Back at the hotel, I loosened my tie and threw myself on the bed. What a day. No sales. Again. God, I hated my job as a rep selling bird seed for Shrill. I’d give it up, but I need the money. I picked up the phone to make my daily call to my sales manager.
‘I like you,’ he said, having first giving me the usual bollocking.
I chose not to answer – the feeling was not mutual.
‘So I’m going to share the helicopter view with you.’
I winced at his persistent use of ‘corporate speak.’
‘Your predecessor didn’t make one sale of bird seed in the whole of West Berkshire last year. Picture all that low-lying fruit for you to gather. Looking forward, I think you’re the guy to step up to the plate.
He ended my grilling in the usual way ‘Remember, to sell packets of bird seed, you must look outside the box.’
Deflated, I hung up. Another night away from home in a cheap hotel, and now I find I’ve been given a duff pitch. I turned on the TV but even Eggheads couldn’t cheer me up. I went through that last appointment at the Paws Forethought pet shop in my mind:
The owner lowered his voice. ‘How much cake do I get if I make an order?’
‘You know. Cake,’ he’d said.
‘You mean suet balls – ideal for hanging from bird tables, packed full of nutri…’
‘… No, you idiot. Cake.’
‘I could go down the bakers and get you some Chelsea buns?’ I’d offered.
He closed the counter in front of me.
‘… And a box of yum yums?
He’d turned the sign to ‘closed’ as he locked the door behind me, and that was the end of another failed meeting.
I went down to see if my meagre meal allowance would even cover my dinner. Normally the restaurants are soulless, frequented only by those staying over for family funerals and lone travelling salesmen like me. But here was different. The atmosphere was lively, laughter filled the room, and impromptu dancing was being thrusted by excited young ladies to the Chris de Burgh album being piped over the buffet cart.
I tried to work out why Newbury would be so vibrant on a Tuesday night. Everyone seemed to be gravitating around a piggy-eyed guy in a too-tight pinstriped suit, his tubby neck squeezed up and over his shirt collar. He seemed to be holding court at a table, surrounded by boisterous men guffawing and grabbing out at the girls who were to be taking it in turns to rub up on this repellent guy’s lap, like cats in season. In turn, he would reach into a samples case much like mine, and pass something to them which they popped into their mouths before scamping away to rejoin the dancers, to more braying and whistles from his surrounding pack of curs.
I took a seat across the dining room and chose the lasagne. I asked the waiter who the man in the suit was.
‘Oh, that’s Malcolm,’ he said. ‘It’s always a riot when he’s in.’
‘He seems very popular,’
‘Everyone in the hotel business knows Malcolm. He’s a travelling salesman. He always gives away free samples and we all love him for it.’
‘Free samples of what?’ I asked, but before the waiter could answer, the man I now knew to be Malcolm shouted over at me.
‘Oi, what you looking at?’ There was a scrape of chair legs as all of his posse turned to see. The girls stopped their dancing.
I wanted to look away, but there was something mesmerising about the stare of his fierce piggy eyes.
‘I…er, was just…’ I said, in the same way that a child does when found lifting the lid of the biscuit barrel.
He leaned back. ‘It appears we have a stranger in our midst. One whose interest appears to have been piqued. We know what we do with strangers, don’t we boys.’
The men snarled.
My thoughts turned to grabbing my lasagne and getting out of there. Fast. But to my relief, a smile broke over his face.
‘We make them our friends. Here, have some of this.’ He reached into his case and handed something to one of his cronies who walked over and put it on my side plate.
I studied the present. It appeared to be some sort of flapjack. I recognised most of the ingredients from my bird seed training – sunflower seeds, green split peas, thistle seed and corn wheat, but it mainly consisted of a variety of seed I could not identify.
‘Go on then,’ shouted the piggy man, and I felt obliged to take a little nibble.
I woke to find myself in my room with a stinging headache and the feeling I’d been chewing wasps. I had no idea how I’d got there. I rubbed my temples and recalled fragments of a terrible dream, where I’d been dancing the Macarena on a restaurant table-top. I was later restrained by passers-by after insisting that the terrified girl behind reception marry me there and then by her photocopier.
The spray from the shower hurt my skin, and I couldn’t find my jacket and tie anywhere. I forced myself to go down and at least try to have some breakfast, as I had a busy sales day ahead.
I was just about able to blurgh a sort of polite ‘good morning’ to the girl on reception, and was thinking how she looked remarkably like the one in my dream, when she ran off to the office behind her. I staggered my way to the dining room and noticed what looked like my tie wrapped around one of the ceiling fans, some 20 feet above me. My jacket was covered in dusty footmarks and lipstick, and draped over a statue of Ceres, Roman goddess of cereals, by the cornflakes stand.
‘Made it down then?’
I turned to see the piggy-eyed man sitting at a table.
‘Just about.’ I swallowed hard. The sight of his enormous breakfast brought last night’s lasagne to the verge of joining it.
‘Not many can keep the pace like you. How many did you have – six slices, eight maybe?’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I slurred, before another piece of the dream hazed back,where I was eating more and more flapjack on a dance floor to the clapping of girls.
‘Call me if you ever want any more,’ said Malcolm, handing me his business card. I read it in disbelief, ‘Malcolm Spraggs, Sales Executive, for Shrills fiercest rivals: Sqwark! Bird Seed Inc’.
– Shrills fiercest rivals.
Back in my room, I poured over my Shrills Guide to Seeds. There it was – that main constituent of those flap jacks:
Ipomoea tricolour, or ‘Morning Glory’, also called Blue Convolvulus in Holland. The seeds contain a natural tryptamine from the same family as LSD. The seeds can be eaten. Aside from psychedelic uses, it is also very popular as a climbing plant, known for its beautiful flowers.
That evening, I made my call to the sales manager. I gave him the good news that I’d been to my appointment at Beak World Theme Park and sold:
– 8,000 boxes of Budgie Blend
– 2,000 of Macaw Mix
– 750 of Curlew Kernels
– 500 tubs of Parrot Pecker
I told him I would be charging the dry-cleaning of my jacket to the company. He said this would be OK as he knew he’d given me the ‘right seat on the bus,’ indeed my sale had qualified me as his ‘salesblazer of the day’. I also told him in words he could understand that as a job the ‘juice was not worth the squeeze’ and that I was resigning with immediate effect.
What I did not tell him was that when the Beak World purchasing officer asked how much cake I would give him should he make an order, I threatened to reveal that the whole of his staff were running the park in a state of trance. He tried to blame this on the fact that their zombie-like appearance was because they employed school-leavers on minimum wage, but I pointed out that even those with social skills and a GCE were running the park stoned on drug-infused cake. At this point he placed the large order to ‘thank me for bringing this to his attention’, and suggested he go get his manager.
I could see the manager pull at his collar when I said that the extreme defecation on the roofs of all cars in the car park was not due to global warming on the migration of large birds as per Beak World’s press release, but by their ‘shroomed staff’ feeding the ravenous ravens with senna pods and peanut butter, just for the craic. He suggested I speak to the CEO.
The CEO soon got over his annoyance at being dragged from the golf course when I explained to him that I knew that the recent bouts of arm-breaking in the swan stockade was not the fault of the visitors, as had been announced on The One Show, but that the birds were spaced out on ‘cake’. I pointed out that this was a clear breach of the Avian Narcotics Bill.
Having hung up on the sales manager for the last time. I made one final appointment – back to see Malcolm the next day. There I told him that the game was up, things were going to change and that he was finished at Squawk!
That was 6 months ago. One had to admire Malcolm’s baking skills, those flapjacks were simply delicious. I took the bung that Beak World gave me as hush money and bought a tulip farm in the Netherlands. Here I tend 500 hectares of Morning Glory plants, the seeds from which our factory bakes tray after tray of flap jacks. Of course, with Malcolm’s recipe and sales skills, we have no problems selling them all to the cafes of Amsterdam.
Now that’s what I call thinking outside of the box.