself playing a kind of one-sided blind whist, struggling and failing to recognise any of her opponent’s cards – all of which appeared as red or black blurs – whereas he could see all of hers.
“Of course, the supply chain is pretty broken,” he said, as if she had not spoken. There was a pause while both considered how good this card this had been to play. He was obviously gambling that she knew little about his own supply-chain issues. In fact, Mary didn’t and was instead wondering how much of her knowledge was transferable; also if an argument based on this aspect of the problem was going to accomplish anything. An equivocal response was called for. Now it was bridge they were playing: still at the bidding stage, still feeling each other out.
“…and, of course, there’s Brexit,” he added.
Mary sighed. The objections of Brexit and Covid, and the various supply-chain nightmares each had wrought with regard to every request and demand, came at her like bullets each day, often as the first three gambits. This was now like a horrible game of chess in which the opening moves by the opponent were so predictable that one almost fell asleep, switched off from the game until something more interesting came along. She realised she had switched off now and made an effort to re-focus. However, she found that she couldn’t. Someone else seemed to be in control of her.
“…were all from Poland,” the man was saying. “Or Bulgaria. A lot from Bulgaria, for some reason. Or is it Romania? Anyway, there were only two Polish people who stayed but now one is self-isolating. Of course all the Brits don’t care to work our kind of shifts and want to get at least the minimum wage, plus bonuses, and…”
He droned on. Money, Mary thought, that was where they had got to. It came up sooner or later, usually later. Well, she could face that one out, just as she’d done with the fish-finger people this morning. Put them on the spot early on about what they wanted and then start demanding other concessions: get those agreed, then go back to the figure and chip away at that. It was a bit of a Danish Gambit but she’d made it work before.
She opened her mouth to say “so the price is the problem?” but no sound emerged. Instead, the man came out with a completely random move that put her on the back foot.
“…and then, there’s Michaelmas coming up.”
“Michaelmas?” she managed to ask; though her voice sounded odd: distorted, delayed; almost underwater.
“…which is a big weekend for us. Very big. End of September. End of summer, you know, or used to be. Course, lockdown’s changed that. Still – Michaelmas. Everything’s different after Michaelmas. It’s the daisies, of course. That’s what a lot of people remember about it. The daisies. The daisies usually…”
Mary had been privately educated at a school which had a Michaelmas term but had never bothered to ask or ever been told what this meant.
“…and of course after that it’s unlucky to pick blackberries. Got the devil’s spit on them, so people say. Don’t believe it myself, but my sister told me…”
‘The devil’s spit’? What was the man talking about? Mary lived in Camden Town and got her blackberries, year-round as far as she was aware, from Waitrose. Not that she ate them very much as she didn’t like the way the pips got stuck in her teeth. However, her sister loved them, so when she came to stay…
“…but my sister didn’t believe it when she came to stay. Nor did the doctor. Suppose she should have asked a priest. Mind you, she’s a Catholic, but…”
With an effort, Mary tried to recall what they were talking about, what she was trying to order, where they had got to. She couldn’t. Even so, she needed to assert herself but she couldn’t do that either.
But the man was off again.
“…of course, getting staff in the run-up to Halloween is next to impossible. It’s the delivery problems, you see. Same with bonfire night. Do you have a pet? A lot of people think that those fireworks…”
Mary wondered now if the call had been such a good idea. Her brain was frazzled with immense numbers, infeasibly complicated payment terms and all manner of contractual obligations. It might have been better just to have gone home, opened a bottle of wine and seen what there was in the freezer. But, having started, she wasn’t going to give up so easily.
“…then there’s Christmas, looming on the horizon, as always,” the man was saying. “Booked up solid we are then. Solid. Not everyone likes Turkey, or holly. Or crackers, come to that. My mother-in-law, for instance…”
She could, of course, just hang the phone up. She had no idea any longer what game they were playing. This, clearly, was a call that should have been made earlier in the day when she was fresher and sharper. The RAF’s toilet paper had, compared to this, been child’s play.
“…January’s always difficult, obviously. Haven’t even got my desk diary for next year yet so there’s no point asking me to book in anything for then – no, that’s my joke. It’s all electronic now, isn’t it? I could tell you what day my birthday will fall on in 2060 if you wanted to know…”
Mary didn’t want to know this but she found herself saying “Tuesday’, though no sound emerged.
“…on Tuesday, as it happens,” he went on. “Mind you my birthday’s usually on a Tuesday.”
Mary grappled with this thought for a moment, but the man had already moved on.
“…plus the long-range forecast isn’t looking too good for January, is it? Seems like snow and of course then there’s February to get through…”
“Février?” she said sarcastically. There was a pause. It was the first thing she’d said for some time. But why had she said this in French?
“…et vous m’appellez maintenant, demandant livraison en février?” the man asked. “The thing about February, of course, is that…”
He was probably right, Mary thought – delivery in five months’ time of whatever they were talking about was doubtless an absurdly short time-scale. She’d embarrassed herself, let the department down. The man didn’t seem to have noticed, however.
“…such a short month, of course, ” he was saying, “hardly worth bothering with, ha ha. Before you know it – woosh, it’s gone. A lot of people ignore it altogether nowadays. Not even a Leap Year in 2021…”
All the day’s fish fingers and toilet paper and sackings had turned her mind into a kind of mush. Her doctor had told her only last week that she was over-working. So, for that matter had her boss. She wanted to admit this now: she wasn’t herself; could they re-start the conversation? But still, on the other end of the phone, the man droned on.
“…and then we’re looking at Lent, which is obviously a complete bugger …”
Well, it was. Self-denial was ever the enemy of procurement. She began to hear the Apostles’ Creed tunning through her head like water, easily accessed from constant childhood repetition: ‘I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son…’
“…then there’s Easter looming– always a busy time, people starting to think about, well…”
Had they really spanned half the year since the mention of Michaelmas? Had the whole of autumn and winter swung past in two minutes of disjointed chat and, here they were, breathing down the neck of next spring and still nothing agreed? Schedule, price, product, delivery terms – all were slipping away in the face of this man’s peculiar recitation of the passage of the seasons.
“…through, of course, Whitsun is the big one – that’s the day by which a lot of firms set their clocks, obviously. No sooner is that, and all its weddings, out of the way than you’ve got Mother’s Day coming at you, all guns blazing. That’s not so big for us, though. Well, it is and it isn’t. Mind you, before and after, people like to have a change, know what I mean?”
Mary didn’t know what he meant. She now seemed to be floating above the conversation. The man had turned into a lizard at the other end of a long, dark corridor. His tongue was flicking and out over a long hand of playing cards in front of him which, though turned face-up, she once again could not read.
“…the there’s July and August. Should be the boom months but you never know what the weather’s going to do and it’s a complete write-off for any kind of planning as everyone’s away. That’s when the supply-chain problems really kick in, and if you add in Covid and Brexit…”
At the mention of ‘supply chain’, Mary snapped to attention. “Are you saying,” she asked in her best professional tones, “that your supply chains are still going to be disrupted in eleven months’ time?”
There was a pause: a different pause from what she’d heard before. The light in the room seemed to have changed as well. When the man spoke, that was a different voice too. “Excuse me?”
Mary said nothing for a moment. It was almost as if she had just woken up. The fact that her face was on the desk rather supported this. She thought quickly. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I was talking to someone else.”
“No problem, madam. So – what do you need?”
Mary told him. It all now seemed so simple. The man repeated in back to her.
“So, that’s a nine-inch pepperoni thin-crust, garlic bread and a coleslaw, at 7.15pm. And the address?”
“Five Lock Gardens, Camden Town,” she said.
“Fine. OK – I need first the long number on your card.”
The transaction over, she hung up the phone. What had all that other stuff been about? Already the details were fading but the essential procrastination remained fixed in her mind. What a nightmare. What a horrible insight into her life that had presented. The doctor was right: she needed to take a break. She stood up and reached for her coat. Just then, the phone rang.
“Mary Dyson,” she said in her usual crisp tone.
“Er…Hello…er, Mary,” a slightly undercooked male voice replied, “We haven’t spoken before. Alex Chelton here from GFK’s Accounts Department.” There was a pause. Mary, now on the front foot again, said nothing. “Yes…well, I was just wondering, that is…I was asked to get in touch to find out about the payment terms for the toilet paper you placed with Janet Hawthorne this afternoon. I’ve got the reference – PX333409/20. The terms seems not to have been agreed.”
Indeed they hadn’t, Mary recalled. So grateful had they been to get the contract that Mary had been able to skate over the whole issue with her usual ‘standard payment agreement’ and ‘best terms’ which, of course, meant nothing.
“We need this,” Alex went on, almost apologetically, “for the… the, you know, the contract.”
Mary had only a faint sensation of the last so-called conversation. Now she felt well again, in control once more, so these dark prognostications could be ignored. The memory was being pulled away from her like a receding tide, the rush and suck of the water on the shingle wiping the memory of the hectic high waters: but several phrases still remained. It seemed foolish not to use them.
“Payment?” she said in a dreamy voice, with an eye on the clock. Her pizza order wasn’t arriving for an hour so she had twenty minutes to spare for Alex, which should be just about long enough. “Well, you see,” she said in a regretful voice, “with Michaelmas coming up…”
Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels.