Faculty & Staff
MAY 2019 EDITION
Short Story in Spanish
First Prize Short Story in Spanish - Faculty and Staff
Author: Joaquín Garralda
Dean of Academic Affairs
‘Relax’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!’
The Eagles (1976)
Fuera hacía sol y las persianas del cuarto no estaban bajadas del todo. Reflejaban sobre la pared unas rayas oblicuas que no recordaba haber visto en otras habitaciones en que había vivido. Daban un ambiente un poco sombrío pero atractivo de contemplar. Me venía a la memoria retazos de una película antigua en blanco y negro que no lograba reconocer.
Vivir en esa casa había sido una decisión extraña. La escogí porque me pareció una oportunidad teniendo en cuenta el barrio en que estaba. La había encontrado en una web de alquiler de habitaciones distinta a la de Airbnb que solía utilizar. Era una web local que sólo informaba del barrio donde estaba la casa, el precio por día y el mail del propietario para contactar, sin que hubiera que pagar por adelantado. No la conocía, pero me llamó la atención su posicionamiento de “exclusividad” y de “confidencialidad” sobre las referencias del propietario. Me atrajo la idea de cambiar de ambiente. Llevaba unos 20 días viajando por Europa utilizando Airbnb y quería añadir más experiencias al final del tour de mi sabático viaje.
Desde un Starbucks escribí a una dirección de Gmail con números que no daba pistas de a quién me dirigía. Indiqué las fechas que pensaba estar en Madrid y una breve descripción tranquilizadora de mi persona y mis planes. Antes de acabar mi café, me contestó alguien que no se identificaba y, tras unas frases corteses, me hacía una pregunta que debería contestar para que me aceptara: ¿Qué piensa de la intransigencia de Tomás Moro?
Tuve que buscarlo en Wikipedia y como me parecía que la pregunta contenía una trampa para no aceptar a cualquiera, opté por seguir el juego y apostar con una respuesta arriesgada:
“Tomás Moro no era intransigente, sino que, como su amigo Erasmo de Rotterdam, era fiel a su independencia y si a este último no le costó la vida, fue porque no se enfrentó a un tirano como Tomás Moro”.
Me respondió enseguida aceptando mi solicitud, aunque sin dar datos de su persona. Sólo indicaba la calle y el piso.
Al entrar en el portal comprobé que no iba a ser la casa previsible en el mundo de los alquileres compartidos. Un portal grande, un ascensor antiguo de madera –en el que se subía viendo la amplia escalera de mármol y las ventanas con vidrios emplomados de colores –y una puerta de madera con un timbre de bronce que no emitía sonido al pulsarlo. Tras un tiempo que me hacía dudar de si había sonado o no, se abrió la puerta unos centímetros y una mirada me escudriñó. Eran unos ojos intensos en una cara que no acababa de mostrar su cuerpo. Parpadeó, dijo mi nombre con interrogación y tras mi “soy yo”, abrió del todo y entré.
No me tendió la mano y, tras cerrar la puerta, se giró enseguida indicando que la siguiera. La Señora andaba muy recta, era delgada, aparentaba más de sesenta años, aunque sin poder asegurar si incluso tenía más de setenta. No sabía su nombre porque no mostró ninguna intención de decírmelo. Tenía curiosidad y a la vez cierta preocupación. No me había extrañado que no hubiera fotos de la casa en la web, debido a su insistencia en la confidencialidad, pero alguna experiencia desagradable me hacía ser cauto antes de decir que aceptaba. Aunque, ante la dificultad del proceso de alquiler, también cabía la posibilidad de que finalmente no fuera yo el aceptado. Con movimientos pausados, no tanto debido a su edad sino más bien por una elegancia natural, me enseñó una habitación amplia con un armario antiguo, una mesa de caoba en una esquina y una puerta que comunicaba con un cuarto de baño. Me pareció lujosa para su precio y dije que me quedaba. Me había estado observando en silencio mientras me guiaba por la casa, y tras unos segundos en que me miraba fijo a los ojos dijo: “De acuerdo”. No me pidió documentación ni dinero por adelantado. Sólo añadió: “Espero que cumpla las normas”. Extrajo de un bolsillo las llaves de la casa y el portal y me las entregó. Sin aclarar nada más, se fue hacia el final de un largo pasillo. Me había quedado parado mirándola andar y cuando pasó por una de las puertas, sin volverse, la señaló indicando: “Puede usar este cuarto de lectura”.
Después de dejar mi maleta en mi habitación, di un paseo exploratorio. En el hall de la entrada además de la puerta que daba acceso al pasillo, había otras puertas grandes que estaban cerradas. A pesar de mi curiosidad, imponían respeto y no me atreví a abrirlas. La frase tajante de la Señora de que esperaba que cumpliese las normas, me hacía ser prudente. Evocando películas antiguas, me contenté con imaginar unos espaciosos salones con espejos y pesadas cortinas de seda.
Llevaba cinco días en la casa, aunque mi intención inicial había sido quedarme sólo dos o tres. Como no tenía ningún plan definido y algo me evocaba la canción de los Eagles Hotel California, siempre encontraba argumentos románticos para quedarme. Durante el día, daba paseos al azar para descubrir calles y edificios. Llevaba en el bolsillo una novela de serie negra que había comprado el primer día en una tienda de libros de segunda mano. No conocía al autor, ni la leía tratando de acabarla, sólo el nombre de la editorial, Club del crimen, me había impulsado a su compra. Me era muy útil cuando me sentaba para observar a la gente, a veces hacía como que leía y así evitaba parecer un fisgón molesto.
La Señora nunca puso ningún inconveniente cuando le decía que ampliaba mi estancia otro día más. Me contestaba un “bien” seco y se volvía a unos quehaceres indefinidos que la movían de un sitio para otro. No me hacía ninguna referencia al pago, así que supuse que el precio diario se mantendría tal como había visto en la web.
En el paseo matutino de ese quinto día, observé a una atractiva mujer, que miraba con detenimiento los portales y las casas comparándolas con una fotografía de tonos color sepia que llevaba en la mano. Tenía una melena rubia con flequillo y ojos que se movían rápidamente. Hacía fotos de las casas con el móvil y después escribía en él alguna referencia. En un arranque de osadía que me sorprendió a mí mismo, me dirigí a ella indicándole que un poco más arriba, en esa misma calle, había una casa dónde se alquilaban habitaciones. Me asombraba a mí mismo la elocuencia con la que trataba de convencerla para que alquilara una habitación a la Señora. Tal vez, esa energía se debía a que se acercaba el final de mi viaje.
No parecía que le hubiera asustado mi atrevimiento, aunque mientras le hablaba se mantenía un poco apartada y ligeramente ladeada. Apenas respondía a mi locuacidad con monosílabos. Escuchaba mi descripción de la casa, sin expresar ninguna emoción que pudiera interpretar. Para hacerle más atractiva la opción, le conté, añadiendo algo de misterio, la pregunta que debía contestar para ser aceptada. Ante la mención de Tomás Moro, claramente mostró un mayor interés en mi persona. Me preguntó, con un acento raro, por mi respuesta a la pregunta, pero ví que sólo apuntaba el y la dirección del piso. Con un seco “gracias”, me dio a entender que la conversación había acabado y se dio la vuelta en dirección hacia la casa. Continué mi paseo con el ánimo entre divertido e inquieto, ante la idea de haber influido en el destino de una vida ajena y también por si pudiera estar alterando el mío.
No me extrañó al verla más tarde, a la hora de comer. Estaba sentada muy recta, imponiendo una presencia un poco turbadora al comedor. La recordaba menos alta, aunque sí su pañuelo gris anudado al cuello.
Las normas de la casa las aprendías sin que en ningún momento la Señora te las dijera. El primer día de mi estancia, al salir hacia la calle para dar un paseo, ví abierta una de las puertas del hall de entrada. Me asomé. Era un comedor con aparadores grandes en las paredes y la gran mesa estaba puesta con dos cubiertos. Apareció de repente la Señora y me dijo: “En esta casa se come a las dos y media”. Antes de que pudiera preguntar si es que había otro inquilino, añadió: “Espero que le guste el menú, no soy vegetariana y habrá carne”. Aunque no tenía pensado volver a mediodía, la atracción por saber más de su persona y la seducción de participar en un juego en el que sólo se pueden decir frases cortas con muchos datos incrustados, me hizo contestar en su estilo lacónico: “Yo tampoco”. Daba por supuesto que la Señora había entendido el mensaje doble de que volvería a comer y que era consciente que comeríamos los dos solos.
La comida en sí no era de una elaboración sofisticada, pero la materia prima sí era de buena calidad y estaba bien condimentada. Nos servía un mayordomo corpulento, de porte fiero, que traía en una gran bandeja los platos ya servidos. Antes de que dijera nada, al sentarnos, la Señora me dijo que el almuerzo estaba incluido en el precio. Me pareció que entonces el alquiler era muy barato, pero coherente con otras sorpresas de la casa. Deduje a mi vuelta del paseo que no se cenaba, porque la puerta del comedor permanecía cerrada el resto del día.
Mi habitación comunicaba con un cuarto de baño espacioso, en el que la bañera hacía los honores a su nombre. Desde ahí era donde podía oír algo de la actividad de la nueva inquilina, aquella que había conocido en la calle y que ahora ocupaba el siguiente cuarto del pasillo. Suponía que hacía gimnasia, o eso me parecía deducir de unos sonidos producidos por movimientos rítmicos, en momentos variados del día. Como yo solía salir de paseo a menudo, no podía deducir la lógica de sus actividades.
En su primer día de estancia, cuando coincidimos en el comedor, pude apreciar que se manejaba mejor que yo con los protocolos no expresados de convivencia. No se hablaba, excepto cuando la Señora se dirigía a alguien. El mayordomo no dejaba dudas de cuándo se debía acabar el plato con celeridad. Los ritmos los ponía la Señora sin hacer ningún gesto especial. Me pareció que el mayordomo entendía que debía cambiar los platos cuando su mirada se fijaba en el infinito y no cuando contemplaba abstraída su plato o algún objeto del comedor.
En el postre se hablaba. La Señora me preguntaba sin mucho interés por los lugares que había visitado. Si la conversación decaía, volvía a hacer preguntas sobre algún aspecto de lo que le había contado. Alguna vez comenzaba a narrar un recuerdo lejano asociado a lo que yo describía, pero lo solía dejar sin concluir abandonándose en una ensoñación. Cuando había finalizado su postre, y sin ningún miramiento, daba por terminada la conversación y se levantaba. No había café, ni sobremesa, ya que el mayordomo recogía los platos con firmeza dando señales claras de que se debía abandonar el comedor.
El mutismo de la nueva inquilina parecía encajar perfectamente con el entorno. De ella sólo pude saber con cierta precisión su nombre, Marlene, y su nacionalidad, austríaca. Dejó claro en el inicio del almuerzo que no conocía bien el idioma y que prefería no hablar. Yo propuse que lo hiciésemos en inglés, pero la Señora lo impidió diciendo que no se manejaba bien en ese idioma. Sin embargo, en el postre, cuando estaba haciendo la descripción de mi paseo, Marlene intervino de repente preguntando directamente a la Señora si conocía una ciudad de nombre extraño. La Señora se volvió hacia ella bruscamente y la miró como si tratara de reconocer a alguien que ha cambiado con el tiempo. Marlene, impasible, añadió en alemán una pregunta que no entendí. Por la mirada petrificada de la Señora, deduje que se estaba saltando una de las normas no escritas. La conversación quedó suspendida en el aire, la Señora no volvió a preguntarme nada más, finalizó su postre con más celeridad que de costumbre y se levantó. Ya de pie, miró hacia Marlene y dijo: “Warum?”. Mi escaso conocimiento del alemán no me permitía comprender el significado de la pregunta que tanto la había alterado. Marlene la miró desafiante, pero no añadió nada.
El mayordomo inició la retirada de los platos más despacio de lo habitual, midiendo sus movimientos y sin dejar de mirar de soslayo a la nueva inquilina. Marlene, como si no hubiera pasado nada, se volvió hacia mí y me sonrió con una mirada seductora. Cuando se levantaba, rozando mi mano, dijo:
“Hasta luego”. Con un andar de gato, se fue hacia su cuarto.
Era una propuesta sugestiva, pero me había inquietado tanto la situación que preferí tomar esa decisión a la vuelta de mi paseo. Cuando la Señora se había ido del comedor, su andar había sido menos solemne y su mirada menos abstraída. Tenía fruncidas las cejas como nunca antes le había visto.
A mi vuelta por la noche, me dirigí hacia la habitación de Marlene. Durante el paseo, la escena de la comida me había vuelto repetidamente a la cabeza envuelta en una sensación desagradable. Permanecí de pie frente a su puerta y aunque no oía ningún ruido, estaba convencido de que Marlene estaba al otro lado y que me había oído acercarme. La imaginé sentada en una butaca, mirando a la puerta con una sonrisa burlona, sintiéndose poderosa porque manejaba la situación mucho mejor que yo. La atracción física que había experimentado al conocerla en la calle había desaparecido. Me dí media vuelta y tratando de parecer desafiante me dirigí a mi cuarto sin preocuparme de no hacer ruido.
Tardé mucho en dormirme.
Al día siguiente, ocurrió algo que convirtió la encantadora curiosidad de los primeros días en un presentimiento que me hacía estar en alerta. En ninguno de mis movimientos por la casa me crucé con la Señora. No me había sucedido en los días anteriores. Aunque solía moverme poco, ella siempre aparecía desde algún lugar. Sin embargo, las normas no habían cambiado y puntualmente la comida estaba servida con tres cubiertos. Nos miramos en silencio, la Señora más seria de lo habitual y Marlene, que no parecía afectada por mi abandono a su ofrecimiento, miraba a la Señora con la altivez de la esfinge que espera una respuesta a su pregunta.
El segundo plato era pescado. La Señora estaba agitada, se podía apreciar por el descuido con el que separaba las espinas. En un momento dado se atragantó y con desasosiego adelantó la mano hacia su vaso. Marlene con un movimiento rápido, como si quisiera ayudar a dárselo, chocó con él derramándolo sobre la mesa. El mayordomo en ese momento no estaba. La Señora aterrorizada convulsionaba emitiendo una especie de ronquidos. Marlene me miró por un segundo y me pareció ver en su cara una medio sonrisa. Me quedé paralizado. Pasado un espacio muy corto de tiempo, pero para mí agobiante, Marlene tomó su vaso de agua y se lo ofreció a la Señora, quien la miraba a los ojos emitiendo ya para entonces unos bramidos de espanto. Marlene se puso de pie, levantó de la silla sin esfuerzo a la Señora y rodeando su cuerpo desde la espalda, la oprimió bruscamente. Una bola blanca salió expulsada de su boca. Entró el mayordomo alarmado y se llevó a la Señora trastabillando hacia las habitaciones del final del pasillo. Marlene, entendiendo el protocolo no expresado, dobló su servilleta y se levantó dejando el plato a medias. Me miró con complicidad y se dirigió a su cuarto. Estaba hambriento y no me quedó mejor opción que acabar mi comida en un bar cercano.
En el bar había mucho ruido y el plato que me trajeron me pareció basto y demasiado especiado. Las emociones me desazonaban y volví decidido a hablar con Marlene. Quería quitarme la impresión de maldad de lo ocurrido y marcharme al día siguiente.
Golpeé la puerta de su cuarto. Escuché un “adelante” y la abrí. Sorprendentemente me recibió hablando en un español bastante fluido sobre lo interesante y amigable que era la ciudad. Me miraba intensamente y entonces me pareció infantil preguntarle si había tirado el vaso a propósito para hacer sufrir más a la Señora. Se había levantado de su silla y se acercaba hacia mí despacio. Me pareció más alta y fuerte que en otras ocasiones. Dí un paso hacia atrás y choqué con algo. Me di media vuelta y abrí la puerta con nerviosismo mientras escuchaba detrás una risa cínica de superioridad y desprecio.
Furioso, me dirigí al final del pasillo y llamé a la puerta. Quería irme enseguida y pretendía pagar mi estancia. Era la única puerta con cerradura y estaba cerrada. Esperé alguna respuesta y enseguida me abrió el mayordomo. Precipitadamente le dije que me iba y que cuánto debía. Se quedó callado y me dí cuenta que nunca le había oído hablar. Saqué mi cartera y haciendo unas torpes multiplicaciones decidí que con los billetes que le extendía había de sobra. Que si sobraba lo dejaba de propina. Que me iba y que no quería hablar con nadie más. El mayordomo cogió los billetes y se volvió hacia el interior, dejando la puerta abierta.
Hacía la maleta velozmente, cuando la puerta de mi cuarto se abrió sin que nadie hubiera llamado. Era Marlene, su cuerpo bloqueaba el vano ostensiblemente para indicarme que no podría pasar.
–¿Te vas a ir sin despedirte para siempre de la Señora? –Dijo con una sonrisa malvada.
–Me voy, ya he pagado y no quiero quedarme más. Adiós. –Añadí tratando de darme ánimos con esas frases contundentes.
Dándole la espalda seguí con mi tarea. Ella no se movía, pero empezó a hablar en un tono un poco ronco, como de rabia, sobre las personas que no merecen vivir por sus faltas pasadas. Se calló un momento y añadió con una voz menos emotiva “te agradezco tu colaboración al dejar abierta la puerta de la Señora”. Un escalofrío recorrió mi espalda. La nuca se tensó y mis piernas se flexionaron un poco. Me giré dispuesto a cualquier movimiento de ataque o de defensa. Ya no estaba.
Me fui de la casa. Bajé en un ascensor que siempre me pareció lento, pero esa vez más. Cuando salía del portal, unas personas gritaban alrededor de un cuerpo caído. Reconocí a la Señora. Miré hacia arriba y desde un balcón, una figura enorme asomada me saludó. Enseguida abandonó el balcón tirando algo que cayó con un sonido sordo. En el suelo reconocí el objeto. Era una peluca rubia.
Short Story in English
First Prize Short Story in English - Faculty and Staff
Author: Luis Vivanco
Mexico - Spain
The rays of a dying sun came through the window and hit my eyes. I had been sitting in the meeting room for over five minutes but had not noticed until then. In a few more minutes the sun would be covered by the building across the street but I decided to move to the other side of the table anyhow. Ron was about to come in and I certainly didn’t want any distractions while I spoke with him. I had been in that room hundreds of times over the few years that I had been working for NetDuct but it felt different this time, warmer, and not because of the hued tint of the light, a room more of my own. I had been looking forward to this meeting and the role I would have when I walked out of it. The image of Emma laughing appeared briefly in my mind but this meeting was not about the past but the future. I heard the steps approaching the door. This was my day, I had felt since I woke up, my thoughts already on the meeting that was about to begin.
I turned my face towards the alarm clock and the red numbers stared back at me. I still had half an hour before I needed to get up. I looked at the window, searching for the early morning light still to appear. In the darkness of the room, I could feel the heat emanating from Angela’s body, along with the sound of her gentle and rhythmic snoring from the opposite side of the bed. I could approach and put my arms around her. I knew, without fully understanding why, that she was more receptive towards making love in these conditions: early in the morning, in the dark, without talking, almost anonymously. I tried to imagine her breasts and the curve of her waist as she lay on her side, but the details of the micro-payments procedures interfered with the quasi-humorous erotic images in my mind, and my nether parts refused to respond. I love breasts, and I could say that this was especially true of Angela’s, but I would be lying. I love well-shaped breasts, large and small, preferably if they protrude from a lean torso providing an ideal frame for them over which to dominate. I could remember actresses by their breast types, at least those who had shown them on screen. There is, of course, the stereotype about men’s fixation with breasts, but I think the stereotype is there for good reason. Why do roosters lack hands? Because hens have no breasts, or was it lips? I can’t remember, but one way or another the point is made. That’s what did it for me, that and nice hair. Nothing like long, silky hair swaying loose to complement a pair of breasts yet to be explored. Angela had the breasts (and the torso for that matter) that met all my requirements: they had remained erect even after bearing two sons. At least in part, her breasts had benefited from not having generated enough milk to feed Nick and the doctor confirming that there was nothing to do other than resorting to formula. They were my resource every time I wanted to be aroused. I imagined Angela before me, the silk baby-doll she bought for our honeymoon falling from her shoulders, softly slipping down, freeing itself until, after the briefest of pauses, it laid bare one of her breasts and finally the other. But at that moment, the only things being uncovered by silk were marketing campaigns designed to attract customers to the new company. I knew I would not be able to fall asleep again, yet I lingered in bed with my eyes closed. When I opened them again, after what seemed like two minutes, the alarm clock revealed it was six thirty-five. I closed my eyes hard, ordering the sleep away. I could not believe twenty minutes had passed, yet there were the three digits, 6, 3, 5 followed by two small letters in the lower right corner of the screen: am. The alarm would ring in ten minutes. I stretched my arm to turn it off; I would have a long shower, I thought.
“I’ll get up,” said Angela as I walked in the dark towards the bathroom.
“You still have ten minutes,” I said.
“Are you ok?”
That’s the thing about Angela. Anything that falls outside of the normal: if you arrive early or call to say you’re going to be late, if you cough, if you turn your head away from the book you’re reading to when something catches your eye, anything she doesn’t expect and her initial conclusion will be that some ill has befallen you.
“Yes. Everything is fine.”
Why are you getting up so early then?” she asked, her voice still hoarse but increasingly animated.
“It’s nothing,” I said. I was starting to become annoyed by the need to explain such a stupid thing. “I woke up and thought I could have a shower without rushing, that’s all.” I could’ve told her that I had woken up twenty minutes before, thinking about work, but that would’ve only resulted in more explanations. I shut the bathroom door.
By the time I finished my daily ablutions, including shaving, I was probably still ahead of schedule by the same ten minutes. I changed the showerhead setting to “massage”, while I went over my day. That’s something I like doing: to create a mental image of my main activities and objectives for each day. Sometimes, during “transition” days, when no major activities were planned, I forgot to go through the exercise (which on a normal day I’d do while driving to work) and before I knew it and started in on any activity, half the day was over. All I had accomplished was to carry out a bunch of circumstantial errands that added little or no value. So it was my purpose, even on that type of day, to set myself objectives such as “clearing my email” or “doing my expense account” or even “having lunch with so-and-so to understand why he was underperforming, and try to motivate”. My list for the day looked as follows:
• 30 Meet with Matthew in the cafeteria next to the ad agency to finish preparing for our meeting with them. Use the opportunity to mention the possibility that he may take my current job.
• 00 Meeting with ad agency to assess their capabilities in viral marketing for the launch of the micro-payment business.
• 00 Back to the office. Review the presentation and incorporate input from the meeting with the ad agency. Make sure the storyline flows.
• 30 Lunch with Andrew. Note: be careful not to end up organising anything social without ensuring I want to continue with the relationship (call him for the name of the restaurant).
• 30 Presentation of micro-payment business plan to Rod. Seek commitment to a launch date. Clarify transition plan.
• Other: call Alan to inquire about his mother’s health.
I figured I still had five minutes left, but I was starting to tire of the hot water stream. I turned the tap off.
I crossed paths with Angela on my way to the kitchen. She stood on her toes to kiss me on the cheek.
“Morning. I’ll get into the shower.”
She continued down the corridor to our bedroom. In the kitchen, the kids were having breakfast. A faint sun, still in the process of waking, streamed through the window, shedding light on the ephemeral tranquillity of my equally sleepy sons. My entry did not elicit any reaction.
“Good morning, kids,” I said... nothing. Their eyes were still half-closed.
Lucas was holding a butter and jelly sandwich into which he had taken one bite. Nicholas abstractedly looked at the dish with biscuits in front of him.
I started to prepare the coffee that Angela and I would drink. I turned on the espresso machine and changed the old coffee in the dispenser for new. It would take a few minutes for the machine to reach the correct temperature. I took a couple of croissants from the sealed bread compartment and put them on a plate. Eleven years before, when we were newly married, Angela would insist in preparing a full breakfast: eggs, orange juice, toasts, croissants, all of it, coffee, too. I welcomed it after a life in which, since my mother died when I was eight, the only good breakfasts I had were those at a cafeteria at weekends when I started running at eighteen. Angela enjoyed cooking and, as is often the case with those who enjoy it, she was good at it. As I got married and became a father, I had learned to appreciate the effort my own father had put into learning to cook and taking the time to do it every day for my siblings and me. Although the expression “learning to cook” in his case had been limited to mixing the ingredients in a cookery book recipe and not burning the food, rather than grasping the nuances between the barely edible and the desirable. There was nothing that elicited more dread in his children than the following conversation:
Any of us: What’s for dinner?
My father: Something you will like.
With time, my sister, my two brothers and I developed an uncanny ability to get invited to our friends’ homes for lunch or dinner. Once, when I must have been about twelve years of age, I found a note in the street. Instead of spending the money on sweets or comic books, as would any other kid, I found a cafeteria and ordered pancakes, a staple of every home and, as cooked by my well-meaning father, well below the average. Such was my hunger for tasty food. Following the birth of Nicolas I had found myself abruptly and suddenly back in my childhood uncooked breakfast of croissants or toasts when the priority went from pampering your couple to caring for, and later providing breakfast to and dressing, the children.
We had become parents.
There was a cereal box left on the counter. I opened the lower cupboard door and squatted to put away. My recently acquired belly, the product of too many business dinners, pushed my belt outward, screaming for space. I wondered if instead of putting the cereal back, maybe I should eat some instead of the two croissants waiting for me on the plate. I heard Nicolas complaining behind me.
I glanced over my shoulder. Lucas’s arm stretched towards Nick’s plate. I put the cereal in its place and stood up. The two croissants seemed to look me in the eye, triumphant. I heard the “click” of the coffee machine indicating it had reached the correct temperature. I pushed the On button. A few seconds passed and the machine made a few internal noises, then the coffee started to flow, slowly at first and, following a brief pause, more fluidly. I closed my eyes to enjoy the aroma the moment it hit me. The first morning coffee and a hot shower were, for their proximity, the clearest incentives to get out of bed in the morning.
“I said stop it!” screamed Nick.
“What is the matter?” I said, reluctantly abandoning the pleasure derived from making my coffee. I put on my Father Knows Best, full of authority yet understanding. I had never seen the ‘50s series but I imagined the protagonist of any program with that title must have spoken the way I was speaking at that moment.
“Lucas has taken my fork,” he said, righteous.
“I had it first, Daaad!” spat back Lucas.
Each had a bowl of cereal and milk. A blue spoon handle emerged from each.
“Why don’t you let your brother have it?” I said, in an attempt to reach a quick settlement in a situation in which neither child required a fork.
“I don’t want to.”
“Don’t be selfish. Let Lucas have it.”
Nick’s reluctance was becoming the main obstacle to the possibility of enjoying my breakfast. My coffee grew cold like an offended lover, and its abundant aromas had started to abandon it.
“It is MINE and I WANT it.”
It was true; the fork was part of two sets we had bought, with different themes, for them the previous Christmas. Spiderman for Nicolas and Pooh for Lucas. As in many legal disputes: building occupancy, child custody, etc., possession became an overwhelming argument.
“Nicolas. Your brother had it first. Give it back to him.” Father Knows Best showed a hint of annoyance for the first time.
“If you don’t hand it back to him immediately, you won’t play with your PSP this afternoon.”
“Give it to me!” said Lucas
“You keep quiet while I speak with your brother! If you open your mouth one more time it is I who will keep the fork, you hear me?” Father no longer knew best.
Nick slammed the fork on the table, just beyond Lucas’s reach. I wondered if further action was required on my part. His brother had already grabbed it by standing on his chair. Nick, chin in chest, looked at him from the side. My coffee kept growing colder but, after all, it was his fork. He was right to feel aggrieved.
As I settled in my chair to drink my coffee, I looked again at Nick who gave me eyes that said I wish Mom were here instead of you; she would’ve taken my side.
That’s the thing with children, they are pure outrage where the outrage towards a brother is the worse for being positional and zero-sum. The greater one brother’s gain, the greater the other’s indignation.
I finished my coffee and was walking towards the bedroom to say goodbye to Angela when I felt my suit softly pulled from below. It was Nick.
“What’s up, midget?” I said, using my usual term of endearment for both.
“This afternoon, when you get home, can we go bicycle riding?”
I knew he was seeking reassurance following the friction during breakfast, but I also knew it was unlikely that I would be back before their bedtime.
“Why don’t we do it Saturday?” I said
“I wanted to do it today.” “You know Dad doesn’t come home early on workdays. Plus you have homework to do.
It’s better to leave it for the weekend,” I said to justify myself.
“You said the same last week and we didn’t go.”
“I promise we’ll go cycling this Saturday as soon as you finish breakfast, how’s that?” I said, crossing my fingers on top of my heart. I said, promising myself to do it every weekend from then on, just as I had done months before only to abandon it after a single
Saturday, “I have to go now.”
Nick winced and headed back towards the kitchen.
I’d heard about this cafeteria before and, now that we were there, I wasn’t disappointed. It was spacious, informal and full of light and it was decorated in a low-key way that imitated the cafeterias we had eaten at in Amsterdam during our trip to Europe three years before. Each set of table and chairs espoused a different style, some older and some more modern in design, and while some chairs were upholstered and others not, all the furniture followed a simple design and was made of different tonalities of wood which, somehow, united the whole place in a common theme. Above our table hung a large glass chandelier reminiscent of those used at the turn of the XXth century. From its anchor on the high ceiling emanated naked cables stapled every few feet until they turned down the wall to enter, finally, a raw piece of plastic hose sticking out a couple of inches. Food, so far, hadn’t been bad either, a mix of Northern European and North American dishes in hefty portions more reminiscent of the latter. I had my eye on a raisin scone once I finished the cream cheese and smoked salmon bagel I was eating. I had to bring Angela and the kids here soon.
“I’m happy with Charlotte. But Monica, the girl I told you I met at the beach this summer, she won’t let up calling me. I don’t know, man, I truly don’t know what to do.” Matthew was not the type of guy who needed much warm-up to dive into whatever subject was on his mind, even if it was what most people would consider intimate, as it usually was, and after ten minutes, we were already pleasantly discussing his favourite subject.
“I don’t know why I like British girls so much. Sweet Jesus, I thank You for the moment You decided to send me here. I really don’t know if I should thank Him or complain instead.” His face said his worry was equal parts reality and jest.
Normally I would’ve stopped Matthew’s verbiage to focus on the forth-coming meeting. But twenty minutes earlier, as I drove to the cafeteria, I had received a call from Lewis Morris, the manager in charge of our account at the ad agency, asking if it was all right to postpone the meeting until 9.30, so I let Matthew carry on.
“But are you honestly interested in this Monica or is it the adulation that gets you?” I said, enjoying it and not altogether serious.
“I don’t know, man, truly don’t know,” he repeated. “She’s got a body to die for, but she’s also a tease, if I’ve ever seen one. She calls to meet up and when I try to make a move, she stops me. I’ve barely made it to second base, man!” he waved his hands out to the side. “I’ve told her, look, if she’s going to call me it’ll be to meet at her apartment or a hotel.”
The situation reminded me of any given episode of Entourage, where the main characters live in a constant quest for sex while making other inconsequential decisions. In fact, that was the show’s main attraction for me. The fact that it was trivial and thus took me away from any kind of concerns, even imagined ones.
The waitress approached our table with a big tray carrying croissants, pain-au-chocolat, brioches and pain au raisins. I was indulging in a second breakfast, and as the first one barely counted, I decided not to restrict myself and have both a pain-au-chocolat and a brioche, which I loved for its elastic texture and yeasty flavour. I had a good feeling about the day, and even the delay in our meeting with Lewis Morris I took as a good omen that allowed me to enjoy breakfast and chat with Matthew. I took pleasure in serving as a career mentor and found entertaining my occasional role as mentor on the personal side, for while my time as a single professional had been comparatively quieter, my motives had been the same. I was aware that when I provoked him, my own assumptions were also questioned as an unintended side effect. I made a mental note to interrupt our conversation fifteen minutes before the meeting to speak with Matthew about the project’s implications for my role in the company and, consequently, his.
“I swear to God I don’t know what to do with this girl. I just like her too much,” said Matthew, continuing on his life and sexual fantasies.
“Let me ask you something, Matthew,” I said nonchalantly. “Are you sure this is the woman to whom you want to sacrifice your virginity?” “You’re such a fucker!” said Matthew, laughing along with me.
There was something about the furniture that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It had to do with continuity among the different styles. Contrary to my initial impression, I was beginning to see that the effect was not really the result of an outstanding decorator who had known how to mix styles. It now seemed like a walk through Ikea, as if all the furniture had been designed by the same person and built in the same production line. The comforting spontaneity had acquired a lack of honesty comparable to a TGI Friday’s, almost a McDonald’s. I looked closely at the table at which we were sitting. It had no tablecloth, and I lowered my head to view its underside. It was made of compressed wood – Ikea type stuff. The place was fake and it knew it.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I said, regaining my upright position.
“Did you drop something? Otherwise, why are you looking under the table?”
“Nothing important,” I insisted. Maybe I wouldn’t bring Angela and the boys, after all. There was, nonetheless, something both homogeneous and reassuring about the customers. It wasn’t that everybody was wearing a tie or business suit like us, for the way people were dressed was pretty mixed. It was more to do with the casual atmosphere that seemed to exist at every table, creating an overall sense of relaxation, happy but not overly, boisterous without being strident. After a quick glance, I figured that almost all of the occupants had small children, teenagers at most, who attended private school. When I was sixteen or eighteen, I remember that every place I went seemed to be filled with people my own age while other ages seemed to exist only in token quantities. Although more than twenty years had passed, my impression was the same: people of my own age group seemed to multiply to the detriment of those outside the bracket of people with small children. There was a large table (from where I was sitting it was difficult to tell whether it was round or oval), occupied by eight or nine women of 35 to 40. All were tastefully dressed and made up and, with the exception of two who were downright ugly, rather attractive. I considered sharing my thoughts with Matthew, but stopped at the prospect of his likely comeback that he preferred younger women.
“Say, what happened with that ad space saleswoman I introduced you to?” I asked.
Matthew offered no reluctance to the change of subject as long as it remained, I thought, within the larger theme of women.
“Fuck, man! Was she hot or what? Nothing. I called her and she said she had a boyfriend. I’m telling you, she was sexy by profession. Did you ever see her again?”
“Nah! Besides being happily married, it wasn’t hard to imagine that her cleavage and the way she continuously fondled her hair, passing it over one shoulder and then the other, were nothing more than a ruse to close sales more than an indication of her enchantment with me. Not that I’m saying that would’ve been unusual! But, you’re right. She was hot.” In the end, without an inordinate sense of shame, I had purchased more space in her magazine than I had originally budgeted. Against my better judgement, the shadow of doubt hinting at a spontaneous element in her flirtation, plus her saying goodbye French style, with a kiss on each cheek, had been enough for me to be grateful and in a good mood for the rest of the day. I insisted that she came back the following day to sign the papers. But the real purpose was to have an occasion to introduce her to Matthew, so he could be my avatar to test the hypothesis that my married status didn’t allow me.
“Monica is the same; she wears a long skirt so she can show her leg.” I didn’t understand what he was talking about.
“As far as I recall, she was not wearing a skirt, long or otherwise.”
“No, man, I mean figuratively. Let me ask you something, what excites you more? A girl in a short skirt or one in a long skirt with a long slit on one side through which her leg shows every time she takes a step? Aha!” Matthew waved his finger at me with the biggest grin in his face, while I laughed at the more than obvious answer.
“Monica, as I said, knows how to hide her hand and show her cards in a way that keeps you wanting for more. That’s the leg peeking through the skirt, it’s not what she says or doesn’t say, it’s what she hints at. You know what I mean?”
“And regardless, in the long run it’s immaterial.”
“Who cares what happens in the long run, man? What I care about is if I’m going to be able to fuck her tomorrow… tonight! The only ‘long run’ at issue is how long she’ll keep up with me in bed.”
I laughed at the pun. His jokes were far from good and often coarse, but that didn’t keep him from trying. The conversation reminded me of a time, years before I got married, even before I had started dating Angela, when my life shared many similarities with Matthew’s. Suddenly, I wanted to ask him his view on life and its rewards, and living without attachments. But I realised that a large factor of Matthew’s current life was an almost absolute lack of self-analysis and thus he wouldn’t have been able to provide me with the answers I sought. Furthermore, it was I, with the advantage of hindsight, who was in a better position to come up with such conclusions.
“It’s fine to be in love and full of passion,” I said
“Passion AND sex, I would add.”
“All perfectly fine… while it lasts.”
“Let’s see,” said Matthew, maybe not more serious but at least more focused. “I’d say that at least when you are married you don’t have to waste time convincing your wife to make love.” “You don’t?”
“It becomes second priority, it’s not even the main objective. I mean making love, of course. What’s really important is the anticipation you are able to generate, I think.”
“Look, several years before I got married, I must have been about thirty years old. Come to think of it, it was the very summer I turned thirty. I was involved in a project that took me to New York for-three months. There was a girl in the office, local girl from one of the lower middle class neighbourhoods across the Hudson. Nice girl she was, always willing to lend a hand in everything, be it work-related or not.”
“Yeah, cool. But was she hot?” he asked.
“She was hot, no worries. She certainly didn’t have the greatest taste in clothes or in general, but she was attractive enough. Heather was her name. The most alluring thing about her was a certain vulnerability. I may have been the only one to perceive it, and it may have been the result of her being attracted to me, which I was to discover later.”
“This is getting good, man.”
“You see what I mean about anticipation? To make a long story short, one day we agreed to go out to dinner. I was the one to propose it, but only after receiving several no-sosubtle hints about how ‘we should go out for a drink sometime’. We agreed to meet at a given hour outside a tube station.” “Subway station.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“They are called subway stations in New York, that’s what they’re called.”
“All right! Of course. Well, as I was saying, we agreed to meet outside a subway station, somewhere on the Upper West Side, can’t remember the name. I may as well tell you now that nothing happened: I never slept with her.”
“The one recurring thought I have is this: as I went past the exit barriers. there was a relatively wide corridor that ran for about thirty yards to a point where it gave way to doors leading to each side of the street. There was Heather, leaning against the wall in a tight dark skirt and a white blouse. Her long blonde hair falling on her shoulders, her hands hidden behind her back. I don’t know how best to describe it; the only adjective that comes to mind is ‘expectant’. As I approached her, she gave me this slightest and, I think, shy smile. She stepped forward, one single step, enough only not to be touching the wall anymore, but she didn’t reach me. As I closed the distance to her, I leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek.” I had Matthew’s full attention.
“As I don’t need to remind you, in the US, and certainly in New York City, it is not precisely normal to greet someone with a kiss as we do in Europe, even if not so much in Britain. My impression at that moment was that, as she was unaccustomed, my approach took her by surprise, but it took her only a fraction of an instant to react and press her cheek against mine, let’s say with a little more intent and for a split second longer that strictly required.”
“Maybe it was, as you say, due to not being used to it.”
“Your point is totally valid and equally irrelevant. The whole episode, from the moment I saw her at the end of that corridor, vulnerable, expectant, her body like a paper cut-out perfectly delineated against the wall, her inquisitive immobility awaiting my next step and, finally, the warmth of her cheek and the proximity of her body seemed to initiate, to suggest if you will, a night full of promise. What truly matters is that I remember every detail, so that the sole thought of it gives me an erection.” I confirmed that was true also then.
“So, what became of her?” said Matthew, to my surprise. I was expecting him to seize the opportunity to make a joke about my aforementioned erection. Was Matthew in possession of an overactive libido? Yes. Was he an idiot incapable of seeing beyond it? Clearly not.
“We had a good time that night. We ate at an unpretentious but nice enough restaurant where the mood between us became more personal. After dinner we went to a bar. We kissed for the first time as we left the restaurant, and continued to kiss spontaneously and often as we made our way to the bar. We had a couple of drinks before we said goodbye and I put her in a taxi. It was mid-week and we both had to get up early, plus her apartment and my hotel were in opposite directions. The following day she sent me an email thanking me and telling me she had had a good time. I had started to think about the next time we would go out from the moment her waist slipped away from my hands as we were saying goodbye. Unfortunately, I started to travel more and, finally, the project was cut short and I never saw her again, other than a couple of times when we ran into each other at project meetings.
“I would’ve been devastated not to fuck her,” said Matthew, resuming his natural state.
“I’m sure about that,” I laughed derisively, “but do you understand what I mean about the sensuality inherent in suggestion?”
“Oh, absolutely. The question then, is what do you do when you’ve been married for years?”
“You learn to pretend,” I heard myself saying. The response was as unexpected as if someone else had said it.
“Wow! You mean you fake it.”
“No, no!” I tried to recant. “There are times when you fall back on the mechanics of making love. You turn the light off, you make love, perhaps you say a few sweet little things to create intimacy or arousal, but when you’re through you turn around and go to sleep, or you get up and have a shower if it’s morning. But other times, you try to create a moment. You go out for dinner, you dress sharp, she puts on makeup, and you seek, maybe, to recreate the conditions of a first date. You pretend that the evening’s outcome is up in the air and that it depends on a game of seduction that is not entirely false, for any of the many issues couples have can pop up at any time and fuck the whole evening. But a game, all the same, which is predetermined and implicitly guaranteed to lead to a desired outcome.” Matthew nodded. I tried to remember the last time Angela and I had gone through the ritual I’d just described, but all I could remember was a furtive morning episode two weeks before, while the boys were still sleeping. “Maybe to pretend is not the best way of putting it. What you have to understand is that it is the same woman who doesn’t allow you to relax in the evenings by pestering you with all types of worries, real and imaginary, but also the one who eases your mind during your moments of greatest despair. So you learn to choose your thoughts, you compartmentalise and forget that a few hours before she may have screamed at you for not picking up your underwear and instead you remember the girl she was when you first met.”
It was twenty past nine and I would have to rush through the few points I wanted to discuss with Matthew before the meeting. I looked around for our waitress to ask for the bill. The girl, rather on the cute side, put her hand in her apron pocket and removed a stack of papers that she began to flip through as she walked toward us.
“Matthew, I did tell you the purpose of my meeting this afternoon, didn’t I?”
“To formalise the micro-payments project and agree on a budget, right?”
The waitress placed the bill before me. I signalled her not to leave. It was 33 pounds. I took two 20-pound notes and handed them to her. “That’s fine,” I said, smiling. I tried to make sure to be nice to those who were in a position to serve me, be they waiters or shop clerks. It just seemed rude not to. The waitress walked away without a word.
“I’d say approve, rather than agree. The budget as such has already been agreed upon, but yes, that would be the purpose of the meeting,” I said as, still perturbed by the waitress’s lack of acknowledgement, I turned my attention to Matthew. “It is understood that I will lead the project, by Rod I mean, but I want to formalise it. What it means, however, is that someone will have to pick up my present duties. I’m going to propose that you be that person. They will probably strip off some of the responsibilities of the job, auditing the most likely, but you would still be basically responsible for all the analysis and project direction.” Matthew stared right into my eyes. I had finally been able to grasp his undivided attention.
“Thanks, man. I mean really thanks. It means a lot that you place your trust in me.” “Oh well, we still have to wait for Rod to agree, but I trust he will accept anything I propose.” I looked at my watch. “We should go, or we’ll end up being late. We can revisit the subject after this afternoon’s meeting, if that’s fine with you.” I got up before he had the chance to do anything other than get up himself. Outside it was perceptibly warmer than when we’d arrived. It was going to be a hot afternoon.
As we crossed the street to get to the building where Lewis Morris’s office was located, Matthew turned to me.
“Listen, I’m still thinking about what you said.”
“I’ll let you know what happens after the meeting, ok?” I said.
“No, not that. It’s the other thing I’m talking about. Isn’t it hard, after a while, how predictable a relationship can become?” I could see the subject had given a wee shake to his paradigms.
I paused to put my thoughts in order.
“I wouldn’t say so. The ensuing stability is fundamental to the happiness you achieve.”
Sinead breezes into my office as she often does, simply to say hello or to tell me something unrelated to work. She’s wearing the same tight pullover that I’ve seen her in twice in the previous month. Her enormous breasts, round and firm like two boxing gloves aim at my sides, threatening to envelop me. The pullover enhances their presence, more so than if she were naked: this she knows. I suddenly need to know if her bra opens in the back and I will have to hold her to open it, or in the front and I will do it while we kiss or while she watches me expectantly. We are the last people in the office because I have been working on finishing the project and she, I have no idea as to why she’s still there. I get up from my desk to indicate I’m having a break from work so that, as we’ve done so many times in the past, we can chat, and she can be at ease to tell me whatever is on her mind. But we both know the true reason why I get up and make my way around the desk to stand in front of her. It becomes inevitable for me to explore what I’ve known to be true ever since the day when Sinead first joined K&P, that her approaches, her concern for how things are going for me and even her overly cordial inquiries about my wife and kids, hide a deep attraction to me.
I come closer to her while she continues to talk until the gap is too small to be confused any longer with interest in her words. She pauses for a moment, reassessing the situation, then starts again, pretending normality, but her words lack intention. I continue to come closer until, finally, she falls silent. She turns her eyes up to face me, something she had avoided since I came around the desk, and says “What?” and that’s that. Soon I’m lifting the pullover over those breasts. It’s like a dance and she, good dancer that she is, allows me to lead, kissing me, turning around and holding her hair up so I can undo the small buckle of her brassiere (it opens in the back, I decide). I try to cover her breasts with my hands, but my hands are too small for the task. I feel her nipples, large like medieval coins, pink like raw meat. I realise the door is ajar, but I don’t care. The danger of being discovered only increases my excitement. I consider what she says and what I say, but we don’t say anything. We both understand that words are not only unnecessary but that they would, if anything, compromise the moment. We both understand that what is is, that there is no past other than unspoken desire and no more future than that which we will continue to create separately. I sit behind my desk watching her walk around my office with complete ease, looking at my diplomas, inspecting the clock on the shelf, picking up the paperweight from my desk bare naked. I watch with interest that body, at the border between voluptuous and fat, destined to attract the proposals of every widower and aging bachelor who sought renewed youth in Sinead’s sweetness, which in the absence of a satisfactory suitor, was offered only to me.
The actual act is consummated with the office lights turned off. I can see the office building across the street where faceless janitors vacuum the carpet while I watch, sitting in my chair, with Sinead’s breasts bouncing inches before me or, later, when I twist my neck up after kissing them, spread on her torso that lies on my desk amid crushed paper. But these actions are barely an outline, seen in a dim light. The clarity and detail evident from the moment Sinead comes into my office up to the time of my failed attempt to cover her breasts with my hands give way to a haze in which essential actions in approximate shape are the only thing to emerge.
I pick up the telephone before the first ring is through.
“How are we doing today?”
I feel the muscles in my back tighten.
“Not too bad, thanks. A bit concerned about the presentation, to tell the truth.” I want to bring the conversation to a quick end.
“But of course! Your long-awaited presentation. Listen, are you in your office? What am I saying? Of course you are, that’s where I’m calling you, am I not? I’m coming over, I need to ask you something,” she said and hung up, unaffected by what was meant to be a note of concern in my voice.
Twenty-seven seconds later:
“Knock, knock,” I can see Sinead’s face showing from behind the door.
She’s wearing a loose cotton blouse, thick enough to disguise in part the shape of her breasts. This allows me to relax a bit. One might think I was obsessed, but their size was a defining characteristic of Sinead’s, even for women. Once, in a meeting with the CEO, which I attended, Catherine Neighbours, the HR director, referred to her as “A lady with a very generous bosom” after several failed attempts to induce the CEO to put a face to the name. “Ah, yes,” he said, nonchalantly.
I was finishing correcting one of the bullet points in my presentation and carried on until I felt Sinead standing next to my chair, the same chair in which I had imagined myself making love to her.
“Please forgive me,” I said, looking up, “I can’t seem to stop correcting every little detail in this presentation.” I could detect her perfume and attempted almost instinctively not to inhale. I had never liked its sweet, penetrating odour and at that moment, its association to her proximity put me off.
“I just wanted to ask you a quick question. You see, this weekend is my friend Oscar’s birthday and I would like to treat him out to dinner. Can you recommend a restaurant?”
“Is this the Oscar, the one you fancy?”
“Oh, stop being silly! I don’t think it even crosses his mind,” she said, laughing. But her ease didn’t help me feel less awkward. If anything, I found her overly natural demeanour strange, almost intimate, ignorant of the sexual fantasy she had been part of earlier. My awkwardness was almost as real as if it had actually happened, and so was the remorse.
Once, during a business trip to Italy, I managed to miss my flight back from Milan. The only other flight that could bring me back before the weekend, without the purchase of a new ticket, left the next morning from Rome. By the time the airline sorted out the necessary arrangements, the only flight with seats available from Milan to Rome left at 11 pm. It was close to 1 am by the time I arrived at my hotel near Fiumicino. I realised I had never been to Rome, so I left my luggage in my room to head out to town. The taxi left me at St Peter’s Square. For the following two hours I walked through empty streets where I would run on occasion into some beggar lying in a doorway, who would look at me from under his newspaper wrapping and dirty blanket until he ascertained that I posed no danger and went back to sleep. Near the Piazza del Popolo I walked into the only bar that was still open, only to walk right back out when I realised it was a whorehouse. I returned to the taxi stand I had seen at the Piazza del Popolo and was back at my hotel minutes before 4 am. I woke up three hours later, had a shower and took the courtesy shuttle to the airport. I fell asleep before take-off and didn’t wake up until we landed in Heathrow. Even now, I’m not sure if I’d be accurate in saying I’ve been there. While Rome, where I’ve technically been, I need to recur to pictures in order to describe, and to movies in order to understand its ambiance, Sinead, with whom I’ve never had any contact other than that which one can share with a friend or colleague, I can describe in such detail as to make a fantasy seem real and, by comparison, what is real a mere figment of my imagination. And now her presence, real as it was, had the same remorseful effect on me as an actual sexual adventure would have provoked the morning after.
I looked again at my monitor. The chart with inverted red bars that became blue in the third year with a positive cash flow forecast of 780 thousand pounds winked at me like an old acquaintance. I was about to excuse myself with Sinead so that I could go back to my presentation before a moment of intellectual honesty came over me: that would be nothing more than an unfair excuse to get rid of her. I had been preparing the presentation and all the analysis behind it for weeks. I had spent all the previous week just revising it and, by now, I could recite it from memory and knew, with the clarity of a toothache, the font used in every heading and the labels and colours of every graph. I could take additional respite in the additions made by the Lewis Morris ad campaign, which were both witty and communicative, as I had hoped. The presentation was ready and so was I. Now all that was left was to wait to present it to Rod.
“What are you looking for, food or ambiance?” I said, in reply to Sinead’s request for a restaurant recommendation.
“A bit of both, I guess.”
Sinead was right not to accept my inference. A restaurant that didn’t have both didn’t remain open for long. I could recall many a restaurant I had praised for the food where I had never eaten a second time when the place had failed to captivate me and vice-versa, beautiful places with a poor kitchen that I quickly discarded from my mental list. We spoke for a few minutes about different options and their merits, but Sinead didn’t seem to be ready to decide on one. I then knew it had become my responsibility, regardless of not having sought it, to give her a name. I recommended an Italian I had been to with Angela the previous month. I didn’t fool myself that I may have had bestowed it with undeserved qualities due to having spent a nice but otherwise unremarkable night there, despite a brief argument we had on the way to the place, which could just as easily have spoilt the whole evening. Either way, while I could not state that the restaurant had been responsible for re-establishing our good humour, neither could I reject its influence, and that gave me reason enough to recommend it.
My telephone rang and Sinead waved to indicate she was leaving while I picked up the handset. I felt relieved.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear Paul’s voice. He was in the city and asked if I could join him for lunch. I was about to say I had a previous engagement (and berate him for not having told me in advance) when I realized that ever since I had received Andrew’s call I had been looking for an excuse to cancel that lunch and, by all means, I was not going to pass up on an opportunity to see Paul, whom I had the chance to see only three or four times a year, to keep a purposeless appointment. The brief telephone conversation had been enough to resuscitate my previous impression of Andrew as a status-conscious show-off without a personality he could call his own. I truly did not believe he knew who he was.
He had arrived in London only a few months before but one could almost be fooled into believing he was a public school type who had read at Oxford.
“So, do you think you will remember how to speak like an American when you go back to see your parents in Dallas?” I asked mockingly
“Well! As you must remember, my grandfather on mother’s side was from the West Country and I was very close to him. Then I went to college in Boston, and lost my childhood accent and then, well, you know, the world.” He said, not missing the opportunity, as he had been doing throughout the conversation, to bring up every British ancestor, university studies, life in foreign and exotic places or the advantages of a highend car like the one he had just bought his wife. I felt uneasy just remembering the call and more so when I thought I may have had to live it again face-to-face. I wished I had been clearer and said that I found his whole worldview pathetic and, at the same time, I felt guilty for wishing it, as I really had no right to rub it in his face. I took solace in thinking that the burden was his, as I could not see how a life of pretension could lead to happiness or fulfilment.
I looked up his number and dialled it.
“Hey mate, it’s such a pleasure to hear your voice!” said the voice. I grinned at his phoney choice of words.
“Whatever happened to ‘howdy’?”
“Ha... ha...” he pretended to laugh. “What’s up?” he said still in fake Shakespearian. “Where shall we meet?”
“That’s why I’m calling, Andrew. I’m afraid due to a presentation I need to prepare for this afternoon, I must postpone our lunch for another time. I’m terribly sorry.” Somehow I sounded as if it were I who was trying to speak like him and not the other way around. In that, as in having said I was sorry, which I had planned not to do, my subconscious was acting up.
“That’s fine. Shall we take a rain check?” he said, using for the first time an American expression.
“Why don’t we ring each other next week, once I know where things stand with this project,” I said.
There was a pause, as brief as it was obvious.
“All right then. We’ll call each other next week,” he paraphrased me.
“Absolutely,” I said as I hung up, knowing quite well I would not be the one to initiate that call and suspecting Andrew would not either. I had mixed feelings of guilt and relief.
It was almost noon, and I had to leave soon if I wanted to be on time to meet Paul. We had agreed to meet at twelve-thirty at a restaurant not far from the office of the client he was in the city to visit, and it would take me a good twenty minutes by taxi to get there. I dialled Angela’s mobile.
“What is it?” she said, busy. There was a complete range of possible answers, each with its own meaning. “Hello” meant she was in someone’s company, friends usually, but otherwise able to talk. It could also simply mean she was alone and could talk, and that I was not interrupting anything she was doing. “What’s up?” was used in the same circumstances as “Hello”, but it carried the extra meaning that she was in a especially good mood. “Hi, dear” was the less frequent answer, maybe once every week or fortnight, and while the only explicit condition for her to utter it was that she was on her own, it was usually preceded by some specially enjoyable occasion like dining out or going to a party. Our birthdays were particularly good at eliciting this answer. While we were still dating, and even when we were first married, calls were more frequent and more commonly started this way. They happened at any time and without the need for a reason. With time, calls had become utilitarian and their frequency dependant on the circumstances. I expected that that afternoon’s meeting would trigger resurgence in hidears in the following days.
“It’s nothing, really. I just wanted to know how you were,” I said.
“I’m fine. You? How was your meeting this morning?”
“It went well, I guess. Listen, I’m going to have lunch with Paul. He called a short while ago to let me know he was in the city.”
“Is he staying? If he is, tell him he must stay with us,” she said.
“I don’t think he is, but in truth, I forgot to ask.”
“Well, please do give him my regards. What time do you think you’ll be home?”
“I can’t really tell. This afternoon I present the project to Ron and it is likely I may have to stay to prepare things for its launch afterwards. So rather late, I’d say.”
“OK, I should call Martina to ask her to bathe and feed the boys.” Martina was our German au pair. “I will try, in any case, to reschedule a couple of things and see if I can be there before dinner. I’m a bit worried that Lucas is not eating as well as he should lately.”
“We need to be more strict,” I said.
“We’ve talked about that.”
“Maybe we should again.”
“Fine, we’ll see. I must go now. There’s something I need to finish.”
“Very well, but we must talk about it.”
“Good luck in your meeting with Ron,” she said without excitement. “Let me know if Paul is staying. ‘Bye.”
When I arrived at the restaurant, a few minutes yet to the agreed time, Paul was already waiting for me at the table with a reassuring smile. That was the kind of thing one quickly grew to expect of Paul. It didn’t matter if the appointment had been made at the last minute or weeks in advance, the subject never to be touched on again, you knew when the time came, Paul would already be there. More than once I had been tempted to agree to something three or four months hence just to prove that my assumption would prevail. The only thing stopping me was the fear that I’d be the one to forget. What was really surprising was how nonchalant he was about the whole issue. Not only about being on time, but in general about keeping to anything he had agreed, be it organising hotels and logistics for a whole group weekend, or remembering (and calling) not only on my and Angela’s birthdays but also on the boys’. I came to think that it could all be the result of a lack of imagination. That once he had agreed to something, the thought that it could be altered or somehow disturbed never entered his mind and thus he organised the rest of his behaviour around this simple expectation. Of course, that would be reducing him to a caricature that he was far from being, as even if not often, he could call you to change a date, always with enough advance notice to avoid disrupting other people’s plans. He had lost hair since the last time we had met, I thought. That was impossible, as I had seen him only the previous month. More likely, the impression was due to my not having updated my mental image of him from recent occasions.
We spent a few minutes talking about his trip. His client had asked him to come to talk about some “possible issues” with the design of the switches produced by Paul’s employer with the client’s next generation products. We moved on to chatting loosely about odd things, him showing interest in the wellbeing of my wife and children and I probing him on the twists and turns of his romantic life. He had just broken off with a woman he had met through an online dating service whom for the last two years he had dated as steadily as the 300 miles that separated their towns allowed.
“We still talk from time to time and even meet once in a while. We may go somewhere on vacation,” he said.
“So it’s not finished.”
If there was one thing I appreciated about my conversations with Paul, it was their freewheeling nature. Sometimes we could spend the totality of an afternoon talking about films we had seen and another about common friends or, his favourite subject, travel. I enjoyed travelling as much as he did, and certainly appreciated visiting new places, but I often preferred revisiting a place I had enjoyed the first time before a new, albeit appealing, one. For Paul, everything seemed to be about seeing new places and more than once we had decided not to take a trip together after not being able to agree on a destination. More often than not, we skipped merrily between subjects and talked with the same interest about the specific (a movie one of us had watched) or the abstract (power conflict management among couples, for instance). It was this freedom that made it all right to talk about the situation with Alan, whom he didn’t know but whom I had been thinking about since I had awoken from a nap the previous Sunday.
“His mother is in a terminal state. Lung cancer. The irony is that the poor woman hasn’t smoked a single cigarette in her life while her husband, who died last year in an accident, while in perfect health, smoked three packs every single day of his adult life. A holy woman, a bit simple for my taste, but perfectly happy in her role of wife and mother.Here’s the thing. Her children decided not to tell her she’s dying. Their idea is that this way she won’t have to add mental suffering to the physical.”
“That’s a bit creepy!”
“At first I thought the same but then... I don’t know. We are programmed to believe that a person has the right to know their own state and that it’s irresponsible not to inform them. But isn’t it easier simply to follow convention? Maybe the responsible attitude, in the sense of taking responsibility, of being accountable, is to concern yourself with bringing as much happiness and as little anguish as humanly possible to whatever life she has left. Is, you may ask, happiness less valid if it results from evading the truth?”
“Perhaps. I wouldn’t know, I haven’t given it as much thought as you have.”
“People can be happy with so little. I still remember the day of my first communion.” Paul let out a short laugh.
“You are not going to say now you were perfectly happy, are you? It wouldn’t count. As a kid I too was completely happy every Christmas and birthday.”
“No, no. I was about to recount an anecdote about one of my school’s nuns that day. I can’t remember her name, for she was never my teacher. I think she taught second grade when I was in first and when I advanced to second grade she was moved to first. A small, unassuming woman as many nuns seem to be. She must have been a true believer with a biblical patience to deal with so many kids and I can’t remember her being one of those who screamed, but, as I said, she was never my teacher. The story I wanted to tell is as follows. The priest was giving the Host to the five or six of us who were receiving our First Communion, carefully placing it in our tongues, while the nun placed the paten under to collect any crumbs that may have fallen. When my turn came and the priest was about to place the Host on my protruding tongue, I must have raised my chin untimely, making him drop it. The following seconds seemed to happen in slow motion. The Host started to fall and the nun, whose only exercise must had been walking the three hundred yards that separated the school from the nun’s residence and whose joints must have been starting to feel the tightness of old age, acquired the reflexes of the best tennis player at the net. The Host never touched the unclean floor. Ten centimetres before it did, the paten, held steadily by the nun, saved it from contamination. Undeterred, she raised the paten so the priest could retrieve the Host from it and, after giving me a doubtful look, place it with extra care in my mouth.”
“I’m afraid I don’t get it. Are you saying that saving the Host from touching the ground made the nun a happy person?”
“It’s not that. The bolt, her spontaneous ability to react and save that Host were only a manifestation of a deeper purpose that drove her life. Do you see? For her, the Host was nothing else than the Body of Christ, literally, not just as a symbol but the actual body of Christ created through transubstantiation. There was no questioning, no doubt either in keeping the Host from touching the ground nor in anything else in her orderly life.” “Did you hear that Emma died?” A giant lifted me up and squeezed me at the waist until no void was left in my stomach. True to his style, he had posed the question as casually as if he had asked, “What time do you have to go?” or “Have you been to that Rodin exhibition yet?” and the very lack of preamble had a magnifying effect.
“When?” I let out. I would’ve liked to exclaim a ‘What?’” full of surprise or, at the very least, a “How?” but I already knew the answer: metastatic liver cancer. Not six months before, Paul himself had informed me. Back then I had had the intention of ringing her, but the weeks went by and time diminished the relevance, not of the call, but of the actual illness. I allowed myself to be convinced that the lack of news should be interpreted as a sign that she had made a full recovery.
“Sofia called me last week to tell me, but it’s been already two months since it happened.”
“Have you spoken with her husband or any other member of her family?”
“I must have seen her husband twice in my whole life and, as for her family, I only saw them at the wedding.”
That was true about our relationship with Emma, ever since university we had always met outside of each other’s circles. In my and Angela’s case we had met her and Michael a few times, but none during the previous year, and the contact had always been between her and me, while Michael and Angela’s presence was almost circumstantial. “What’s going to happen with Geoffrey?” Emma had a son a year older than Nicolas.
“I’d guess he’ll be with his father.”
It was an obvious answer and I had asked the question in a ridiculous attempt to alleviate the guilt that inevitably arose within me. I fucking knew she was sick and hadn’t called! How welcomed could a late call, two months after the fact, be from someone who, living in the same city, hadn’t had the sensitivity to inquire about her health? I felt like crap. My grief over her death was of no relevance to anyone, certainly not to her family.
“When is your next trip to London?” I asked. We were outside, waiting for the valet to get us cabs.
“I haven’t the faintest idea. If something comes up I’ll let you know. Otherwise we can always arrange a weekend somewhere.”
Paul’s cab was waiting; we shook hands before he climbed in. I watched as the taxi drove away. As I waited for mine, my eyes wandered to the people eating in the restaurant across the street while continuing to consider the appropriateness of calling Emma’s mother or husband, widower, I should say. My eyes landed on the familiar sight of Angela. She was sitting at a window table. Across from her was a man in a dark suit who was telling her something that made her laugh. My surprise was brief as, in her job in a public relations agency, it was very common for her to have lunch with clients. I felt the urge to cross the street to be with her, but that was clearly out of the question. My cab had arrived and the valet was holding the door open for me. I took out my wallet and looked for a small denomination note, which I had not. I took a 10-pound note, the smallest I had, and handed it to the valet. “You’re very kind, sir,” he said with servility. I gave a last glance in Angela’s direction. She was tilting her head back, laughing. She looked so beautiful when she laughed like that! Even though with the constant rush we lived in, it was infrequent that she was relaxed enough to do it. The taxi pushed forward into traffic. Maybe her lunch companion was not a client but a colleague. That would explain the familiarity in her behaviour. Emma’s face once again occupied my mind, beating like an ailing heart, one beat showing the happy face framed by the blond pageboyhair for which I remember her and the next the decrepit, ash-coloured skin with barely a few white threads of hair sticking to her skull of her dying days. Micro-payments, micro-payments, I forced myself to think. I would get back to the office with enough time to pick up the presentation and, maybe, go through it one last time before I gave it.
I took long firm steps as I made my way to the meeting room, I was running a few minutes early and could start preparing while Ron arrived. I felt eager to start the presentation and show him both the business and implementation plans for the soon-to-be micro-payments division. It was the only thing in my mind. I had once read that the first thing Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had done after landing on the moon was to sleep for something like five or six hours, as had been previously planned. It had been deemed necessary after the effort required for the moon landing so they could be in perfect physical and mental shape when they left the lunar module for what was, after all, a workday. It was difficult to fathom being able to sleep under the circumstances, knowing you were on the fucking moon making history. But it was the ability to compartmentalise, to think about and only about what they were supposed to be thinking about at each precise moment, which had been one of the main factors in choosing them for the mission. No emotions, only the accomplishment of that moment’s given objective. I had decided not to review, in fact not even to open, the presentation. I knew it inside and out, I knew what my objectives were and how they could help me transmit the right message.
There were several things I wanted to discuss specially about certain specific resources. The budget had been agreed upon, and I had taken care to craft it with precision and attention to detail. No top-down use of percentages and ratios. Instead I had formulated campaigns, requested quotes for equipment, systems outsourcing, premium SMS aggregator fees, salaries, etc. I had only used percentages to formulate a market growth forecast as well as the year-on-year market share (month-on-month for the first two). Most of the employees would have to be external hires, but there were three people currently working in other departments that I wanted to bring over: a systems person, a girl from billing and a salesman. I would be happy if I got two of them, specially the girl from billing, and I intended to ask Ron to help me procure them. I also wanted to talk about an exit strategy and the options I would get at that time – I was fully aware that the selling price would depend on my success in running the project.
I heard Ron’s voice at the time the meeting room’s door opened and I was walking back from the window to my seat. To my surprise, he came in deep in conversation with Rick Shepard. Rick was one of the youngest sales managers in the company and one of the candidates I had in mind to join the project.
I slowed down when I came in and saw them lively talking. I basically came to a standstill. I felt as if I had erupted into a situation uninvited. From what I was able to gather, Rick was telling Ron some anecdote about how he got this big account to sign. He stopped when he realised I was there and they both smiled more in my direction than at me, a smile related to the story that Rick rushed to finish telling. They both laughed and, having missed entirely the beginning of the story, all I could do was offer a knowing smile that said “One of those stories! You’ll tell me all about it some other time!” I was uncomfortable with Rick’s presence and it took me a moment, which I used to shake hands with both of them, to make sense of his being there. Ron was thinking ahead. I had one of the people I wanted and I could focus on getting the other two. I could be thankful that Ron was as involved in the project as one could expect. He was making my life easier for the time, weeks ahead, when I would have to balance the start of the project with passing my current responsibilities to Matthew.
My stuff was still in the same spot where I had placed it when the sun was hitting my eyes. I had no options but to sit back again there without looking funny. I was on one side of the conference room table, positioning myself right across from Ron. Rick took the place to Ron’s left, also on the other side of the table. It didn’t feel right.
“Ready?” said Ron. I took the two presentations I had printed out of my briefcase.
“You don’t mind sharing one? I wasn’t aware you’d be here,” I said in Rick’s direction.
Ron opened the presentation between himself and Rick, still making no comment to explain the latter’s presence at the meeting.
I was fifteen or sixteen once when my brother James came home for the weekend. He had been working in another town ever since finishing his studies a few years before. We were having breakfast in the kitchen, and I asked him what his job was about. At that age, my idea of work required physical activity like a carpenter’s job or that carried out by Theresa, the lady that helped in the house since our mother had died, like cooking or sweeping the floor. I knew this was not the case for people in my own social class, and I was aware that my father’s job didn’t involve any physical effort other than getting up from his desk. But I just couldn’t imagine what kind of activities filled their time. James worked in the currency markets department of some bank in a function I can’t recall. He didn’t answer straight away. He seemed to ponder the best answer that could be both comprehensible and, even more importantly, that helped further to enhance the already obvious admiration that I felt for my oldest brother. For effect, he took his glasses off and started to clean them diligently with a piece of cloth he had taken from his trouser pocket. Methodically, he rubbed little circles with his forefinger and thumb and didn’t speak again until he had placed the glasses back on his nose. “They pay me to think,” he said. I believe he elaborated further on the phrase’s meaning, but they were those words that would stay with me. There was such a nice ring to them! To actually be paid to think. My childhood dreams of being a race-car driver like Speed Racer, a classical music conductor or a priest gave way at that precise moment to my brother’s intellectual elitism. Nothing held a stronger representation of my imaginary role than the MontBlanc pen my father had given him when he graduated from Cambridge and that he carefully unscrewed prior to each use, with all the pomp that was required to handle that cigar-shaped object through which his prodigious mind emanated. From then on, each time I thought about my professional future, I would see myself in an office, sitting behind a desk covered with all the required paraphernalia – computer, printer and documents that I knew from real offices – but which had a purely testimonial purpose. People walked in to interrupt some meaningful thought I was having in order to consult with me and I diligently obliged.
- This is chaos! All will be lost unless we find a solution.
Their anxiety disappeared completely once in my presence. They knew I would devise a plan; I was paid to do that after all, to think.
- What is the problem?
- We’ve run out of bolts.
(Shortage of bolts was a recurrent problem in my thoughts.)
- Don’t worry.
I would then take a blank piece of paper, which I would place in front of me, and using my own MontBlanc, the same model as James’s, I would scribble the problem’s solution and hand it to the inquirer, who would leave my office pacified and thankful.
The story kept updating itself and becoming more nuanced as I grew up and acquired additional knowledge, always advancing in relation to my subjects of study, but my quasioracle role remained a constant. I found the strength of the idea of “the strength of ideas” fascinating and it evolved to become the frame of reference that helped me understand as much about my personal as my professional life.
When I finished my studies in business, a subject I had copied directly from James, and while my college friends took positions in large multinationals or, some, in their own family business, I sought out the job that had by then become the embodiment of all my aspirations: business consultant. I didn’t make it past the initial rounds of interviews with McKinsey and BCG, but I finally got, and accepted, an offer as an analyst in a more generalist consulting firm. I was finally being paid to think. From there my career always comprised staff roles, mostly in strategy and analysis.
It was during my fourth year at K&P that I had started gradually to find my job less captivating. There was no before-and-after moment, nor specific event that marked the start of this attrition, and it took me an additional two years to understand that I was missing any involvement in executing all that which until then I had helped to design. I set out to change this and find a job that actually entailed doing things. My job as Director of Strategy and Analysis provided me with the perfect vantage point from which I could evaluate each new project in terms of how it could help me advance my plans. Moreover, it offered me a position from which to make a transition from my existing role into running a new project, which would be the offspring of my own analysis. The micropayments project, which I had worked on for the last few months, was my preferred option to fulfil this purpose (clearly more so than the online dating service on which I had also worked).
I opened my copy of the presentation and started my explication. I exposed the basic business premises and explained the characteristics of the target market, both from the point of view of the final user as of the companies that would use our system to carry out their billing. Everything flowed just as I expected, and I took care to make Rick feel involved by looking in his direction every few phrases. I was probably doing this more that I otherwise would’ve, had our sitting arrangement been different. As it was, with the meeting room window directly behind Ron and it being a sunny day, the backlight turned him almost into a silhouette hindering my ability a) to focus my eyes on him and, more importantly, b) to interpret his reactions to my comments. I decided to endure the discomfort in order not to interrupt the flow of the presentation, especially as I was confident that I had left no loose ends.
I hoped that what had constituted up to that moment a monologue would turn into a conversation, a Q&A session at least, once we involved ourselves with the actual business plan: the what, when and how of the project. The first subject was the channel strategy, and Rick and Ron listen attentively the first minutes.
“If I understand right, the sales strategy is based exclusively on the optimisation of terms for Internet search engines, is that correct?”
“That’s correct,” I said, jumping at the opportunity to present arguments that supported my strategy. “Our target client is geographically dispersed and that is how they search for Internet-based collection solutions:”
“The same search that we could perform in reverse, looking for the most attractive clients.”
Rick looked like he was someone’s son, full of innocence, but his self-confidence belied such a notion.
“I believe that time will tell if it is both necessary and justifiable in terms of the additional cost it would represent. It’s a bridge we would cross when we came to it,” I replied.
“But, don’t you think that it could be part of the launch?” asked Ron. “I think it could be something that would help bring forward the breakeven point and the payback.”
I looked at Ron, or more correctly, I looked in his direction. The sun had gone down but not yet behind the building and the backlight was noticeably worse, making it impossible to make out his face anymore.
“That’s how I see it,” added Rick before I had time to reply.
“We can look into it. We would have to review the budget, but we can look into it. That’s the objective of this meeting, to discuss the business plan and improve it anywhere we can,” I said, conciliatory, feeling for the first time the meeting slipping through my hands. I looked again at Ron’s cut-out figure. Beyond him I could see a car manoeuvring to park right below a large tree. It was a dark blue car with a scratch in the space between the left front door and the tyre. It was only when I attempted to make out Ron that the car’s hue diminished and, along with everything in the window, became a big white blob. I winced until my eyes were two identical slits that aimed at reducing the flood of light. It was impossible. I excused myself and got up to draw the curtains. I flipped the switch next to the window that operated the system but nothing happened. I tried the switch next to it, knowing well that its purpose was to open them, in the hope that an installation error had inverted their purpose. Nothing. I pressed the first button again, as firmly as I could.
“Shall we move on?” said Ron.
“Of course. I don’t know what’s the matter with the curtains.” I went back to my chair.
“Where were we?”
“Sales channels,” said the silhouette.
“Certainly,” I said, assessing whether to pursue the matter of the search for customers or if the issue was settled and I should continue on to the next point. I looked at the next slide.
“It wouldn’t represent an additional cost. At the outset I would take care of it until the volume justified hiring an additional person.” I raised my head to comment. Rick was looking at Ron.
“If you want, you and I can talk about it later,” I said.
“That’s a good idea,” said Ron. “I want you to be involved in the project launch, supporting Rick at least during the first months. I think it is especially important that you play a role in helping him to determine strategies and to solve issues as they arise.” I thought I felt queasy.
When I was nine, James took me to the zoo. It wasn’t the first I’d visited it. I had been there before with my parents, with friends’ families, even as a school excursion. But it was the first time I went to the zoo, or anywhere for that matter, with someone of my own generation, even given our age difference. My father prepared breakfast and sat with us with a cup of coffee while we ate. Less than a year had passed since my mother had died, and he still hadn’t started to let go of the overprotective attitude he had developed since, one that no one could’ve imagined in him before he became a widower. If he didn’t tell James to keep an eye on me a hundred times, he didn’t tell him once. James took it lightly, laughing off his exaggerated concern, but I couldn’t avoid being upset about it, as it went against my understanding of the excursion as a kind of coming-of-age rite.
“I could drive you there and pick you up later on,” he said.
“No,” I said, unwilling to have my bubble of illusion further eroded.
James and I walked to the bus stop and, after a brief wait, took the bus that would take us all the way to the zoo. Sitting by the window, I watched the people in the street pass as if they were already part of an animal exhibit. James flipped through a magazine in the seat next to mine.
The zoo was a beehive of people, as I didn’t remember seeing before. I took James by the hand but, after a few steps, he let go.
“Where do you want to go first?”
“To the monkey cage!” I said.
The monkey house consisted of several pits, one for each species or family of species. We headed first to the chimpanzees. I was equally enthralled by their overall mimicry of human behaviour and by the allocation of individual qualities I took care to assign to each based on whatever story I had created in my head. I leaned on the rail to start the process of classification. James stood next to me reading his magazine until a family, as noisy as they were numerous, engulfed him. He crept out and continued to read from a spot a few metres behind me. The family moved about like a shapeless blob that soon had too surrounded me. When they left, James was no longer in his place. I looked unsuccessfully for him. I shrugged and continued looking at the chimpanzees, making my way eventually to the other pits. It felt completely natural, my brother had needed to go to the loo, I remember thinking, and seeing me as capable of being on my own, he had gone. I thought the macaques were like tiny mischievous children in constant motion, but too homogenous: they all looked the same, without behavioural traits that set them apart from each other so that I could invent stories around them. Looking at the gorillas was like being at a reunion full of obese grandfathers: impressive in their size but rather boring. I was getting tired of the primates. James hadn’t returned and something told me that enough time had passed for him to have accomplished his purpose. I decided to go back to the place where I had last seen him. He wasn’t there, either. I saw a bench surrounding a large tree that also served as a protective barrier. I sat down there thinking it would provide me with a good vantage point from where to spot, and be spotted by, James. I watched the primates of my own species come and go. Not more than ten minutes had passed when James showed up. I thought he sighed, but I couldn’t be sure. I got up and met him halfway.
“Where do you want to go now?” he said. I pondered for a second.
“The tigers could be a good idea,” I said.
James looked at the map they had given us at the entrance, folded it again and lifted his chin in the direction we had to go. We started to walk. I took his hand. This time he didn’t let go.
I looked straight into the silhouette from which emerged the voice of Ron.
“I thought I was going to direct this project,” I said, trying to sound as calm and neutral as possible.
At that moment a cloud covered the sun and, for the first time since the meeting started, I could see his face clearly. He was looking at me with a blank stare, maybe a bit surprised, I don’t know if towards my just declared expectations or towards the confrontation implicit in saying it in the presence of a third person. I kept my eyes on Ron. I could see Rick from the corner of my eye looking at some point towards the other end of the table, absenting himself from what was transpiring.
“Can you give us a few minutes?” Ron said to Rick. “Of course,” said Rick, already getting up.
“You’re completely right,” said Ron when Rick had closed the door.
“But this is not the project for you. Your analysis is excellent, to which I have grown accustomed from you, and the business plan is rich both in detail and insight. But this project requires a natural born salesman at the helm.”
I knew it was an argument for which I had no counter-argument. If there were two things I had gathered from the meeting, they were that Ron was convinced of the need for an aggressive and proactive sales strategy, and that Rick had gained the upper hand by formulating it.
“I was under the belief that we had an understanding that I was preparing this project so I could take it to its execution.”
“I don’t remember ever agreeing to that.”
“Maybe it was not explicit. But...”
“What I agreed to was to look for a project that would move you to an operational role, but not any specific project.” I started to reply when Ron lifted his hand slightly to indicate that I should let him finish. His demeanour, which I would later recall in admiration, was completely calm. “We have to wait for an appropriate project and for you to be ready. Your work in analysis and strategy is very good, but you still lack operational experience. We will look for something that allows you to transition from your current function more easily. Right now what I need from you is that you continue to do an excellent job and support Rick, OK?”
I understood that his “OK” was the end of the discussion. A microscopic black ant was crossing the table. I wondered where it had come from, as I couldn’t see any others on the table or in the carpet. The ant reached the border and disappeared under it.
Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Emma Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Buzz Aldrin! What’s done is done. It was time to create new opportunities.
“I want to review all open projects.” Matthew looked up from his desk aghast.
watched Angela’s belly. It had grown in a short while from being best described as emergent to being classified as omnipresent, both physically and as a subject of conversation. Talk of the pregnancy, of its side effects, of support garments and special pillows gave way only to the even more jam-packed arena of baby paraphernalia. “So tell me, Angela,” I had asked a few weeks before, “before you were pregnant, what did we speak about?”
Leaning against the tree, it looked as though a crane would be needed to get her to stand up again. At least the moderate temperature and the mountain air were making her feel well and she hadn’t complained all morning. Michael had left twenty minutes before to climb the wooded hill we could see to the left of where we sat. Emma was sitting on a boulder by the creek, with Geoffrey strapped to her torso, as she contorted to remove her shoes. I was happy to have accepted their invitation to spend the day with them in the countryside. I glanced at Angela, who had fallen asleep. Her head rested on a knot protruding from the trunk, a remnant of a cut branch, her hands lay placidly on her belly, protecting it even while asleep. I got up and walked the thirty metres or so that separated me from Emma, watching as I approached how she made the creek water splash with her now bare feet.
“Well, hellooo!” she said, laughing, when she noticed me. It was hard not to feel joy in her presence. She seemed to find something amusing in even the most mundane situations.
“How is the water?”
“Nice,” she laughed again. “How’s Angela doing?”
I turned my head. She was still in the same position in which I had left her a minute before.
“I think she’s fine. Being out is doing her good.”
“Poor thing, with that difficult pregnancy she’s having. I’m glad she hasn’t long to go now. Then she will be able to enjoy her little one.” We were quiet for a while, taking in the air and the sight of the water as it made its way around the rocks. “Have you decided on a name?” said Emma.
She raised Geoffrey by the armpits as far up as the strap allowed. The baby executed a little surprise spasm, unfurling both his tiny arms. Emma advanced her face towards his until she touched noses with her son.
“Hello, you pretty thing! What have you got to say about that? You’re going to have a little friend called Nicolas, yes you are.”
Geoffrey let out a laugh that rose in crescendo as Emma kept bouncing him softly and talking to him. “Yes, you are. You are going to have a little friend, yes you are.” I felt a strong desire that my son were already born, to be with him, with my feet in the creek’s cold water, bouncing him, hearing him laugh. I wondered if I would be able to enjoy it as much as Emma.
“You are happy with your son, aren’t you?”
She fixed her eyes on mine in a way in which I felt I could read her emotions through her pupils. She looked down and kissed Geoffrey on his sparsely populated head. She then looked at me again. Hers was the face of sheer joy.
“I’m happy now,” she said.
I rolled down the window and stretched my arm to pass the magnetic card by the sensor. The gates opened and I drove slowly through them and waved back to the new guard whose name I still hadn’t learnt but whose face was becoming familiar. I tried vainly to keep to the speed limit of 6 miles per hour. Even without touching the gas the car went over it by three and as much as five mph. The rule was meant to create an environment in which children could walk or ride their bicycles safely throughout the gated community. It was still early, and a group of small children were playing in the playground. I looked at my mobile phone and pondered calling Angela. I could spot our house where the road bent to the left. I manoeuvred into the angle to drive into the garage. As I started to turn I saw Angela’s minivan parked in one of the spots. Nicolas was kneeling down, looking at something under the car. I stopped and left my car. He looked up when he heard me. Tear tracks cleared a path through his dust-covered face. I approached him. “What’s the matter, midget?” I took a tissue out of my pocket and tried to clean his face. His finger indicated the underside of the car, but sobbing made his words almost unintelligible.
“My... my… car.. went….” was as far as he could go.
I knelt down and placed my hands on the floor so I could lower my head enough to see where my son’s car might be. The red plastic toy was right under the ball of the crankshaft, halfway between the two front wheels.
“I’ll get it out, don’t worry,” I said, as I looked around for a stick or broom. I couldn’t find anything. I’d have to go in and get one. I looked at Nicolas who returned my gaze expectantly, attempting in vain to control his sobbing, tears still dripping from the corner of his eyes.
I looked again at the toy car and then at my suit trousers and dress shirt. I took off my tie, folded it carefully and handed it to Nick.
“Look after it.”
I slid until I was lying down parallel to the car, my head almost touching the black rubber of the right front tyre. With the aid of my elbows and knees I started to turn until the upper half of my body was under the vehicle. The lowest parts of the van’s underside touched my back. I stretched my left arm, measuring how far I needed to reach. I was off by at least a foot. I looked in the direction of my feet, Nick watching me, flat on his stomach just like me. I pushed up with my elbows and let myself fall forward, repeating the procedure twice, feeling each time the bumps of the car on my back. I stretched my arm again: I was still short by a few inches. I pushed myself forward one more time and, as I did, I heard the cloth of my shirt rip an instant before I felt the metal puncture my skin. I was barely able to supress the impulse to raise my head due to the acute pain. I lay still for a moment. I slid my left hand down my side. As it reached the end of my ribcage I moved it up towards the source of the pain, a few inches below my shoulder blade. I felt the wet cloth and touched the forbidding metal, floating barely above the wound. A steel plate bent down, leaving a sharp edge that pointed in the opposite direction to my crawl. Any attempt to advance would drive it in deeper. I looked past my shoulder. Nicolas’s peaceful face watched me, trusting, all hopes of recovering his toy placed on me. I moved my head towards my objective. I stretched my arm: I could almost touch the plastic with my finger. The wet warmth of blood expanded in my back. I looked at my son’s toy car. One more push and I would have it in my hand.
Poetry in Spanish
First Prize Poetry in Spanish - Faculty and Staff
Author: Sergio Rodríguez Jiménez
En este acantilado que es mi vida
a nunca sale el sol por donde quiero
y el paisaje se nubla a veces, pero
la luz despierta entre mi edad dormida.
En este precipicio sin salida
ya nunca resucito cuando muero
y las cosas susurran con esmero
su dulce sed, su fiebre arrepentida.
¡Cuánto da, cuánto brilla y cuánto deja
de ser este lamento que se escucha
siempre al final de mi inquietud añeja!
¡Cuánto se oirá la paz, la suave lucha
entre el cielo y el mar que se refleja
en mi interior fugaz, mi suave lucha…!
Poetry in English
First Prize Poetry in English - Faculty and Staff
Veguellina de Órbigo
Author: María Eugenia Marín
International Relations General Director
In the silence of the hills
On a bed of copper-colored clay
I bathe in the beauty
Of the landscape
In this piece of nature
I must release
I breathe in
I breathe in and release
And the green of the hills
And the red of the earth
The sun’s bountiful beams
Gently caress my cheeks
I descend from the hill
To the flutter
Of a butterfly’s wings
Short Essay in English
First Prize Short Essay in English - Faculty and Staff
The Citizen Experience: Managing Quality in a 21st Century Democracy
Author: Laura McDermott
Design Lead at IE Centre for Social Innovation
When we hear about successes in innovation today, many people attribute it to inspiration found in other industries or contexts. When designing the Apple concept store, Steve Jobs and his team took notes on the hospitality industry. Other giants who have begun to dominate the market look for the “Blue Ocean” in order to identify opportunities that could arise from outside their industry. Telecommunications, banking, and real estate are just some of the areas in our lives which are being made easier when providers adopt a quality, customer-centric approach. However, one area that perhaps touches people every day but which does not always provide quality experiences is the public sector.
Many of us come into contact with public services every day; whether it be through public transport, attending state schools and universities, using motorways, going to hospitals when sick, or registering our taxes. Although citizens may be dissatisfied with public services, studies in the UK have shown that only a third of them register complaints. In contrast, if a brand delivers sub-standard experiences today, customers have no issue moving to different providers.
We might pardon public-sector bureaucracy and inefficiency, but we could argue that it is only because there are few alternative “providers” to the state. While the “citizen experience” might not be a priority in the public sector, it is one that should be carefully considered if governments want to ensure the satisfaction of the people. If dissatisfaction with public institutions continues to grow over time, governments might find themselves under threat from other agents who better provide for citizens. According to Bernadette Berdi, many citizens in democracies move towards extremist terrorist groups over traditional politics because:
(armed terrorist groups) build stronger bonds with the population by investing in social services. They build schools, they run hospitals, they set up vocational- training programs or micro-loan programs. Hezbollah offers all of these services and more. Armed groups also seek to win the population over by offering something that the state is not providing: safety and security.
Although this example might seem extreme, when paired with data which shows that the global population is losing confidence in (and engagement with) governments, we might begin to worry about what type of players will begin to disrupt the civic “market”.
This essay will explore the concept of Total Quality Management within public institutions, investigating whether it is in government interest to take a value-added, quality approach to what we will call the “citizen experience” (CX). We will also consider the consequences of failing to deliver a quality CX and identify some tools and models that might aid in the process. For the purpose of this paper, we will focus mainly on Lean as a quality approach.
A core definition of total quality management (TQM) describes a management approach to long–term success through customer satisfaction. In a TQM effort, all members of an organisation participate in improving processes, products, services, and the culture in which they work.
According to the ISO900 the following 8 headings are key principles for quality management: Involvement of people, process approach, system approach, continual improvement, factual approach to decision making, mutually beneficial supplier relationship, leadership, customer focus. We might consider this as an over-arching approach to quality and one that lays the basis for other, more specific approaches.
The Lean approach, which came to fruition in the manufacturing industry in Japan in the post WW2 era, encompasses many of the headings mentioned above while focusing more specifically on the removal of waste. Waste (or muda) in Lean terms can be defined as “any activity that consumes resources without creating value for the customer.” Classifications of this waste include waiting time, over-processing, motion and transportation, all of which could be considered in the context of public institutions.
WHY APPLY TQM TO PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS?
Confidence in public institutions is low, and the perception that public policies favour select interest groups has increased sharply. Shorter economic cycles, technological change and disruptive innovation have led to calls to reforms in national labour markets and social protection systems, while climate change, tax evasion and terrorism demand concerted global action.
Businesses might count on Total Quality Management (TQM) more than public officials, since market share and earnings are at stake. Particularly today, with increased competition in the market, demanding customers and industry 4.0, traditional businesses see a sense of urgency to focus on the quality of their offerings. If we are to imagine public institutions in a private context, we could argue that they have become similar to the traditional monopolies, resting on legacy models and failing to see urgency to improve on their offerings. However, in order to run a country successfully, engage citizens in the process, and provide a return on their investment (in this case their vote), quality practices should be considered by public administration.
According to Gronroos 2009, our perception of quality depends on two main factors, what we expect to experience versus what we perceive to have experienced.
Since global perception of public institutions is diminishing and people increasingly lack confidence in governments, we will assume that expectations of quality in public institutions are low. This paired with the new demands and expectations in the “Age of Consumer” should create alarm. Public institutions which have rested on traditional, bureaucratic models in the past may come under scrutiny by a new generation of citizens if they fail to meet expectations.
According to a study done by Salesforce, Millennials in this “Age of the Consumer”are reshaping service industries in the following ways:
1.- They love self-service. “Whenever they have problems for your product or service, they will first search for your FAQ pages and community forums. Research shows 69% of millennials say they “feel good” about both themselves and the company when they can solve a problem solo.”
2.- They want everything instantly. “Speed is critical. According to Desk.com, 25% of millennials expect to get a response within 10 minutes after reaching out for customer service via social media.”
3.- They prefer texting over calls. “Millennials stay in message threads all the time, whether it’s SMS, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. It’s instant and mobile, which allows them to respond quickly wherever they are.”
4.- They are hyper-connected. “Smartphones, tablets, and laptops - millennials are switching among these devices every day. To please them, make sure you have seamless service support across all platforms.”
5.- They value brand engagement on social media. “According to Microsoft’s State of Global Customer Service Report, about 47% of 18-34-year-old consumers have used social media to complain about a brand’s service.”
6.- They demand personalisation. “millennials are more willing to share their personal data with brands to receive better and more personalised service. They expect you to know their service history whenever they reach out.”
Bad reviews can damage brands today, and many companies use the above insights to react quickly and placate dissatisfied customers. However, in the public sector there are few bodies, apart from perhaps the Ombudsman, which process complaints for public institutions. In a survey done in 2015, the UK parliament and Ombudsman found that two-thirds of people did not submit a complaint due to the perceived effort and bureaucracy involved, though research suggests that 90% of people feel that they should complain. In Ireland in 2017, the Ombudsman received a mere 3,012 complaints about the public service in a country with a population of 4.8 million, which equates to approximately 0.06% of citizens reporting dissatisfaction.
If citizens are dissatisfied with the quality of public institutions and the services they provide, but fail to offer feedback or engage in change, we can assume that there will be an increasingly unhappy civic body. Meanwhile little is being done to involve them in improving the system. Even when the Ombudsman issues annual reports or quarterly updates on complaints and the public sector, it requires time and interest on the part of public administrators to read through lengthy documents in order to hear the "voice of the citizen” or at least those complaints that have been registered.
If governments fail to realise that customers and citizens are the same people, and those people have greater expectations of immediacy and quality, they may fall victim to scrutiny and waning votes of confidence. In business terms we could describe this as a threat to engagement and retention. Although these factors may simply lead to drops in market share for businesses, for governments the threats could be much more damaging.
Let us consider citizens as “customers” of their public institutions, and apply the Kano model to this context. The Kano model classifies customer needs in terms of basic needs, performance needs and excitement needs.
We could argue that a state should provide for the basic needs of its citizens, through the proper assignment of tax-payers’ money. Should these basic needs fail to be covered by the government, we could certainly begin to question the value of the offerings and the quality of the government. According to the OECD,
There are persisting inequalities in access, responsiveness and quality of services by population groups. In all OECD countries, low‐income people report higher unmet medical care needs than people with higher incomes. Similarly, socio‐economically disadvantaged students are almost three times more likely than advantaged students not to attain the baseline level of proficiency in science.
In developed countries, we might assume that “basic needs” are covered. However, when we analyse “performance needs”, we can start to see how developed countries might also fail to deliver value for their citizens. If we equate basic needs to the simple existence of state education, public infrastructure and healthcare, then performance needs might be better understood as the ease and accessibility of accessing these services. This depends not only on the existence of the service (basic need) but considers the delivery of the service, which implicates the civil service.
CASE: CIVIL SERVICE AND TAX
The International Civil Service Effectiveness Index (InCiSE) did a 2017 study on 31 countries, rating countries’ effectiveness based on the following headings:
tax administration, inclusiveness, capabilities, openness, integrity, HR management, crisis/risk management, regulation, fiscal and financial management, digital service, social security administration, and policy making.
InCiSE rates tax administration on “the effectiveness and efficiency of tax collection.” In order to make the CX a satisfying one, the presence of a tax system alone is not enough. If the process of registering and declaring taxes (performance need) is an arduous, bureaucratic one, we could imagine the citizen being either disgruntled or avoiding having to engage. This, taken to the extreme, might well result in lack of tax declarations and financial strain on public administration.
Ireland ranked 4th on the list of countries with the most effective and efficient tax collection systems. The Revenue Online Service (ROS) mission statement is to “serve the community by fairly and efficiently collecting taxes and duties and implementing Customs controls.” The platform allows citizens to perform tasks such as income declaration, tax repayments and job registry in one usable platform. If these tasks remained offline, we could imagine various forms of waste, both for the part of the citizen and public administration. However, by embracing the internet and the tools at their disposal, the Revenue Commissioner has enabled both parties to conduct their dealings in an efficient manner and reduce waste of waiting, motion, over-processing, defects, and transportation. This might be considered a strong fulfilment of “performance needs”.
It is not common to consider public institutions as satisfying our “excitement needs”, unlike private institutions that try to create “wow moments” for their customers through quality experiences and human-centred offerings. In fact, Douglas Carswell, a British member of parliament
likens traditional politics to HMV, a chain of British record shops that went bust, in a world where people are used to calling up whatever music they want whenever they want via Spotify.
That being said, we might see an exception in the case of Estonia, which ranked first place in the 2017 index for tax efficiency and effectiveness. As well as processing taxes through their e-Estonia platform, they use blockchain to provide a secure, digital space for citizens to engage with various public services from voting and governance to healthcare and residency. Public administration has adopted a quality approach and arguably reached excellence by leveraging existing technologies and removing waste in the internal and citizen-facing process. They add additional value to the customer through design, ease of use and user-friendliness (excitement need).
Named ‘the most advanced digital society in the world’ by Wired, ingenious Estonians are pathfinders, who have built an efficient, secure and transparent ecosystem that saves time and money.
There is a great opportunity for governments and public administration to become more quality-focused and reduce waste, particularly in the internal processes. Doing so would add value for citizens, whose expectations will continue to grow based the high level of service they are accustomed to in the private sector. By taking a lean approach and focusing first on the analysis of the citizen-journey through public services, public institutions can begin to understand what is of true value for the citizen and what is impeding excellence.
Strengthening the integrity of government institutions as well as elected officials, establishing an ongoing dialogue with citizens through open and participative policy‐making processes, and enhancing government’s capacity to choose the most appropriate policies among various options – all are key to re‐connect governments with their citizenry and foster more inclusive and sustainable growth.
If we reflect on our earlier quote about the inherent nature of democracy, we will remember that engagement and collective intelligence from citizens is an essential part of the decision-making process at a state-level. A true democracy is one that elects members of the citizen body to act on behalf of the people. However, over time this “power of the people” has become somewhat centralised and governments arguably look more like traditional businesses, with scandals about corruption, private interests and foul play being common news features. The engagement that was so central to the early concepts of democracy seems to be quickly diminishing.
Just as in business, in order to provide quality citizen experiences, feedback and active participation from citizens is essential. In order to achieve this, the conditions must be in place for citizens to understand, ask about and act on relevant topics. Providing education about how the public system works on a primary or secondary level might be one of the first steps to creating more engagement. For example, since 1997 in Ireland,
Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE) is taught to all Junior Certificate students and is aimed at helping them to engage in the community, the country and the wider world… (It) is taught to give students an understanding of the civic, social and political dimensions of their lives.
Once a civic body becomes more informed on the conditions and the running of their state, they must be provided with the tools in order to act. Tom Loosemore, founding deputy director of GDS (Government Digital Services) in the UK believes that
By embracing technological disruption, our experience of interacting with government institutions can be transformed from one that’s slow, confusing and frustrating to one that’s fast, simple and empathetic.
As it stands, there are an array of technological tools at governments’ disposal in order to improve the citizen experience. In an age where expectations rise rapidly and industries are being disrupted by more agile players, it is imperative that governments leverage existing technologies in order to meet the performance needs of their citizens. We might consider digital solutions as lean tools to eradicate bureaucracy, but we should not mistake their mere existence as fulfilling “excitement needs”. These platforms might have been ‘nice to have’ in the past, but could now be considered as a ‘must have’.
In order to deliver a truly exceptional citizen experience, the first step for government administration should be to consider a quality framework such as Lean, which focuses on reducing waste and adding value to the customer. Applying Lean to all public institutions would certainly be a challenge, particularly considering political changes from one term to the next. However, considering the essence of democracy is based in the citizens’ needs, these should be at the base of any government or should be considered the “core offerings”.
If governments were to implement Lean across all public business, perhaps starting small in one department with the view to scaling over time, it would allow for growth of a “Kaizen” mindset. Focus on quality and continuous improvement would mean that public offerings would continue to grow and evolve with the citizens, resulting in a state system that is more proactive rather than reactive to change.
1.- On the Origins of Democracy
When democracy came to fruition in Athens in the fourth century, it was based on a system where citizens were highly involved. Through active participation in various facets of the political and juridical systems, citizens understood how politics and its administration functioned. Public engagement was central to the functioning of this democracy, with decisions being made from a collective intelligence with the aim of bringing a common good to the people of the state.
Collective decision-making in a political community must unfold in its public life, that is, in the sphere of interaction in which citizens transcend their own private concerns and reason from the standpoint of the common good.
We could argue that Athenian democracy took a human-centred approach to politics, in that it ensured its citizens were heavily involved in the processes. Even those who did not take part in the governing of the state turned out in their hundreds and thousands to make their opinions heard and to be part of the decision making process.
People through assembly, council, and law courts controlled the entire political process and…a fantastically large proportion of citizens was involved constantly in public business…The of rotation offices made sure that those who were not involved at a given time would be at another (if they wished to) and that the citizens through their engagement in various offices and functions achieved a high level of familiarity with the administration of their community and its politics.
The ISO 9000:2015 and ISO 9001:2015 standards are based on seven quality management principles that senior management can apply for organisational improvement:
• Understand the needs of existing and future customers
• Align organizational objectives with customer needs and expectations
• Meet customer requirements
• Measure customer satisfaction
• Manage customer relationships
• Aim to exceed customer expectations
• Establish a vision and direction for the organization
• Set challenging goals
• Model organizational values
• Establish trust
• Equip and empower employees
• Recognize employee contributions
Engagement of people
• Ensure that people’s abilities are used and valued
• Make people accountable
• Enable participation in continual improvement
• Evaluate individual performance
• Enable learning and knowledge sharing
• Enable open discussion of problems, constraints
• Manage activities as processes
• Measure the capability of activities
• Identify linkages between activities
• Prioritize improvement opportunities
• Deploy resources effectively
•Improve organizational performance and capabilities
• Align improvement activities
• Empower people to make improvements
• Measure improvement consistently
• Celebrate improvements
• Ensure the accessibility of accurate and reliable data
• Use appropriate methods to analyze data
• Make decisions based on analysis
• Balance data analysis with practical experience
• Identify and select suppliers to manage costs, optimize resources, and create value
• Establish relationships considering both the short and long term
• Share expertise, resources, information, and plans with partners
• Collaborate on improvement and development activities
• Recognize supplier successes