Friday, January 23, 2015
‘Who was in the gents’ last?’ I ask, as I stagger back into some fresh air. It’s a rhetorical question. I already know it was M the clinically obese mortgage man. God alone knows why some people wait until they get to work to carry out their morning ablutions. I’m used to getting dumped on in this business, but I’d rather it wasn’t by colleagues.
‘I think you probably know.’ Replies negotiator S with a rueful smile. She nods towards M’s office where he is hunched over his laptop staring intently. I’d like to think he’s researching the best rates for first time buyers - or even air freshener sites - but it’s probably something more grubby.
‘Oh my daze.’ Exclaims trainee F, bringing me back to the present as he holsters the phone, claps a hand to his forehead before heading to where I’ve just emerged from. Good luck with that boy, you’ll need an aqualung.
‘What’s he confused about?’ I ask S, thinking the choices are endless.
‘Confused?’ Says S, head cocked to one side alluringly.
‘Yes, he was in a daze.’ I reply, starting to get tetchy even before I begin looking at group stats and the office league table.
S suppresses a giggle. ‘No, he said Oh my days.’ She tells me with a shake of her head.
‘What does that even mean?’ I snap back, wondering just when I became such a grumpy old man?
‘It means he’s had some surprising news, or a bit of a shock.’ Enlightens S.
The clown will certainly have a shock when he enters the toilets, and M has undoubtedly been enlightened…
‘Why can’t he speak in recognisable English?’ I grizzle. ‘It’s not as if his mother didn’t waste enough money on private schooling, now he has to effect some sort of hooded-street-thug patois.’
Now S is looking at me quizzically and I belatedly realise.
‘No, I don’t mean block paving in a garden - that’s a patio for crying out loud.’
I can feel my life ebbing away.
Non-standard slang and street talk explained as patois, I move on. I don’t have time to make up for all the deficiencies of Britain’s education system - and I thought I was betrayed when Margaret Thatcher stole the milk allowance.
‘Mrs Franklin on line three.’ Announces S later. I throw my hands to the sky.
‘The flat on London Road.’ Coaches S gently.
After enough people to fill a phone book, I can remember the properties but not the surnames.
‘We really need to get some viewings.’ I announce after five minutes with my ears being bent and a further two flannelling the woman on why we’d have some viewers for her home shortly. Even as I peck at the keyboard to pull up the history of Mrs Franklin’s flat, I suspect something has gone wrong.
‘iPad!’ Exclaims F with a familiar hand to forehead gesture.
‘I’m not interested in your birthday wish list.’ I snap irritably. It’s an expensive two bedroom flat, not an overpriced tablet I’m discussing. But something about F’s demeanour alerts me to a problem, one that becomes apparent as the property record rises onto the screen in front of me. We haven’t mailed out any details of Mrs Franklin's flat. Not one.
Now it’s true internet property portals are the main channel for enquiries and also for advertising homes for sale. And it’s equally true estate agents dislike the cost of the vast search engines. For years I was overcharged by the local papers, now it’s on-line robbery rather than ink and paper pilfering. And the irony is, a group of estate agents set up and nurtured one of the most well known sites. It’s a bit like greedy relatives with power of attorney emptying their ageing relatives bank accounts before the care home costs rack up.
‘Who was supposed to action the mail out?’ I ask angrily, grimacing towards F.
‘iPad.’ Repeats F eyes downturned.
I look to S for help.
‘He said. My Bad.’ She tells me.
Apparently it means I’ve screwed up.
I’m also told opticians now do hearing tests….
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Wednesday, January 14, 2015
‘Got those keys you were waiting for.’ Says negotiator S even before I’ve sat down. The last two appointments have been a colossal waste of time but you need to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince, so I keep puckering up.
I ask her if it’s the lender I think it is and the less than salubrious part of town I’m expecting? She answers in the affirmative. My sigh must hit some sort of nerve, as she smiles sweetly and says.
‘Do you want a cup of tea before you go back out?’
She’ll make someone a very happy man one day, I just hope it’s not the low-life she’s currently with - or that she’s still working for me when she falls pregnant. Employment laws are great on paper but in practice - well let’s just say it’s the reason H, my vertically-challenged rival manager, doesn’t recruit women of childbearing age any longer.
I can almost hear the howls of disgust from half the population. But I’m not H, I always employ the best person for the job, irrespective of gender. In fact if she were to stay in the business, S would become a better estate agent than anyone else in the office - myself included. Sadly, I’ve lost track of the number of talented women I’ve worked with over the years whose biological clock meant an early exit from the industry. I rather envy them, apart from the pushing and screaming bit…
‘You can come with me to measure up if you like.’ I tell S as she returns with a mug of steaming tea. I make a mental note to make the next cuppa. I don’t like asking any staff member to do something I’m not prepared to do. H thinks I’m an idiot to take this view - and regrettably his sales figures tend to bear that out. I won’t change though.
‘What’s it going to be like?’ Says S warily. I have to almost physically stop myself looking at her legs. If there are fleas again, those calves and ankles are way too exposed.
‘It’s a voluntary repossession.’ I tell her, glancing at the paperwork spread before me. There’s a half ream of conditions and demands that would make sole traders think hard about taking on the onerous task for the fee involved. But we have corporate masters and group agreements to service, which is why I collect those thick rubber bands the postman drops. Secure round your trouser bottoms and it’s a long way for the little bloodsuckers to leap once they sense the warmth of a fresh human body.
‘Shite area.’ Answers assistant manager T, to S’s question. He looks a bit peeved I’ve asked her to accompany me, but she’s a lot tastier and not only to wingless jumping parasites.
‘Everyone has to live somewhere.’ Counters S feistily, before adding. ‘Of course I’d like to come.’
Got to love her left of centre politics, though she might start swinging the other way after seeing too many more spitefully trashed former homes. They do say socialism is something that can only be cured by age and financial good fortune. But for now, got to love her….
‘Why are there so many fridges and washing machines outside?’ Asks S as I weave through the narrow street we are visiting, eyes straining for the house number. I should really put my driving glasses on but they make me look like a sad, middle-aged man.
‘Since they started charging commercial vehicles at the municipal tip.’ I tell her. ‘People don’t go as often, or they dump their waste goods at the side of the nearest bit of rural road.’
‘Probably why they are all still on the pavement.’ Says S with a wry smile.
This place is far from any greenery and has yet to be gentrified. The housing stock is low grade, spec built homes, in need of love and attention. Once the skips start appearing and a delicatessen and a coffee shop opens, the area will be on the up.
‘Not sure I like it here.’ Says S as I fiddle with the door lock.
We don’t stay long.
Next time I’ll take the right keys.
Monday, January 05, 2015
Another bleak January arrives and once again I feel as if I’ve been plunged into some dystopian nightmare, peopled by scores of malicious little figure-fiddlers constantly increasing targets and cutting costs. Well, it is a General Election year…
The park looks the same as I cross it wearily. The familiar winos are stirring from their benches and the Bulgarian Big Issue seller is just ahead of me, heading for the high street. His body language is guttural at best, as he slopes towards his draughty kerbside pitch. I wonder if his boss has upped the number of units he has to flog before he gets a bonus?
I sidestep the carcass of what might have been a deep-fried Kentucky bird of some description, or a particularly skinny cannibalised-rough-sleeper, and familiarly start to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, only without the mildly successful back catalogue and cult following.
No sign of the street cleaners yet, or the downtrodden gardeners who battle against the fast food fly-tipping while trying to maintain some colour in the borders that isn’t corporate-branded packaging. I hope they have their sharp-proof gloves on, because I spot at least three discarded syringes where you might have hoped for a winter flowering pansy.
I look up at the office fascia as I arrive outside. Terrific, one of the fluorescent tubes is flickering forlornly. The last time I tried to save some money and brought my stepladder in from home there was nearly a very nasty accident to put in the book. I should climb up myself next time, although it was almost an inventive way of getting rid of F, the hapless trainee. But the paperwork would have been endless, and there’s already a bloodstain on the pavement.
I should call the maintenance firm head office have retained but I know it will take weeks before they eventually send some bozo with English as a third language, and the wrong type of screwdriver. Then the bill, when it hits my profit and loss account, would be most unwelcome this early in the year. I need contracts to exchange and some solicitors won’t be back from the Caribbean for another fortnight.
As I punch in the alarm code and the beeping eventually falls silent, I look at the reverse of the window display. This is where the photogenic sold homes reside until the sun fades them too much - and the over-priced duff stock sits, until the owner swops agents or withdraws from the market. “We’re not giving our house away, you know.”
In the kitchen, as cold as the grave until the heating cuts in, I fill the kettle and line up the slightly stained mugs. The tub of Celebration is still open by the coffee jar and even the aptly named Polish cleaners haven’t eaten any of the mini Bounty bars.
Here we go again, I think, as I stare at the newly inked office and individual targets pinned next to the Office and Factories Act poster nobody understands, particularly the bit about Railways. There is so much legislation swirling round running a business that you can see why the board man, the leaflet dropper and the locksmith all decided not to employ anyone alongside themselves. And as the kettle rolls to the boil, it seems I might as well be a sole trader, because nobody else has arrived yet. Then the phone rings.
Five fractious minutes later I’m still alone, and minus one sale for the first week. It’s not as If I haven’t heard the words, “We can’t find anything as nice as our home so we’re withdrawing from the sale and taking it off the market,” before. But is still hurts like a knee in the groin. Every time.
Computer screen coaxed to life, I watch the emails scroll down relentlessly. It was a much gentler, kinder pace when you had to wait for the postman to deliver bad news. The bean counter boss has been busy over the holiday period, his name appears on several curt missives I’ll be depositing in the virtual waste basket.
Feel a bit rubbish.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
‘Anything happening?’ I ask, returning to the office. The annual stumble round the shops looking for last minute presents didn't go well. I was stopped in Marks and Spencer for the umpteenth time and asked where the ladies’ coats were? Now if they’d asked where the underwear department was, I’d have been more accommodating. Funny how when I’m bumbling round the main store in a suit everybody assumes I work there, but when I linger too long by the lingerie, the actual staff members look at me with suspicion.
‘Not much.’ Answers assistant manager T with a barely stifled yawn.
‘Nothing but time-wasters this time of year.’ Says lettings lush B with a sneer.
‘Or desperate to buy, or rent, people.’ Counters negotiator S.
‘Yes, but the trick is to tell the difference.’ I add sagely.
‘How do you tell the difference? Asks trainee F.
Telling him to put the kettle on was a bit harsh, but the paradox is, you often can’t sort the genuine punters from the complete nutters - at least not until they are on a viewing, in your car, sitting behind you and making you feel nervous. Best that F perfects the art of the perfect brew, before trying to decipher a perfect property storm.
‘Did you have any luck?’ Asks S, nodding towards the shopping bags I’ve deposited beside the desk.
‘I’ve got a few presents but they are mostly pants.’ I say wearily.
‘Oi, oi,’ chortles fat finance man M, with an unpleasant gullet-rasping sound. ‘Got the red basque and suspender set too, did you?’
‘You haven’t a clue, have you?’ Says S, scowling towards M. You can see why his wife left him.
‘Bean counter rang when you were out.’ Says T, referring to my figure-fiddling boss.
‘Where did you say I was?’ I ask urgently.
‘Don’t worry,’ soothes T. ‘I told him you were on a valuation.’
I was pricing up, I suppose, so I’ll settle for that.
‘What did he want?’ I ask. Looking at the day and date on the nearest computer screen. I can already guess.
‘If we were going to have any more contracts to invoice this month.’ Confirms T with a shake of his head, adding. ‘Has he never tried to get a solicitor to answer the phone in December?’
He’s never even sold a doll’s house, let alone a real one. But he’s good with numbers. Accountants will inherit the earth, the fact that they are meek and terminally dull is just a lucky coincidence for Matthew, or whoever ghost wrote his bit of The New Testament.
‘You could pretend you were The Pope asking for an update on your sale and most lawyers would still not take your call at this time of year.’ Says S ruefully. It’s too late for divine intervention to save my sales figures this month. Better to hold some deals over until January and have a flying start. I just need to keep it a secret from the boss, he want to have his Christmas cake and eat it.
‘Hi everyone.’ Says the board man as he breezes through the door. He clearly knows the bean counter is looking at board movement costs again, as he’s wearing an unconvincing smile and clutching an even less plausible tub of those Celebrations chocolates every shopping outlet has piled high, throughout the month.
‘All ready for Christmas?’ He asks chirpily, before adding a cheap looking card to the bounty he has deposited. And Bounty is about right. It used to be bottles of whisky, or a good red wine, now we share some crappy chocolates in the sure and certain knowledge that we’ll have loads of the coconut ones left come next year.
‘Thought he’d never go.’ Says T after the board man has indulged in some stilted chit-chat for five minutes before realising he’s about as wanted as another estate agent in town.
‘I felt a bit awkward we didn’t do a Christmas card for him.’ Says S sweetly.
‘Why should we?’ Quizzes B, with a scowl. ‘He wants our business, not the other way round.’
That’s B, goodwill to all men - at least when she’s pissed.
Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year everyone.
Friday, December 19, 2014
‘Computer is down.’ Says trainee F by way of a greeting, as I return to the office.
‘Well I’m pretty fed-up too, after the tossers I’ve just seen.’ I tell him grumpily, but he doesn’t get the weak attempt at humour.
When I was in my estate agency infancy, so were computers. I’ve struggled to keep pace with the burgeoning technology, to the stage where I yearn for an earlier age. One where you got to know your mailing list by telephoning them, and still had the excitement of waiting for negatives to be developed, when you took a property photo. Now, computers are like some digital deity, imbued with a sense of super-intelligence much more than the sum of the parts - a bunch of soldered wires and micro-circuits with an overdeveloped sense of their own importance.
‘All the computers?’ I ask, dumping my equally old-fashioned briefcase on the floor and gesticulating round the office.
‘They’re all on the same server aren’t they?’ Replies F.
‘I’ve rung the help desk.’ Says negotiator S gently. She knows I think that title is an enormous misnomer, at least she is after my last rant and the subsequent explanation of misnomer, minus the expletive.
‘And?’ I reply peevishly.
‘They are sending out an engineer. It’s a fault at our end.’
Of course it is. Each new bunch of bandits over the years who flog us the hardware and more deviously the tailor-made software, tend to stitch the company in to costly maintenance contracts and whenever operators find glitches in the system, or parameters not catered for in issue 1.0, there’s an exorbitant charge for updating to a new version just to fix their crap product in the first place. I could go on - for several versions.
‘What’s the matter with the intranet?’ Asks obese finance man M as he waddles out of his office, pained look on his chubby features.
‘It’s crashed.’ Replies F.
‘Our end or theirs?’ Says M.
‘Ours of course.’ I tell him sourly. He’s probably only notice because he can’t access his f***ing Facebook page. I refuse to go down that route, not least because you need to give your true name and age. You can find me on Twitter though - anonymously - @theagentsdiary….
‘Has anyone tried turning it off and back on again?’ Asks M, brow furrowed. He’s from a similar vintage to me, one that didn’t grow up with Nintendo 64s and Play Stations.
‘That only works on stand alone peripherals.’ Responds F.
I didn’t think he knew the meaning of the word, so I’m not about to challenge its accuracy. Although I’m pretty sure it is tech-speak for printers and scanners. Pretty sure.
‘In my day,’ I begin to a low collective groan. ‘We didn’t have any computers in the office.’
The phones are as quiet as the eerily blank flat-screens and we’re still waiting for the pre-pubescent engineer to arrive. He’s probably only available after school hours.
‘So how did you prepare sales details and upload photos on property portals?’ Quizzes F in bemusement.
‘We had one electronic typewriter and a secretary in each office.’ I tell him, feeling like the ancient mariner - only with a less seaworthy boat.
‘Typewriter?’ Responds F depressingly.
‘Like a printer and a keyboard all-in-one, sweetie.’ Enlightens lettings lush B, with a lipsticky smile.
‘Old school, or what.’ States F rhetorically.
‘And,’ I continue warming to the theme. ‘We got to know the applicants personally, by ringing them on a regular basis. Not just pushing the send button on electronic mail outs.’
‘So how did you, like, keep track of them?’ Questions F.
‘An index card system, with hand-written names, numbers and requirements.’ I tell him primly.
‘Man, that’s insane.’ Says F. ‘You’d need to be on the phone all day long.’
‘You had to qualify the applicants properly.’ Contributes M, before adding. ‘And find out if they needed finance and insurance.’
‘So you could flog them PPI and endowment’s?’ Challenges S.
‘They were good products at the time.’ Mutters M unconvincingly. before waddling off.
‘This could be him.’ I say, as a kid in school uniform walks up to the window.
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Wednesday, December 10, 2014
‘Whoaaa!’ Bellows assistant manager T, disturbing my study of the stock list. ‘We’ve got another faller.’
I look up from the record of every home we have on our books, some of which are coming up for their birthday, and see all eyes are staring through the office window. Putting the printout aside and doing likewise with the thought of having to ring some of the more recalcitrant owners for price reductions, I move to the focus of attention.
‘It’s a bleeder too.’ Announces T staring out towards the pavement where I can now see an elderly woman sprawled in an undignified face-plant-to-paving-stone position. A couple of passers by have stopped in a sort of slow motion shock, although plenty of others are hurrying on by, pretending to be pre-occupied by phones and urgent transport connections.
‘We should go out.’ Says negotiator S, concern in her voice.
We should, I think rapidly, only the last few have bled on the carpet and sat for upwards of thirty minutes sobbing, or telling us their extended life stories, before the ambulance finally arrived.
‘Leave it.’ Says fat finance man M dismissively. ‘It will only be a load of grief.’
‘You callous sod.’ Says S with remarkable restraint. ‘Just because she’s too old for a mortgage.’
‘And it might be a bit late to flog a critical illness policy.’ Muses T. ‘Existing conditions are excluded aren’t they?’
‘Hilarious.’ Responds M sourly, before waddling towards the kitchen.
‘Shall I call the ambulance?’ Asks S urgently. Two of the passers by are now bending down to see to the dazed old lady, and another slightly shadier character has picked up her handbag. I watch him, even as I make the mental calculations as to how much grief bringing the bruised pensioner inside will cause, on a busy day.
‘That bloke in the hoody looks like he’s about to do a runner with her bag.’ Says T nodding towards the man I’ve already spotted.
Terrific, now it could be the police as well as the ambulance service I’ll be reporting to. But one decision is taken out of my hands, as the potential bag-snatcher confounds expectations and places the bag alongside the stricken pensioner before walking off. Book and covers, again.
‘Well?’ Urges S, a little peevishly.
I know what I’m going to do, I’m just angry the council don’t respond to requests to mend broken paving slabs but still sting us for obscenely high business rates, then never collect the commercial waste on time.
‘Why is their skin so paper thin?’ Asks trainee F as I walk towards the door. The old woman is bleeding, like a burst crimson water main, from a nasty head wound. Groggily, she begins to sit up with the help of the two bystanders who had time and the inclination to stop.
‘Get some paper towels.’ I tell F irritably. ‘ They just get fragile after a long life.’ I say as I grab the door handle and wonder how many more years dealing with home moves before, I too, start leaking claret with every fresh hit?
‘I don’t want any fuss.’ Croaks the ancient lady once she’s sat at reception and the two good Samaritans have vanished faster than a summer mist.
S is ministering to her gently, boldly mopping up blood without the gossamer thin protection of any latex gloves. Human Resources dictated the First Aid Kit couldn’t have aspirin or paracetamol in it some time ago, so protection against HIV positive Grannies, or Ebola leaking holiday makers, isn’t available in the echoing red container.
‘Ask her if she’s thinking of selling her house for a sheltered flat now she can’t cope?’ Hisses M as he sways past me, while I wait for the daughter’s phone to be picked up. Before I can scowl at M, the answer phone kicks in. Reluctantly I leave a message that I hope doesn’t sound too disconcerting.
Finally, after learning about the five grandchildren who can’t visit too often as they are very busy, I hear the distant wail of an emergency services’ siren.
No fractures just bruising - same with the old woman.
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Thursday, December 04, 2014
‘I want to ask you something.’ Announces negotiator S tapping gently on my office door. It’s always open, but there are occasions when I’d like it shut.
My thoughts start to churn. Firstly I’m guessing, with relief, she’s not pregnant or she’d be telling not asking. I’m also hopeful she isn’t going to be resigning, for the same reason. Although the silly season of “head hunting” opposition agents’ staff tends to mushroom whenever prices rise, resulting in countless fledgling firms setting up with more bank loans than experience.
‘Of course.’ I tell her magnanimously. ‘Ask whatever you like.’ S smiles warmly and I feel pretty flushed too.
‘Can we do a Secret Santa, this year?’ She says coquettishly. And suddenly my mind is racing faster than a shoplifter on their toes. I lose track of time, as inappropriate visions of me in red trousers and a neatly trimmed grey goatee, having an incognito assignation in S’s bedroom, flash by. Then reality slaps me like a fish in the face.
‘You mean we each buy presents nobody wants for each other…?’ I ask falteringly, hoping she’s not as hot on mind reading, as she’s hot.
‘Of course.’ Replies S with a broad grin. ‘What else would you think?’
You don’t want to know. You really don’t - and neither do Personnel /Human Resources/People Division.
‘I know you hate everything to do with Christmas.’ Continues S with an admonishing frown.
I don’t. I just hate the false sentiment of Corporate greetings’ cards, the alcohol-fuelled mayhem of firms’ Christmas parties and the annual battle as to whether a property business needs a rickety nativity scene and cotton wool in their window display. And that’s before the recent pressure to feature a multi-cultural, non-denominational, secular display that won’t offend vegans through to morons, with all faiths in between.
‘We could agree a maximum spend for each present.’ Coaxes S. ‘Say ten pounds?’
God, it was £5 last time I agreed to the nonsense, I think, Ebenezer-like.
‘Or maybe five?’ Offers S. Worryingly, she does seem able to read my mind.
‘It’s just…’ I falter.
‘A bit false.’
‘We’re doing a Secret Santa this year.’ I announce, once everyone is back from lunch. I know, I know.
‘Who persuaded you to do that?’ Quizzes fat mortgage man M.
‘Nobody.’ I state, falsely.
‘Yeh, and you expect us to believe you?’Sneers loose lettings lady B from her desk. I really hope I don’t draw her name out of the hat. I’m guessing batteries alone for her novelty item would swallow the whole tenner. Not to mention - well, not to mention…
‘It will be great.’ Endorses trainee F with a soppy grin. As if I needed confirmation I was making a mistake.
‘I used to love Christmas Eve,’ continues F dreamily. ‘Shivering in bed with anticipation. Not able to get to sleep.’ Probably because he was unsure which of his mother’s latest “Uncles” was going to come down their family chimney.
‘How much do we have to spend?’ Demands M frostily. ‘I hope it’s no more than a fiver.’
Irony doesn’t begin to cover it. This from a man who flogged expensive endowment policies, then morphed seamlessly through to Payment Protection Policies which I’m still receiving phone calls about.
‘I thought ten pounds would be fair.’ I tell M pompously. I can feel S staring at me but I dare not look. If she ever runs her own office she’ll have to learn you need more than one face.
‘Can we choose who we buy for?’ Asks assistant manager T, looking rather pointedly at S.
‘We thought a blind draw.’ I announce, regretting the third party tense immediately.
‘What do you mean we?’ Probes M.
‘I meant me.’ I bluster. ‘That is I.’
‘It’s not what you said.’ Says B, unhelpfully.
I knew this was a mistake.
‘You doing a window display?’ Asks rival manager H, when he rings later to boast about his sales figures.
‘Not that keen.’ I tell him.
‘Stupid cows in my office want a tree, lights, all that crap.’ Snipes H. ‘And they want to buy each other presents. You’re not that soft are you?’
Several faces actually.
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