Life has a mischievous habit of tossing us a surprise or two when we least expect it. We never know when we wake in the morning what the day will bring. The day stretches before us like a tablecloth on a long banqueting table. Who knows what delights will laid out and be served up? One thing is for sure, it will never be exactly what we expected.
I woke up on Wednesday morning in an Oxford hotel just ahead of my alarm. So far, so good. It was 7am and I had three hours to get to Fareham. The ever reliable Google maps informed me it would take 1 hour and 46 minutes. I had plenty of time, even allowing for the traffic.
I was in Oxford, staying in a rather impressive country house hotel, attending an IT Leader’s conference. The previous day had comprised a round of seminars and workshops – on such fascinating subjects as mega-trends in IT, cloud computing and Big Data. I had PowerPoint indigestion. In return for free accommodation and Danish pastries, the deal was that we would book one-on-one sessions with the suppliers. Apparently the spending power on offer was almost enough to pay off the national debt.
The said suppliers – selling anything from server racks to middleware to project managers, sat at separate tables in a large hall, whilst their potential clients circled round until it was their turn. Rather like a speed date, where one part is determined to connect and the other is equally determined not to do so. They were seductive and friendly, but I was wise to their tricks and kept my phone number in my pocket.
And after all this – the inevitable gala dinner, with forced conversations, too much wine and the predictably over-enthusiastic and self-important after-dinner speakers. So yesterday had been a day of minor surprises only. Like the fact that at dinner I was sandwiched between an expert in data-protection and a bloke who worked for Chinese company who made computer widgets. Who would have predicted it. Or wanted to have predicted it.
After the indulgences of the gala dinner, I had rather collapsed into bed and left many things in something of a heap on the floor – including my suit. I had time to iron it if I skipped breakfast. Which was no great sacrifice as I was still digesting last night’s pudding. I needed my suit to be smart for the office, and particularly as I was due to do a presentation to store directors at 11.45pm.
I untangled the iron and plugged it in. I laid my trousers out on the ironing board. And then I saw it. A pair of trousers comprise two trousers joined in the middle. Except mine no longer were. At the most important point where they are meant to join between the cheeks, the stitching had come away, revealing a hole about an inch and a half long. Major surprise of the day number 1, and not a pleasant one.
A word to the wise, and to those of you who use trouser presses. Make sure you regularly check the back of your trousers. This is not something I had been doing as I pressed them for on the 15 minutes timer every week. So I have no idea how long I had been living with this exposure. I am just glad I normally wear dark underpants.
My first thought was to find the regulation hotel sewing kit, which, as you will know, consists of an array of coloured cottons wrapped around a small card with a needle and a few safety pins. A device which came in very useful when my wife went to the ball without her strapless bra – but that’s another story. My trousers were black and there would surely be some black cotton. But, there wasn’t even a sewing kit, and on closer examination the material had thinned out to the point that mending it without a patch would have taken a level 6 needlework qualification and ten times as much time and patience as I had to spare. In the absence of the black insulation tape I would have had in my flat, I wondered whether I would get away with it. Standing in my red stripy underpants, I decided this was rather unlikely. My reputation could be irrevocably damaged. With my surname, it would not take much imagination to augment it into some humorous nick-names. Flash Bumley? Bottomholey?
My only escape was to get away as quickly as possible, drive like the clappers and stop off en route at the M&S on the M27. And hope to find a decent off the peg suit in my size. I packed furtively, checked-out impatiently and drove manically down the long drive out of the estate – bouncing over the speed bumps towards the main road.
We all know that the chance of technology working is inversely proportional to the urgency. The photocopier always jams when you have 2 minutes to copy papers before an important meeting. Your computer crashes just before you were about to hit “save” and your phone is always out of battery just before that vital phone call. All further evidence of life’s amusing mischief-making.
So inevitably as I approached the main road my TomTom was still searching for a valid GPS connection. Lo and behold, by the time it had deigned to do so, I was driving at break-neck speed in exactly the wrong direction. One should never turn round on a busy A-road, especially when your rear-window is still misty. But officer, it was an emergency.
Also totally unsurprising, was the turgid queue around Oxford. When we lived in Reading we queued round Oxford. Now that I work in Hampshire I queue round Oxford. Why would I expect that to be any different at 8.30am in the morning, just because I need it to be? I weaved expertly in and out of lanes to little avail. But after Oxford, the A34 was clear and I was able to stretch the speed limit almost to breaking-point. By the time I hit the M3 I was pretty much on schedule, with approximately 20 minutes in hand to buy the emergency suit.
Does any man know his own body dimensions? I’m not even sure of my age. So I called my wife who knows all of these things and more, and she texted them through. I wistfully wished that my inside leg and waist sizes were the other way round. But at least my waist measurement wasn’t my chest size.
Ten minutes later I was at the end of the M3. Here it splits like celery does when you slice it lengthwise and stand it in water. Rather counter-intuitively the right-hand split takes you left and east towards Portsmouth on the M27, and the left-hand split takes you right and west towards Southampton. A few months ago I had impressed this fact on my father-in-law, who insisted in following his intuition rather than my advice, or indeed the very large road signs. I had no sympathy for the fact he subsequently wasted a good hour of their holiday working out which way up the map was and which side the sea was. It is my mother-in-law I feel sorry for. But, I was not going to fall into this trap – and nor did I. I was speeding victoriously down the sweeping bend of the right branch ready to fly onto the M27.
And then came my second big surprise of the day. Suddenly in front of me stood an old car, stationary. It’s bonnet was propped open and an elderly man stood behind it in a long coat, rummaging in the boot.
I guess he had broken down and stopped in his lane. He had chosen not to use the hard-shoulder provided for this very purpose. He had not switched on his hazard warning lights. He had not left his vehicle and he had not stood behind the crash barrier. And I doubted very much that he had, or had used, a mobile phone to call for help. He was like some ghost of a long-forgotten pre-motorway age, when people pulled up to top up their radiators or to get their cucumber sandwiches out of the boot.
I veered into the left-hand lane to take evasive action. I was past him in an instant, fearful for his life, lest any car behind me was less focussed than I was, or texting his wife for his inside leg. I called 999, reported what I saw and hoped that the next vehicle to pull up behind him would be a police car rather than an ambulance.
My deadline was with my garage. I had booked my car in for a service – and the man was collecting from my office at 10am. I was just about on schedule. That was until I metaphorically hit the M27 and one almighty queue. I was as stationary as the old man had been, with two junctions to go for M&S and a further two for my office. The egg-timer was running out of sand. If only it were tomorrow – casual dress day.
I checked my phone. A text from one of my team. There was an enormous queue on the M27 and he was crawling through some small village having taken evasive action. Great. Well yes – Great – because the man collecting my car would be equally delayed.
By the time I reached the junction for M&S it was already 10am. The garage had not rung to ask me where I was. As I dashed into M&S, I lost my mobile reception. So I was uncontactable and like a child hiding under the table, safely in denial.
I believe this is the second largest M&S in Britain, so the walk to the menwear was lengthy. I scanned their entire range in about 2 minutes. I picked a dark grey Italian suit matching the numbers on my text message, and sprinted into the fitting room. Within 30 seconds I was undressed, redressed and asking the nice lady on the counter whether she thought “these trousers looked a little tight”. She was very polite, although I do believe she used the word “bulging” and she couldn’t find a larger size on the sales floor. 30 seconds later I was back in my civvies, replacing the suit and re-scanning the range. I found another one in the right size, and with a silver lining – it was in the sale. Another sprint into the fitting room, another 30 second change, a quick look at my own bum, a quick stretch and everything seemingly fitted without bulges. So a final change back and I emerged from the fitting room half expecting to have my pants on the outside of my trousers and my shirt inside out.
The woman at the cash desk was very kind when I told her my story. She carefully cut off all the labels in a motherly way and packed me off. I dashed back to the car where I effected my final clothes change (my fifth in fifteen minutes) without frightening any old ladies.
There was a voicemail on my phone. And it was the garage. “Mr Bottomley, apologies, I am stuck in traffic on the M27 and should be with you around 10.30am”. By the time he arrived, my keys had been left in reception and I was walking nonchalantly into the office in my new suit, unconcerned who was walking behind me and what they could see.
“Had a good journey?” one of my colleagues asked as I sat down confidently at my desk, not needing to hide my bottom. “Yep, pretty good – a bit of a queue on the motorway”. Success – by the seat of my pants.
PostScripped.- One week later, I am again late, dashing to my car to get to the airport in my new shiny suit and my shiny, treadless office shoes. Only two weeks previously I had turned my handlebars too quickly on treadless tyres in wet-conditions and landed in an ungainly heap on the road. And here I am again, at the bottom of the grassy slope from my flat and lying on the gravel by the side of my car. Suppressing a John Cleese moment, I stand up, compose myself and discover a one inch rip in the knee of my new trousers. I sprint back to the flat and take them off. I search the wardrobe manically – I have no other trousers. Not even the famous ones with a hole in the bum, which I had recycled. So I find a plaster in my first-aid kit and stick it inside. It sort of works. I daren’t look too closely. But it is hardly invisible. But then I will be sat in a meeting with my legs under the table most of the day. On the small, intimate, company plane, facing my colleague opposite, I keep my bag on my knee. I determine not to say anything unless I am asked. Nobody asks all day. Nobody laughs. Maybe they are too polite to say. Maybe nobody noticed. Maybe the sticking plaster solution sometimes works … back home I find the suit is discontinued (it was in the sale). I now have two jackets and no trousers.