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Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Brownie points

Peter pushed open the door gently. Although the hinges creaked loudly in the silence, the door swung open easily enough.
'Professor', Peter called out into the poorly lit parlor, 'Are you there?'
There was no immediate answer, only the noise of traffic passing the Victorian house on the road at the bottom of the garden and the hum of electrical motors from further in the house coming from what seemed to be the entrance to the cellar just down the hallway. The interior of the house, rather like the garden that Peter had walked through to get the front door, was neat and tidy, clean and decorated though with a little too much use of pink emulsion for Peter's own taste. No one had come in answer to Peter's knocking and ringing of the door bell. Still the Professor had been very insistent that he come when they had spoken that morning in the public library.

Peter had met the Professor for the first time today. There had been one of those momentary embarrassing tussles as they both reached for the Daily Telegraph in the paper racks in the reference section. After a few 'I'm sorries' and 'No, no after you' they had determined that they had both wanted different sections of the paper. Peter wanted the jobs section and the Professor the obituaries section, 'To check that I am still alive dear boy' he said smiling. They sat at the same table and it seemed natural to continue the conversation. Peter explained that he'd been made redundant yet again, been unemployed for months and just couldn't get a job no matter how hard he tried. 'I don't know what to do,' said Peter, 'I'm very well qualified, have retrained more times than I can remember but no one seems to want you when you are in your 50's. Even my wife says I'm like our elderly Fiat car - that never works either, she says. I chose the wrong career all those years ago. I had a chance to do something else and blew it on one decision. The thing that really depresses me is that I could have been so successful with my life but I just never got the breaks. Now I'll never achieve all that I could have. ' The Professor tut-tutted sympathetically. 'It is a problem' he agreed, 'look at me, I'm in my 70's, all my best work in quantum physics in Cambridge now behind me, still working on my big idea but no one pays attention to you once you pass into retirement'. He paused then looked directly into Peter's eyes, his own eyes now serious.

'I have an idea, a machine I've been working on. It might help you. Come to my house tonight at 8.00pm and I'll show you what I mean. No, don't ask questions now, just come and you'll see. Promise you'll come.' And with that he left the library. The librarian smiled at Peter, 'Such a lovely gentleman, comes in every week and orders the most wonderful books on quantum physics, worm holes and last month, temporal displacement and probability, very different from the usual requests for the latest best-seller.'

Peter walked down the hallway and jumped when the voice of the Professor shouted out from a speaker mounted on the wall next to a video camera.
'There you are! Jolly glad you came, now come down into my workshop in the cellar and I'll explain everything.' Peter closed the front door behind him and walked down the stairs into the cellar. 'Marvellous things security cameras' said the Professor, 'means I can keep working and decide whether I want to be interrupted or not.' He tapped the screen of the TV on his work bench. Peter looked around the room. In every conceivable space were cables, wires, screens, monitors, all leading to a large well-padded armchair in the middle of the room itself in front of a console containing two levers.
'Professor er... I don't actually know your full name' said Peter.
'Brownie' replied the Professor and then Peter remembered. Professor Brownie the world famous quantum physicist who had retired 15 years ago - he remembered the interviews where the Professor had claimed that time travel was more than theoretically possible it was a fact but a fire had destroyed his laboratory in Cambridge and he could not replicate the experiment. 'Time Crank retires' - Peter remembered the tabloid headlines.

'I see you remember me now' said Professor Brownie noting Peter's expression, 'and what they said about me. Well I can show you tonight it wasn't all made up. You really can alter time. I have found a way of sending you back through time to one specific moment and letting you alter one fundamental decision.'

Peter stood and looked around at the equipment. He looked at Professor Brownie and then he made to leave. That was all he needed during this unemployment, a lunatic offering time travel. The Professor waved in the direction of the door. 'I understand Peter, go if you want to, but this morning you told me you made the wrong choice of career. What if I could give you that choice again? What have you got to lose?' Peter thought quickly - what else was he going to do that evening, it wasn't as if he'd have to get up early in the morning to work was it? It would make a good story for the pub anyway, goodness knows he had little else to talk about these days. 'OK' Peter said 'let's try it'.

