Click. Click. Click. Egg timer. Egg timer. Egg timer. Error message.
Task ‘janeyhughton.co.uk – Sending and Receiving’ reported error 4470: ‘Outlook is unable to connect to your outgoing (SMTP) e-mail server. If you continue to receive this message, contact the server administrator or Internet service provider (ISP).’
Thank you, Outlook, thank you SMTP e-mail server, whatever you are. Thank you, server administrator. I didn’t want that client to actually receive that piece of work, did I? That would be foolish.
I mean, the client may well have asked for it, demanded it, even. We may have agreed, by way of a legal contract, signed and wtitnessed and jointly assigned, that they, the client would, in fact, receive this piece of work that I, the provider, thereby agreed and enjoined to complete, and do so on this very day. This being, in fact, the deadline. The time at which I, Janey Hughton, being the provider, agreed to provide the piece of work that they, Michael James Osmond Estate Agents, being the client, have asked for, and promised, in return, to give me, Janey Hughton, money.
Money which, to be honest, server administrator, would, in part, have been sent in turn to your employers, the Netservicer Corporation of America, by way of me, their customer, paying my bill and then, by way of the arcane laws of economics – trickle down, and the like – into the money to pay for my internet and your, in fact, wages.
In short, I seem to have no email, and email is what I need in order to send this copy to the tedious estate agent with halitosis and a misplaced sense of self-worth for his gaudily loathsome website so that he can sell houses, make money and buy himself more shiny suits which would look a trifle ostentatious on a “Goodfella”, let alone an unpleasant business graduate of Salford City College with an estate agency in a suburb of North Manchester.
I look at the clock in the corner of my PC, which does, thankfully, seem to be working, setting it head and virtual shoulders above the rest of the software applications which lurk, grumpily, on the solid state memory, and it tells me that it is 13:15. A quarter past one, in old money, and I have until 17:30, when Mr Osmond, the foul tick, shuts his tatty office, pulls down the shutters and wanders off to upset and annoy people in his spare time, rather than professionally, by which to provide the copy I have wearily and half-heartedly crafted over the past few days.
I have, therefore, four and a quarter hours in which to save the copy from my recalcitrant computing device onto whichever portable storage device it deigns to recognise this afternoon, and take said portable device via public transport from this place, my home, to that place, Michael James Osmond Estate Agents, 14 Florizel Place, Cheetham Hill, by means of either public transport or my bicycle.
This prospect does little to delight me. Indeed, it fails to delight me even a little bit. It fails to produce anything in me other than a mix of trepidation, fear, loathing, disgust, world-weary cynicism and even, for cosmopolitan good measure, a touch of fin-de-siecle ennui.
I try to check the bus times but this, too, seems beyond the wit of man, machine or Microsoft today, and resort instead to me phone, which tells me I have missed the hourly bus which would enable me to make a connection to another bus and get to the bus station in Bury, and thence onto the ethereal and exotic delights of the 135 bus to Manchester, alighting in Cheetham Hill and walking the half mile or so to Florizel Place and deliver it in person.
Bike it is then.
I have an interesting relationship with my bike. There are times when I love it beyond reason, there are times when it exasperates me beyond compare. It is impish and inconsistent in its nature; its gears have a tendency to flit, unbidden, from high to low. The mudguards often don’t, and the luggage rack and panniers are rarely the correct proportions to accommodate any kind of shopping or other luggage which I require them to transport. It does, however, have a rather fetching basket, a nice floral pattern stencilled onto the chain guard. It is green, as well, and I like green. It gives me peace and calms me, properties which are, given the trying circumstances of the day, very much at a premium just now.
I glance out of the window. The sun is shining, it is dry and, judging by the stillness of the trees, relatively calm. Acceptable cycling weather. Bike, it most definitely is.
It takes but a matter of 15 minutes for the five page Word document to finally ensconce itself onto my USB memory stick – shaped, hilariously, as a penguin – and I can finally log off the benighted machine and close it down, sadly, not for good.
