Mary’s Supply Chain

Mary Dyson picked up the phone for what she hoped would be the last call of the day. The last eight hours had been relentless. Of course, buying on the vast scales she did, or organising others to do so on her behalf, was by its 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, demanding replenishment. It was easy to feel she was accomplishing nothing.

As she dialled she realised she 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. When it did, it was to a 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: you don’t really need this stuff.” 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 developed itself in her mind. When she was growing up in a Berkshire village forty years before life had 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 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 seemed to be reading from a script written by someone else in a language that she did not understand.

“I don’t think that timescale is realistic,” the man said.

Mary took a deep breath and supressed the temptation to fling herself forward and bash her forehead against the desk. Today she had fired three procurement sub-contractors and 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 a hand of cards during a game of gin rummy, wondering which one to play.

Well,” he said in a different tone of voice, now implying not indecision but the fact that the card was so obvious it hardly need to be played at all. He played it anyway. “Covid.”

Mary’s hand gripped the receiver. “Don’t try me with Covid,” 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 broken,” he said, as if she had not spoken. He was obviously gambling that she knew little about his 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, came at her like bullets each day. 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. 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 was 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 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. 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, then demand 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. Still – Michaelmas. Everything’s different after Michaelmas. It’s the daisies, of course. That’s what 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 been told, or bothered to ask, what this meant.

“…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 and could get blackberries, year-round as far as she was aware, from Waitrose. 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…”

Mary tried to recall what they were talking about, what she was trying to order, where they had got to. She couldn’t. 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 fireworks…”

Mary wondered now if the call had been such a good idea. Her brain was frazzled with immense numbers, unfeasibly complicated payment terms and numerous contractual obligations. It might have been better 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,” 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 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 got my desk diary for next year yet so no point asking me to book in anything for then – no, that’s my joke. It’s 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 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 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 – 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 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, ” 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…”

All the day’s fish fingers and toilet paper and sackings had turned her mind into mush. Her doctor had told her last week she was over-working. So had her boss. She wanted to admit this now: she wasn’t herself. But still the man droned on.

“…then we’re looking at Lent, which is obviously a complete bugger …”

Well, it was. Self-denial was ever the enemy of procurement. She heard the Apostles’ Creed running 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.

“…though, 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 end of a long, dark corridor. His tongue was flicking and out over a hand of playing cards in front of him which, though turned face-up, she could not read.

“…then 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 will still be disrupted in eleven months’ time?”

There was a pause: a different pause from before. The light in the room seemed to have changed. When the man spoke, I was in a different voice. “Excuse me?”

Mary said nothing for a moment. It was 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 now seemed so simple. The man repeated in back to her.

“So, a nine-inch pepperoni thin-crust, garlic bread and a coleslaw, at 7.15pm. And the address?”

“Five Lock Gardens, Camden Town,” she said.

“OK – I need 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 voice replied, “We haven’t spoken before. James Milton here from GFK’s Accounts Department.” There was a pause. Mary, now on the front foot again, said nothing. “Yes…I was wondering, that is…I was asked to get the payment details for the toilet paper you placed with Janet Hawthorne this afternoon. I’ve got the reference – PX3409/23. The terms seem 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 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 and in control once more, so these dark prognostications could be ignored. The memory was pulling 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 wasn’t arriving for an hour so she had twenty minutes to spare for James, which should be about long enough.  “Well, you see,” she said in a regretful voice, “with Michaelmas coming up…”

Brian Quinn

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