The Professor sat Peter down in the armchair and placed what seemed to be an iPod on his lap and connected several electrodes to his head. The iPod and electrodes were, in turn, connected to the other machinery by a further cable. 'Hold this and watch the screen. Now tell me the date and time where you had to make the choice of one career path over another. The machine will then scan the temporal streams and show you what has happened with your choice that has brought you here today and what would have happened if you had picked the other career path. It doesn't show the future, only what has happened up to today, this very moment. What happens in the future is still your choice it has not yet been determined. You will then be given the opportunity to pull one of the levers in front of you and either go back in time to choose the other career path or pull the other lever and confirm your life so far. Now this is important Peter. The way temporal streams work everyone has one chance and one chance only to go back and make a choice. Think of it like a railway and coming to a set of points. You set the points one way or the other. Do you understand? You can't go back and reset the points if you don't like the new outcome. Once you have chosen your track you will follow it until it loops back to this exact time and place. When the temporal stream has finished processing you have just two minutes to pull one of the levers. The white one to stay with the choice you made and black one to choose the other life. You have to make a choice, you can't mess with quantum physics you know.''

Peter nodded. 'Barmy old fool' he thought, 'let's get this over with. Bit of a laugh when it all fails to work.' 'Right then' Peter said out loudly, 'July 15 1977 at home in Cardiff. I'm with my Mum and Dad. There are two letters, one from the head office of the world's biggest supplier of computers offering graduate entry and a clerical post in London following my degree in languages and one from Consolidated Holdings Inc. offering me a graduate entry post with their sales team in their head office in Manchester with a company Ford Escort. I took the car and, well, here I am.'

The Professor pressed a number of buttons on the console at his desk and then stared hard at Peter and spoke again softly 'No going back now Peter, shall we start?' Peter sat still, nodded his assent and, at that, the lights dimmed and the machinery starting humming very loudly. In his head Peter saw lights passing, like the windows of a train carriage in the night. Vague images started appearing on the iPod screen and then there it was, like a security camera looking over his shoulder, Peter at 21 in his front room with his mother and father smiling broadly. 'Two offers son, both great, which one to take?' said his father. The Peter of 1977 looked at his parents and said 'Computers of course.'

The screen changed and then Peter saw, at high speed his other life pass on the screen - the big offices in central London, the too-smart suits and neat haircuts, blue shirts and tie, promotion, travel to the head office in the States, moving house because the company expects it, bigger car, bonuses, stock options, girls, the girl, marriage, meetings, working late every night, networking, evenings with people you don't like because the company expects it, wife gives up career to keep up with company moves, bigger houses, fewer friends (you never have time to go out with them), wife leaves with ex-best friend (he always lacked ambition just wanted to live in the country), no friends, promotion to head of South Americas, divorce, company censure (our senior team are expected to be married), new house gated community Sao-Paulo with armed response, marriage to petite blond wife with teenage son who loathes you, promotion Head of Sales Pacific rim move to Beijing, divorce (we really expect our team to be married is there a problem?), promotion to Head of Servers for Baltic region, moves to Finland, firm sold in reorganisation, sorry have to "let you go", "retirement" at 55, escorted off premises by security no time to empty desk, move to UK, very good pension and excellent stock options intact, bachelor flat in Notting Hill, feel lonely, looking for partner in Daily Telegraph in library, meets Professor tells him he's lonely looking for a soul mate, Professor invites him around this evening

And then the screen blurs and it's 21 year old Peter in Cardiff saying to his father 'Are you kidding, I want the car.' And then night school, monthly pay checks, promotion, travel abroad, bigger car, staff, bonus, girls, girl, marriage, her career, holidays in Cornwall and Devon, decide to have children - present at birth and birthdays of beautiful baby girl, wife resumes career, first redundancy, fight back, retrains, small salary increase, another baby girl , present at birth and birthdays, holidays with family every year girls sleeping in the back of the car on the long drive, friends some doing better some doing worse some are with same partners some have new ones, another redundancy a new job a few rungs down the corporate ladder work no longer so satisfying, 25th wedding anniversary, 30th wedding anniversary, MA in Fine Art from the Open University wonderfully satisfying (should have done that instead of languages at Uni), friends celebrate 50th birthday with surprise birthday party one girl comes back from Uni especially and they both want to be with their dad that night, wife starts own business starts to thrive, another redundancy (sorry we've been bought out we are going to have to let you go) out of work for eight months so far money worries, goes to library meets Professor, Professor invites him around this evening.

The screen goes black, the background electrical humming falls silent.

The Professor says 'Peter you have two minutes to pull one of the levers and make that choice again. You must pull one of them.'

Peter lies back in the chair and closes his eyes for a minute and then sits up. He looks at the Professor, winks and then leans forward to pull a lever. 'Thank you Professor, I know which lever I want' he says, smiling, and pulls it.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Banned on the run

I made three resolutions at the beginning of the year.
They were:
  1. Never go to the company Christmas party again as it was so dire and the fighting every year was getting boring.
  2. Be able to run 3 miles by year end.
  3. Get my weight down by 4 kilos by year end.
On the basis that you should be careful what you ask for (I've never forgotten the story of "The Monkey's paw") I seem to have achieved the first one though not in the way I was expecting. And there were fights every year at the party, such a tasteful organisation with charming cultured people though clearly none of them ever made the mistake of going to the Christmas party like I did or even turning up for work now I come to think about it.

Run 3 miles. Well I used to claim that at 50 I was as fit as I was at 30 which was technically correct even if in practice this meant that walking to the car park and back was the limit of my fitness programme. Every time I went to see the doctor with some malady he would glower at me and mutter such words as "you're a bit porky Mr EoTP so why don't you get some exercise and save me a lot of NHS paperwork when you are in your 60's and wonder why you need a fork lift truck to move you around?"

Hence resolution 3. See it all fits together like a wellington boot.
So, as we all now know I achieved resolution 1 unaided. Resolution 2 started like this. After coming home from work (what a strangely outmoded concept that now seems) I started going on a determined walk of several miles each evening. This led to thoughts of "I wonder if I could run to the next lamp post?" I couldn't. Well not without a significant loss of face as I gasped for oxygen, then went very red in the face and had to hang on to the lamp post so as not to collapse. Good job this was in January and during the hours of darkness so no one could see how pathetic I was. However I kept on with the regime and by the end of March could run the three miles. No one was more surprised than me and now I felt I could come out of the shadows and run in the daylight. So this is not "Chariots of fire" with the theme tune by Vangelis playing as I run around but it ain't too bad.

Of course this is where it starts to become a consumer buying opportunity. I start seeing other runners and they have watches with timers , blood pressure and heart beat monitors so that you can optimise your exercise heart rate and stay in the "zone" wherever that is - no where near where I live that's for sure. I've still to find it. They wear tight spandex shorts and lycra tops so that their air resistance is minimised and they have the most amazing running shoes so they glide over the road and pavements. In the newsagents you can find specialised running magazines that can sell you even more wonderful performance enhancing equipment. I want these accoutrements. They are necessary for serious running. Of course with limited funds but lots of time I have a dilemma. How can I look like a serious runner and not dress like a footballer from the 1940's with shorts that you could hide several people in each leg and football boots that look like deep sea divers boots. The answer is Tesco (again). For £9 I bought a running shirt, shorts and jog pants that may not be at the cutting edge of fashion, or even in the same country, but they will do. The local sports shop had a sale and I bought cheap running shoes so job done. As for the watch timer thing well I discovered that if I look at the clock as I leave and then again when I return I can work out the time - amazing. If I can't see the clock because of a film of sweat then I must have had a good run. If I'd have been working I would have bought the "correct" equipment and would I have run any better or faster? Of course Mrs EoTP snorted with derision when I declared my need for the serious running equipment - she must get tired with being right all the time.

As for the weight loss, 3 kilos achieved so far with 3 months still to go to the end of the year. By then I will have reached the weight that I said I would never exceed and which became known as the "horror weight". I can't work out how therefore I managed to exceed it by 4 kilos. Must be a gland thing.

There is a sort of camaraderie amongst runners, a nod of recognition, even a cheery "hallo" from most though from me, unless it's about 5 metres from where I've started the run it is more of a croak and exhalation than a word, like a teenager's response to any question. But there is one running item that, when I am declared King of the World, I will instantly ban. And that is the silly little water bottle that women runners for some reason like to have with them. You know they can't be real runners equipment because Tesco don't sell them.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

'I'm free', Mr Humphries, "Are you being served?" BBC

It's August and everyone is on holiday, going on holiday or just returning from holiday except, of course, us. Even with my part-time job it has become very difficult contacting people "Yes I will see September after I come back from my week in Rio, followed by some late skiing in a darling little hidden valley in the Hindu Kush and then some well earned rest in L.A. Such a good exchange rate don't you think? Where are you going?". Of course friends are in the West Indies, Greece, France, the Indian ocean (on an island of course) or, considering the money in this area where I live, their very own island in the Hebrides for all I know.
I walked to Tescos the other day: a two mile walk and it was sunny. And we drove out into the countryside at night to see the meteor shower. That is the extent of our holiday. No, we borrowed a carpet cleaner as well. No end to the excitement in the EoTP household.

Anyway we are here for the summer and of course people know this. That is why we are getting asked "Are you free?".

It used to be the case that if we were asked about the Dog and Duck it meant a clandestine under age trip to a pub buried deep in the folds of the hills in the Forest of Dean when we were teenagers, followed by much drinking of the foul (but cheap) brown ale brewed in that area. Neither the landlord or local police seemed terribly bothered by this as long as we didn't annoy the locals. We couldn't for long anyway as we passed out after two pints. Now things have changed.

1. We are looking after a duck. Friends up the road found a stray duckling some months ago and have adopted it. They have gone on holiday and asked us to look after it. This means two trips a day for the next 10 days to their house to let the duck out for a paddle on their pond, feed it worms (Mrs EoTP is digging worms from our garden to deliver to the duck) and generally let it have a walk/waddle/pit-pat-waddle-pat around then chase it back into the hutch. Our friend's wife called us from the airport on Monday (three hours after they had left home) to check on its welfare and then from France twice yesterday. We have a website (pun intended) so that they can see daily updated pictures. Heaven help us. Oh and we have to be careful not to feed it too much chick food in case it gets crumb bum. There is NO WAY I am wiping a ducks bottom, that's a step too far. And what are we going to do if the duck flies away during the week? It is exercising it's wings regularly every day. Deeply worrying.

2. We are looking after a dog, a cocker spaniel. Other friends are having a few days at home to recover from their 10 hectic days on holiday in the West Indies or somewhere local like that and, because they are having a few days out locally, "could we just drive up to their house and let the dog out for a run, feed it, and play with it." Well of course we can and happy to do so.

3. Teenager watch. Another friend is in Greece but has left their 18 year old at home - intentionally I should say. This time it's a sort of "Mummy Watch" as last time he was left alone he went out and left a gas burner on the cooker on and unlit for several hours. Mrs EoTP (and three others also on Mummy Watch) have to check regularly on his state and report back to Greece via text. He was called upon yesterday at 11am, had only just got up (natch). Mrs EoTP and friend arrive at the house, flash their Mummy Watch warrant cards and demand to search the house for contraband girlfriends. Well perhaps not, but chummy knows he's been fingered by the Squad (must stop watching "Life on Mars"). Of course we had a call from Greece last night to check on his status. Maybe time for a website for a teenager? Look house not burnt down, police not called to rave, evidence that clothes have been changed at least once in a fortnight.

4. Minke Whale Watch. The local council have found that a pod of Minke whales have mistaken the sound of an ice cream van chimes for the sonar equivalent of open water and have found their way into the nearby canal and could we look after it during August for them as it is a good tourist attraction and the official swan upper is on holiday?

5. Prime Minister Watch. Gordon Brown wants a few days away with his family and the rest of the Cabinet would also like a few days in Tuscany/USA/Maldives/all three and could we keep an eye on the country for a day or two, send us a text if there is a problem?

6. Mrs EoTP is also looking after a holiday cottage and the arrivals and departures of holiday makers. It's like the equivalent of being an air steward "On the right you will find three good restaurants, at the rear of the town you will find two supermarkets with comprehensive facilities, on the left of the town you will find a river full of Minke whales and a friendly (but confused duck), a swimming cocker spaniel and a teenager who though this might be a quick way to wash his underpants." Sound of running as Mrs EoTP realises that the whole thing is unravelling and how can she put this in a text?

So this is the summer of 07. Mrs EoTP sent several texts last night after a bottle of wine. I think in the cold light of day she will have found that the teenager was put in the hutch with no sign of crumb bum, the duck was in its dressing gown when woken at 11 am and no sign of any girls and the Minke whales are back in Downing Street.

Monday, 6 August 2007

"We're all going on a summer holiday", Cliff Richard

We are not going on a summer holiday. We decided that it would be prudent not to in the circumstances of not having much money. We left it until the last thing to decide, well sort of last thing, as we cancelled it with a month to go. That way at least there was a fighting chance that the holiday agency could re-let the property. Everything is insured, so financially we will get everything back by 2010.

We had intended to stay near Venice as I'd promised the kids that when they were old enough (moves pipe to other side of mouth and puffs furiously) then I shall take them to see the antiquities of yore. Sits down and brushes small tails of tobacco from cardigan. Of course as soon as I'd cancelled the holiday, images of Venice are everywhere I look, lists of the best family restaurants in Venice, how to have an utterly fabulous time in Venice on £2 per day and "Venice - the best bits that tourists never see". The kids look at the pictures, then at me, then at the pictures again. Hey! but it will still be there next year subject to floods, tsunamis and so forth.