I take the opportunity to ring the offices of Michael James Osmond Estate Agents to forewarn him that the email will not be arriving but I, traffic, legs, tyres and chain permitting, will be, with the required copy on an appropriate portable storage device upon my person, ready for him to send onto his web developers, and thence onto the world wide web, enabling house buyers and sellers with a yen for northern Mancunian living to transact more readily in future
I can pop my penguin pen drive (ha ha!) into my bag, pop my bag, in turn, into the basket of Christabel, my trusty Pashley Britannia, and set off on my nine mile trek from rural South East Lancashire to the bustle and grime of North Manchester. Bloody cobbles.
The journey from the village into town is relatively uncontroversial. Just the one motorist who needs to be gently and politely reminded, yes, gently and politely, of Rule 178 of the Highway Code, which outlines the fact that the bloody great bicycle painted in the green box at the traffic lights indicates that it is bicycles that belong in them, rather than road vehicles with more wheels and engines than a bicycle might ordinarily aspire to. He thanks me with a cheery wave, using the traditional two fingers rather than the single digit which seems to becoming more prevelant these days.
From town I can go “off road”- it sounds so adventurous – and even through the park, sadly removing the opportunity for further social interplay with motorists, but with the compensatory advantage of trees, greenery (I did mention the calming thing, didn’t I) and not being knocked off and killed horribly. Often a plus, I find.
A couple of side streets takes me there, and as I roll gently down the big hill towards the Hall, I check my watch. 14:35. I am making good time and I realise, in my rush to complete the copy in time for the email to fail to deliver it within the deadline, I have skipped lunch. Dinner, as my childhood lancastrian self forever reminds me, with my fancy university-educated ways.
There is the cafe, there is the chip van. Decisions, decisions. I’ll go for the cafe, and I lock Christabel outside, and wander in to see what is on offer. I should explain, I suppose, naming my bicycle. Yes, it is twee, a hangover of my childhood habit of putting a name on everything, it is cloying and cutesy and not the normal act of an otherwise sensible woman in her mid-30s, with a reasonably successful business of her own, and no cats. In my defence, my first bike was called Emmeline, and my next will be called Sylvia. I would claim a lifelong commitment to the women’s movement, but that would, somewhat overstate the case, and understate the influence that the CBBC series Horrible Histories has had upon my life. I blame working from home.
I buy a cheese salad sandwich, hand-cut, allegedly, though I suspect a knife may also have been involved, and lovingly wrapped in clingfilm by the stout artizan behind the counter. Crisps, too, Kettle Chips – I will be coming into money, after all – and a bottle of the most carbonated spring water available in this fins establishment. Dinner is served.
I sit outside, at one of the picnic tables, so I can keep an eye on Christabel (THERE ARE BIKE THIEVES OPERATING IN THIS AREA, a poster somewhat intrusively informs me), and, well, enjoy is putting it a bit strongly, I consume the sandwich, pausing to insert a Kettle Chip before each mouthful, and momentarily ruing the lack of mayonnaise, before opening the water and drinking deeply. I am unsuccessfully stifling a belch when a man sits down across the table from me and smiles.
“Please smile and pretend that you were expecting me, my life may depend upon it,” he mutters under his breath, grabbing my hands in his and air-kissing effusively and saying “Susan, my dear, how lovely to see you, it’s been how, what five, ten? So long, my dear you look simply lovely, lovely, the years have been so kind to you.”
Nonplussed. Yes, nonplussed, is what I would go with here. With a soupcon of confused, a side of bewildered and a dressing of annoyed in a little jug so I can add it to taste. “I beg your pardon? Who are you?”
Smiles, more hand-holding, and I pour a bit more of that dressing. “Please don’t be alarmed, Miss,” he says, quietly again, and gets a small brownie point for sidestepping “madam”.
“My name is Simon Renquist, I am a civil servant. I am in need of some urgent assistance, I’m afraid. I wonder if you would be able to help me?” he asks, the mouth still smiling, but the eyes imploring, pale grey eyes, I notice, with flecks of green and blue. Oh yes, nonplussed.
“I beg your pardon? What do you? How do?” my words, which are, to be fair, the tools of my trade, seem to be failing me, deserting my mouth when it needs it most. I wonder what the error message currently flashing across my synapses. “Vocabulary and articulation error 4777. Please contact your brain service provider.”
“Some men are following me,” he says. “I find myself in possession of some information which I do not wish to have, and they certainly should not have. They wish me to share this information with them, and then relieve me of my burden, somewhat permanently.”
“What? What information? And why are you speaking in that strange way?” I ask.
“That’s just my accent. My father was Swedish, but…” he begins
“No, not that, Your… idiom. You speak like you were written by John Buchan,” I reply. Someone has clearly turned something off and turned it back on again. I mean to say Idiom!
“Sorry, but that is not far from the truth, dear lady. I learned English by reading adventure novels. I think that’s what drew me into this line of work. Anyway, would you be able to help me, do you think?” he says, his smile gone now, replaced by a look of earnest entreaty.
I am at a loss. What does one do in these circumstances? Sense tells me to extricate my hands and use them to unlock Christabel and, in the argot of today, do one. Sense and pretty well every other iota of my being. Every iota other than the ones that noticed the eyes and how nicely dressed he is. Brogues, light grey linen suit, a white shirt and a knitted tie. A green one.
“How can I help?”
“The men I mentioned are looking for this,” he said, pulling a small electronic device from his pocket. “Or, rather, the information which is on this. It is evidence that the government have covered up the murder of several prominent climate scientists, and suppressed evidence from their own inquiry about climate change. I was attempting to upload it to an international whistle-blowing site when they interrupted me. The website address is on the file. If I could give you a copy of it, all you have to do is plug it into a computer connected to the internet and find the site, and upload it.”
He has clearly seen me coming. The bike, the hand-knitted cardigan, the sandals. I clearly reek armchair green warrior. I shake my head. “How can I get a copy?”
Simon Renquist’s grey eyes (flecked with green ands blue) narrow. “Do you have any kind of USB drive? A pen drive, anything like that?”
Yes, yes I do. “Yes, yes, I do!” I shout, rather more enthusiastically than is strictly necessary. Here, in my bag. I pull out the penguin pen drive (ha ha) and hand it to Simon Renquist. He plugs it into his hand-held gizmo and presses a few buttons on the touchscreen.
“Come on, come on,” he mutters, and his linen-clad leg taps impatiently beneath the picnic table. Something beeps and he takes out the penguin pen drive and hands it back to me. “Please, just find a computer, any computer, and load this up. The planet needs you, Miss, er, sorry. What is your name?”
“Janey, Janey Hughton. Have a card.” I hold one out, but her holds his hand up – no, thank you, you don’t want anything connecting yourself to me. Please, take this and go. Now!”
He jumps up and hurries off, towards the Hall. I sit, holding the penguin pen drive in my hand and watch him go. That is a lovely suit. Very well cut. I wonder if it is tailor-made? Bespoke? Suddenly Simon Renquist falls to his knees, and then to the ground, arm forward, his head hitting the ground. I stand, ready to run over to him, but then two men come from the trees over to the side, wearing sunglasses, striding purposely towards Simon’s prone form
I drop the penguin pen drive into my bag and stand up slowly, trying to be as casual as I can, which, to be frank, is not vey casual at all. I struggle to achieve cool, insouciant, casual. I do better with flappy, fussy, standing inadvertently out in a crowd. I walk over to Christabel and look over to the men as they lift up Simon, making out that he’s drunk, “dear me, few too many,” says the taller of the two. The shorter has extracted the gizmo from Simon’s pocket and has checked through it. They exchange words and look around, and spot me, failing to cooly mount Christabel and ride off serenely. Instead I panic, tangle my feet in the pedals and fall forward, dropping the bike to the floor.
The two men are 20 yards away, but still holding up Simon, so can’t walk towards me too quickly. This comforts me until the taller man reaches behind his back and pulls something long, metallic and really rather gun-like from his waistband. Panic now gives way to adrenaline, and my legs bypass the brain and go straight to standing, mounting and pedalling, and Christabel cycles serenely away, with me safely astride her, into a crowd of schoolchildren, and down the steep hill towards the lake.
I chance one look back, and the men have deposited Simon on a bench and are running down the hill towards me. I slip the gear into low (or is it high? The hardest one to pedal, anyway) and I am away, faster than I can remember pedalling before, ringing my bell furiously and sending pedestrians and one squirrel scattering from the path.
After a couple of minutes I slow my pace – the road has long since levelled out and my speed is something more manageable, and glance back again. The men are nowhere to be seen. I’ve lost them, I think to myself. Free and clear. I leave the park and take to the side streets, dodging road bumps, traffic calming measures and school run mums in people carriers to arrive at Florizel Square, and the premises of Michael James Osmond Estate Agents.
I realise now I am out of breath and quite sweaty. Not exactly professional. I take a minute, compose myself, take the bottle of water from the basket and take a couple of sips. The adrenaline is fading somewhat now, as my breathing returns to normal and my body cedes control back to my brain, which is rarely a good move.
Clearly I should go to the police. Equally clearly, I should not. The men may well be government agents. Spooks. Clearly I should destroy the penguin pen drive and get on with my life. Clearly I should find the nearest internet cafe and upload The Truth to the world (and yes, it is The Truth, with capital letters, as I say it in my head). Equally clearly I should do no such thing as they will track me down somehow and execute me, extra-judicially. I read the Guardian. Sometimes. I do, online, most days, and I know these things happen. Extra-judicial executions. Clearly I have a number of options and equally clearly I have no idea which one to take.
I take another mouthful of water and look around. I might as well deliver the copy, then think about my career in international espionage later, I decide, by way of avoiding a decision. I walk up to Michael James Osmond Estate Agents, with its vile orange and pink facade (“it’s eye-catching Janey! Imagine the signs”), and walk inside. He is nowhere to be seen. Thank God.
Sam, the office dosgbody and ground zero for future sexual harassment suit lawyers, is. “Hi Janey. You bought the copy for the website?”
I hold up the penguin pen drive, and smile wanly. Sam smiles back, bless her, she has a hard life, she takes fun where and when and however she can. She tuns on the computer on the other desk. “Put it on his, he can send it from there,: she says, logging in with MIchael James Osmond’s login. I lean across the desk to insert the pen drive, and the door opens behind me. Please no, please don’t… ah, yes, a firm hand on my left buttock, bit of a squeeze, bit of a linger, I know it;s clammy and sweaty despite my woolen skirt. “Janey! Here you are you little minx! Got my copy, have you?”
I turn and grimace at MIchael James Osmond’s sweaty, leering face. You can’t punch him until after you’ve been paid – a rare outburst from the common sense of my brain, there, and I try and shift from grimace to smile. I suspect I fail.”Yes, Mike, copy, as promised, on deadline.”
“You’re a star, Sugartits,” he says. I must have physically shaken then, my spine recoiled. “Get it sorted, eh Sam?” He’s leaning over her, holding her shoulders and staring down her top. I mentioned, I think, the odious tic part? HIs hands slide down her. “Get it over to the boffins, eh?”
“Don’t worry, Mick, I can do it from here,” I say. “Won’t take a minute.”
Osmond, the foul toad, stops his hands just millimetres short of Sam’s cleavage, and straightens up. “Right you are, Sugartits. I’m off for a dump.” He waddles off, adjusting his crotch as he does so, into the back of the shop.
I move round to the keyboard, and open the other file on the penguin pen file. There;s a single text file, and a zip file. I open the text file and click on the single line – a link to wikiwhistle.org. I clock on upload, choose file, select the zip file on the penguin pen drive (the icon actually appears as a penguin on the desktop, for god’s sake) and click upload.
“Sam, love, you know you’re always saying you need another job?” I say. She looks at me, with those big sad brown eyes.
“Make today the day,” I say. Just walk away. Leave Mike to fend for himself.”
I copy Mike’s email address into the form on the site, and the IP address of the computer for good measure. The file has uploaded, and a message of thanks has appeared in Osmond’s email inbox. I delete it, eject the penguin pen drive, having copied the other file somewhere obscure on the hard drive, and deleted it off. I send a mail to the web developers with the copy, and get Sam to get my fee out of petty cash. I write a receipt, and give it to her. “Make today the day, eh Sam?”
I leave before Osmond has finished, clamber aboard Christabel and ride off, in the sunshine.
It’s a lovely day.