Friday, 11 March 2011

A Case Of The Friday Wobbles, And A Great Idea To Help Small Businesses Comes To Nothing.

Ouf, I definitely shouldn't have eaten the Scotch egg that Max gave me because he was too riddled with guilt to eat it himself. I feel very odd indeed.

Mind you, I always feel a bit wobbly on Fridays - who wouldn't, with The Boss back from Westminster and constituency surgery to look forward to? God knows what that combination does to my blood pressure, but it can't be good.

It seems pathetic to be moaning about anything to do with life in Northwick in the light of the terrible events in Japan last night, though, doesn't it?

"We need to get our senses of proportion back," I say to Greg this morning, while we're walking into work - but he obviously isn't paying any attention to me. He's far too busy listening to the raised voices that are coming from our office.

"Have a nice time on Wednesday night, did you, Andrew?" says Vicky, in that sort of voice. (Her use of Andy seems to have bitten the dust.)

Greg puts his finger to his lips, and pulls me behind the coat-rack in the corridor. We stand very still and wait for what comes next.

"Um, no," says Andrew. "I don't know what you mean. I went to that do at the embassy, which was okay but a bit dull, so I left at 10:30pm and went back to the flat."

"So why didn't you answer either of your phones?" says Vicky. "I called you every half hour - almost all night."

I think this must have been a rhetorical question as, before The Boss can respond, Vicky comes hurtling out into the corridor, shouts, "Sod you!" and slams the door shut behind her. Then she grabs her coat and glares at Greg and me.

"Heard enough, you two?" she says.

"Yes, thanks," says Greg. "Safe to go in there now, is it?"

Vicky shrugs and walks off towards the stairwell, so Greg counts to fifty and then opens the door. Andrew's sitting at my desk, reading the local paper and chewing like mad. He tries to hide Greg's last bag of Haribos, but doesn't quite manage it in time.

"Morning, guys," he says, as if nothing at all has happened. "Looking forward to today? Lots more lovely constituents who hate the Coalition to sympathise with - can't be bad."

Honestly, only an MP would look forward to surgeries. Probably because they can get through the vast majority of the damned things purely by looking sympathetic and saying, "Ah," a lot. While muppets like me try to note down the garbled details of complicated cases, knowing that we're going to be the ones who have to do the follow-up work.

This scenario is a pretty accurate summary of what happens when we start seeing today's constituents straight after lunch. I show each person in, one at a time, while Andrew makes expansive gestures of welcome from the comfort of his chair. His legs are splayed and his tie askew, and I'm pretty sure there's a gravy stain on the bottom of it. No wonder he never makes GQ's Best-Dressed Man in Britain list.

Once the constituent is settled and starts to speak, The Boss then gives a virtuoso demonstration of sympathetic nodding - while I am left to frantically scribble down details of incomprehensible tax credit awards and overpayment demands; care home charges and a traveller family who apparently spend all their time re-spraying cars in the garden of their council house. It's a laugh a minute in this job.

Today, there's only one constituent in whom Andrew seems to take a genuine interest, and that's Jim Dixon - who is a self-employed carpet fitter working for most major retailers in the area. His business is going under, and he's just beginning to explain why, when Andrew jumps to a conclusion, as per bloody usual. That it's all the fault of the banks.

After listening to The Boss pontificating for what feels like hours about Stephen Hester's bonus and the banks' moral obligation to lend to small businesses, even the mild-mannered Jim looks as if he is going to explode. My head feels as if it already has.

"Andrew," I say. "Why don't you just let Mr Dixon tell us what his actual problem is?"

This earns me a grateful look from Jim, who goes on to describe the behaviour of the retailers who use his services. They're taking longer and longer to pay his invoices, and causing him major cash-flow problems in the process.

"How long are they making you wait?" asks Andrew, who has finally grasped what this is about. Or, at least, I hope he has.

"Our agreement is that payment is due within thirty days of the date of the invoice," says Jim. "And all the shops used to comply with that, at least most of the time. Until this last year. Then one of them wrote to me telling me that they weren't going to pay for ninety days, like it or not - and then all the others started pushing it as far as they could, as well. I've got bills that are still unpaid after nine or ten months."

"Bloody hell," says The Boss. Who may now be re-thinking his negative assessment of IPSA's turnaround of expenses payments. "I can see that would be problematic, to put it mildly."

"It is," says Jim. "Seeing as I still have to pay for everything up front. I can't exactly tell the filling station I'll pay for my petrol when my clients have paid me, can I? Or buy my family's food on tick?"

"No," says Andrew. "I suppose you can't. Bloody outrageous, that's what that is."

He sits and scratches his head for a moment, while looking optimistically at me. I'm starting to feel a bit sick - probably from that damned egg - so I just look straight back at him and concentrate on trying not to burp.

"We did something about this, though, didn't we, Molly?" says The Boss. "When we were in power, I mean."

"Well, sort-of," I say. "We legislated to allow small business people to apply charges for late payment if their bills weren't paid on time."

You'd swear that this had been Andrew's own idea, he looks so pleased to be reminded of it.

"Well, there you are, then, Jim," he says. "Problem solved. By your good old Labour government. Just slap a few charges on these bloody retailers and they'll soon -"

"Pay up, then tell me to bugger off and use someone else in future," says Jim. Which, not for the first time, seems to leave The Boss with nothing of any use to add to the debate. Or not before I have to excuse myself and head for the loo, anyway.

I have to repeat that particular journey so often over the course of the rest of the afternoon that eventually, Greg barges in to the Ladies' toilet to tell me that I might as well go home, for all the use I'm being. So now I have no idea if Andrew found a solution to Jim's problem, or not. The latter seems infinitely more likely than the former, based on past experience.

I suppose I'll find out on Monday morning, when I'll have to rely on Andrew's own notes to carry out whatever he suggested to Jim we would do - which is bound to be a total disaster, whatever it is. Which is a pretty good description of how I've spent my evening, too: on about two hundred more trips to the loo. (This poetry thing is awfully contagious.)

"You still throwing up, then, Mol?" says Max, at about 8:00pm, when he tries to open the bathroom door and finds it locked.

"Yes," I say. "Thanks to you, and that bloody Scotch egg of yours. Go away and leave me alone."

"I'd go to bed, if I were you," he says. "And take a bucket with you, too."

Huh. So it seems The Boss won't be the only one to have had an early night this week. Though I bet his was more fun than mine.

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