This is not helped by friends going/coming back from holidays in far flung places and saying things like "You should have seen the sunset over the Yangtze river and pandas in their natural habitat are sooooo adorable. Look some genuine dried panda pooh for you. Good for the complexion and so tasty sprinkled on soup." And "The Maldives: so exotic yet you can still buy a good single malt whiskey and Kit Kats." Sound of EoTP cocking AK47.

But what are we missing by not going on holiday? Here's my list of things I won't miss:

  • Waking at 2am to catch the ferry in Dover because if you travel after 0830 the cost quadruples. Trying to get the rest of the family to wake up. Mrs EoTP is like a bear when first woken -scary.
  • Food on the ferry. Pain au chocolates made six weeks ago and now so hard they are capable of mooring a boat to if necessary. And the prices all seem to to be in multiples of £5.
  • Finding the overnight accommodation using the instructions sent by the French B&B. After a twelve-hour drive one's sense of humour and ability to say one word in French goes straight out of the window. I demand a SatNav next time.
  • Food from motorway service station of any nationality.
  • Eating food at a motorway service station of any nationality.
  • Finding a restaurant where we all like the look of the food on offer. Try finding a traditional French restaurant that serves cheese and tomato pizza.
  • Airport departure lounges. I flew from Luton airport for the first time a few weeks ago. It was manic. I've seen much worse in the Far East. Of the world not the UK; I didn't mean Ipswich airport.
  • Getting back to the UK at Dover, knowing the holiday is over and yet there are still several hours of driving ahead. Then unpacking.
  • Cleaning the car. I have tried so hard to get the kids to get in and out of the car without them diving in head first and out by climbing on the seats. Their footprints go all around the back of the car including the roof.
  • Sick bags. We can be driving on the smoothest, arrow straight autobahn with the minimal of sideways movement and there will be a "Dad you have to stop I feel sick, bwaggghhhhhhh" moment. Or they will want to be sick at the point in the journey when you just cannot stop and then "bwaggghhhhhhh" again. Then there is the cleaning up, the "that's the last pair of clean shorts", the stained car fabric, the smell. There again we can be going around the most vertiginous mountain roads and they can eat ice cream, sweets and fight each other without any side effects.
  • Mosquitoes. Have to have the windows open it's so hot. Mossies love EoTP and ignore Mrs EoTP. Why?
  • Going back to work, 5000 emails, 14 days of post, things have happened that I don't understand, customers have left/joined, half the staff have left/joined and it's 11am, time for my espresso and croissant and still 8 hours before I can go home.
So you see I won't have any of that this year. No wonder I feel so relaxed. It's just too tiring going on holiday.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Working to rules

I was feeling very positive earlier this week. No, I hadn't been offered a full time job, nothing that exciting but as one three month contract came to a close at the end of July several more appeared on the horizon. I have a further 20 days on one project starting now, some confirmed work in early September that will also pay quite well and it looks as if a new contact can also give me 12 to 20 days work from mid August. There's also a possibility of a further 3 months work from mid September. No full time job anywhere in sight but there is some income still coming in. Money is tight but we are still surviving. Networking is working it seems.

Great news. Or is it?

The thing is mortgage protection insurance (MPI). I've been paying for this for years and have finally got to the point where I could claim it. Of course it is worth quite a lot of money and will cover the mortgage payments for 12 months. You have to be registered as unemployed to claim it though. And this is where it gets complicated. Stay with me as I am still trying to get my head around it.

  • You can defer your MPI claim for up to six months after becoming unemployed if you have, as I have, part time work that takes up more than 15 hours per week.
  • You can sign on as unemployed and take on part time work as long as, yes you are ahead of me, do not work more than 15 hours per week.
  • You have to register as unemployed to claim MPI.
  • After 6 months the MPI provider assumes that if you still have part time work then you must be fully employed and therefore you cannot make a claim for insurance cover for a further 12 months from that date. Their rules not mine.

So here I am. At the end of September I will have deferred my claim for 6 months. I have work, it seems, that will take me into October and perhaps further. However this is only part time work and the income barely covers outgoings. We'll ignore taxes, pension payments, shoes for the children and so on for the moment otherwise my head will implode. So it looks as if I will have to turn down some part time work to claim the MPI from October onwards even though the amount that will be paid will be less than I could have earned working part time. And the MPI company will not change its rules. Because I've asked. And they said NO.


This is a dilemma as there may be a full time job with either organisation eventually. Eventually.
And I don't want to go self-employed again because I cannot be sure that the work will last much beyond October and then I really will be stuck if it doesn't.

Right now I really don't know what to do.
I'll have to think carefully about this or, of course, I could ignore it and see if all goes away but that probably is not a likely option. I dunno, doesn't life get complicated sometimes?