In my usual fashion, I've left it to the last minute. The London train's leaving in half an hour and I haven't packed a bag. No problem. Clean shirt, socks, underwear, toothbrush. Chuck them in the bag and - whoops - what bag? The case I brought back from Qatar is far too big for an overnight. The one I need is three thousand miles away. Plastic bags look wrong in meetings. Inspiration! My old brief case, still tucked away under the stairs. Blow the dust off, bin the contents (anything I've not needed in eight years can't be important) replace with aforementioned essentials and set off at a moderate jog to the station.
Off-peak train travel to London through the Cotswolds and the upper Thames Valley bears no resemblance to the frantic commuter scramble suffered by so many. A couple of hours of peace, comfort and gently rolling countryside, grey-white with frost, sometimes sparkling to a low slanted sunbeam. Time to relax, contemplate and remember.
Remember Ken? He was given to surprising gestures. The annual haircut and beard trim, the extended quotes from Edgar Allen Poe, the occasional three-day benders. And the gift of a brief case when you got that management job and everyone else was either muttering congratulations or sulking. This was no ordinary brief case. Sturdy, it was, with a marine plywood frame, best brass piano hinges, corner strengtheners and spring-loaded combination hasps. And all covered in thick black sofa-quality leatherene. It's possible that he made it himself; it's certain he didn't buy it in Evesham.
The next morning should have been easier. All that was needed was to get up, shower, dress (courtesy of the fresh contents of the brief case), have breakfast, check out of the London Cardiff Hotel (cheap & cheerful), cross the road to the Internet Cafe, log in, check Gmail for precise time and location of meeting. Some would say I should carry an organiser with such information, but where's the fun in that?
First snag - Internet Cafe is closed and from the large pile of mail under the letterbox all the signs are that it will not be opening today. Second snag - the handle falls off the brief case. Or, more accurately, vice versa, as I'm left with a handle in my hand and a heavy case on my foot. Knowing I'm never going to make-do-and-mend this monstrosity, I chuck the handle in the nearest bin, hoist the leatherene slab under an arm and set off for Paddington Tube Station.
Plan B, you see, is to get somewhere near the venue, which I know is somewhere near Tottenham Court Road, then, once there, find another Internet Cafe. Somewhere the size of London must have more than one.
Already, in Paddington Station, I'm becoming heartily sick of the handleless briefcase. To use the ticket machine, I have to set it down, but as it's about the size and weight of a large breeze-block with nothing to grab hold of, this is a two hand job. As is picking it up again. Mind you, it was quite serviceable as a battering ram when it came to forcing my way onto the overcrowded tube train. OK. I've surfaced at Tottenham Court Road and have already found two Internet Cafes. Both still closed (it's only nine fifteen) but looking hopeful. My new concern is frostbite. It's freezing cold and my right hand, cramped and bloodless from the pressure of the sharp leatherene edging, is fast becoming a study in blue and white. Plan C is slowly forming in the back of my head. Details are still sketchy but the main thrust is to get shot of the bloody brief case. For good.
In Oxford Street, I find an open Starbucks, buy a double espresso and a plain croissant (I refuse to call it a butter croissant - you might as well talk about oat-meal porridge) and sit down. Open the brief case and take stock: house keys, toothbrush, toothpaste, a couple of photographs and a few business cards - these are easily distributed around my jacket pockets. One tired pair of jeans, one faded yellow T-shirt - sorry guys, but I'm not rescuing you. One adhesive label with my name address and phone number - I make short work of that with my fingernails. I don't want to leave a homing trail. Job done, I close the lid, snap the hasps shut and, irrationally, spin the combination locks, immediately realising that I have long ago forgotten the combination. Well, it hardly matters now. I finish my coffee and croissant and once more brave the London January morning.
This part of London has large cast iron waste bins on the streets, to swallow up used bus tickets, handbills and free newspapers, mostly. They are big enough to take my brief case, if presented end on. But suddenly I'm feeling very conspicuous. CCTV stares from every lamp standard and shop door. I'm being watched, about to perform a suspicious act. Who in their senses drops a shiny black brief case in a waste bin? In Oxford Street? Bomb scares are made of this. Already I can see the red and white tape, the diversion signs, a bomb disposal officer minutely examining the combination locks... Maybe the thing to do is find a policeman - Excuse me Officer, I want to throw out this case - handle's broken - nothing valuable in it - no sorry, I've forgotten the combination... Sounds likely, doesn't it? By this time, I've performed two circuits of the block comprising Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road and Soho Square, furtively eyeing up every waste bin, back alley and telephone box for a suitable drop-off point. If I wasn't being watched before, I'm sure as hell being watched now. This is Big Brother country. Right. Let's make an end of it. I dump the case in a bin just by the Tube entrance on Tottenham Court Road North and carry on walking, expecting the hand on my shoulder with every step. Nothing. Glancing back, I see a London vagrant (their name is legion) heaving the case from the bin. He starts to fiddle with the combination locks.
Suddenly I have a flashback. I'm sitting in my new office with a new briefcase on my new desk. My new extension is printed on my new phone. I decide to use it as the combination...
- Hi mate, try 229, OK?
- Nice one, Guv. Cheers!
I hope he liked the jeans.