Never Can Say Goodbye

‘Never can say goodbye
No, no, no, I …
I never can say goodbye’

(the Communards)

TIP One:  Virtual meetings, just like face to face ones, should always have a clear agenda.  If you don’t know what the meeting is for, and whether you need to be there or not, you’re wasting  your own, and everyone else’s time.   So, shape up,  fools!  Take virtual meetings seriously, and be prepared for them, or else ….

Dear Virtual Friend

I am in literary hell.  Transylvanian teenage boss Racquela La Dracula, she of the rubber miniskirt, leather thigh boots and whiplash tongue, has written an e-book about remote leadership (‘Virtual Leadership Tips for Half-Wits’), which the entire senior leadership team at Sharp Practice pencil sharpeners has been bullied into reading.  Well , I say ‘book’ – it’s basically one long abusive, self-indulgent rant transferred to prose, written with as much empathy and understanding of human frailty as a Mafia gangsta boss. 

PING!!  An email ….. WHAT?!! 

I’ve been invited to a meeting.  Yes.  An actual, face to face, in the flesh, get-together-with-real-people-really-in-the-same-room-as-you-without-a-computer-screen-in-sight-type-meeting!

I haven’t been to a proper, face to face meeting for over a year, since I was demoted by Racquela from my fantastic 30-year tenure as under-powered and overpaid Finance Director at Sharp Practice to the humble role of ‘virtual leader’ on half the salary, and none of the office space.  Confined these days to a small and freezing attic bedsit, my main contact with human life is through a computer screen.  Even my labrador puppy, Dylan  – the only living creature that provides me with any form of physical contact whatsoever,  disappeared  two weeks ago …

PING!!   I pinch myself to check I’m not dreaming.  There have been rumours for a few weeks that Racquela was selling the business, but this time it’s official!  My eyes skate over the email, written in such overblown and congratulatory terms that I assume it must have been composed by the boss herself – ‘Great and glorious leader … fantastic success in our business … … sheer brilliance of her handbook on virtual leadership … ‘ – and settle on the final sentence:

‘You are cordially invited to a farewell lunch to celebrate Racquela’s departure …’

YES!!!!!!  The date is TODAY.  A reign of terror is over, and it’s time to party! 

With joy in my heart, and lightness in my step, I reach to the back to my cupboard and find an ancient tuxedo, ignoring the moth holes and mould on the cuffs.   And, just to help me get in the mood for celebration, even though it is only 10.30 am, I lean into my filing cabinet and dust off an ancient bottle of port, one of the few I saved from my old house and my marriage, before my ex-wife Vanessa realised she was going to have to put up with me working from home on a permanent basis, filed for divorce, and changed the locks. 


TIP TWO:  Virtual meetings are supposed to be a sociable and enjoyable occasion.  So pay attention at all times, you idiot, and interact!  Just because you’re not in the same room as your colleagues doesn’t mean you can sit there on your fat backside and ignore them, play with your smartphone, or stare vacantly into space.  Wake up and concentrate!!!

After only a few minutes, I’m starting to revise my opinion of the appeal of the face to face meeting.  Especially if your colleagues happen to be the sweaty inferno of  acrid-smelling, glum-faced misfits that make up our senior management team.  There are far more people shoehorned into the small Nissan hut – all that remains of the company’s office space since it went virtual last year – than it could possibly hold.  And most of them, like me, seem intent on throwing whatever free alcohol they can find down their desperate necks as swiftly as possible before it runs out. 

The body heat is hellish.  I am already sweating buckets, and have worked my way through large quantities of a mysterious cocktail, concocted by Racquela herself, and entitled ