Riyadh: Tuesday 9th April 2013
Today, at two minutes past ten in the morning, I received the news that I had been working towards for most of the last decade. How many times I had imagined this moment, the sense of achievement and inner pleasure; the knowledge of my having been finally vindicated? How often I had imagined different ways I might react when the day finally came.
I sought the example of the great leaders and lesser ones; sought to mimic their gravitas. I recalled Gordon Brown on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street, in 2007. Finally, after a lifetime of frustrated ambition and striving, he had made it to the summit of his profession. His reaction had sought to evoke the serious and humble. Forsaking hyperbole such as Margaret Thatcher’s quotation of St. Francis of Assisi, Brown’s first public words as Prime Minister were understated. He opted for the homespun homily that “I will do my utmost.”
Now it was my turn.
Well, okay, this was not of the same order. This was not the culmination of a lifetimes work, but a mid-level promotion from one middle management position to another. Even in the application, my seven years working towards this modest slide up the greasy pole is dwarfed by Brown’s lifetime of political struggle. And yet, this at last, was my moment; the day I had striven for over such a sizable percentage of my professional life. This was it. My time. My validation. My day in the sun.
It is a testament to the power of the human imagination and our own yearning for self-respect that despite all evidence to the contrary, we so often imagine our futures will possess some sort of nobility, dignity or gravitas.
When imagining the day of my promotion I envisaged a meeting (perhaps a cordial invite into the bosses office), a hand shake, congratulations on a job well done; remuneration and job title discretely passed on a piece of expensive paper & discussed somberly by sober managers in dark suits.
Yet when it came, the culmination of seven years of striving, it could not have been more bathetic if I had sought to imagine it as a slapstick comedy.
I was sitting on the toilet, listening to a member of the building maintenance team filling a bucket to remove a blockage from the next cubicle. I received a text message. Normally I would have left this but for some reason I felt compelled to retrieve it from my pocket (IE: adjacent to my ankles). It read, “Call me when you are free. Ta!”, from my Regional Director. This in itself is not usually good news. Everyone knows that men of this elevated status usually prefer to unburden themselves of bad news via telephone and good news in person.
Yet, any dread or wider speculation was immediately forgotten as more pressing considerations forced their way (literally) into my personal space. No sooner than I had digested this entreaty than I heard a threatening, prolonged “whoooosh” and saw to my horror, floods of water pouring through the gap between mine and the neighbouring cubicle! I barely had time to put my phone in my mouth and pull my trousers and underwear up to my knees before I was surrounded by 5 mm of water and used toilet paper. Clearly the blockage had spectacularly failed to clear next door lavatory.
The cleaner, who must have heard my muffled expletives, could be heard sniggering and calling his friend to share, in his bouncy, native Tagalo language, with its bung’s & tung’s and laaah’s, his mirth at my misfortune. I could readily imagine his story, describing my predicament next door, unseen, surrounded by fetid toilet water my clothes drenched. In reality, while my clothes had been saved, I was in no less undignified a position. Phone in mouth, my trousers at my knees, my hands supporting my weight on the toilet seat and my feet struggling for purchase on the walls of the cubicle, I suddenly understood the indignity of childbirth in a way previously unknown to me.
I did not blame him for his enjoyment. I spent two years working in a role (in my case a Kitchen Porter), where your daily tasks involved the disposal of other people’s mess. I too would have derived some pleasure from seeing a person further up the ladder have his pomposity pricked by a taste of my daily indignity. My day too was composed of indignity upon indignity mitigated by occasional little victories, where you were able to put two fingers up to the system that sat over you like a dead weight. Hell, I am not so very far from that now. Though, perhaps I would have less forgiving if I had not saved my trousers in the nick of time from the worst of all washes.
Finishing up, I tip-toed out of the toilet and washed my hands thoroughly before removing my phone from my mouth and calling my boss.
It was then I received the news of my promotion, delivered in the casual, off-hand manner of modern Business English. “Hi Mate, Yeah, in a meeting but just wanted to give you the heads-up, had a chat with Malcolm this morning and you’ll be getting a letter through in the next couple of days. Just wanted to make you aware of the contents ahead of time so you didn’t you know… wonder what all this is about. Anyway, just to say, we have promoted you to [a new position] and there will be a pay increase as well. Know is has been a bit difficult over there at the moment but we both felt that you were over-due it.”
I thanked him for letting me know and returned to my desk to process the news. Okay. There were no fireworks or work drinks to celebrate. The fact that he was in a meeting and didn’t want to talk in detail about the remuneration is a clear indication that it will not be overwhelming. And coming as it did, minutes after I nearly suffered the colossal embarrassment of needing to travel home to change my trousers, it was hard to contextualize this moment as anything other than part of life’s rich tapestry. After all, can anything you have worked toward for seven years really be anything other than anticlimactic when it is finally attained? Can Gordon Brown now look back on his lifetime of striving to become Prime Minister and judge his three years as a maligned and disliked figure to have been worth it?
Maybe. Maybe with hindsight he can look on the wasted opportunity as an opportunity all the same. At least he got there. My own step up on the middle management rung is an altogether less seismic achievement, but at least in the end, after all the false dawns and extra hours, I got there; proved beyond doubt that I could do it, proved the doubters (and there have been one or two) wrong.
And perhaps, given the underwhelming nature of the achievement, managing to keep my trousers dry was all the dignity that the moment really merited.
All the same, I will be celebrating this weekend.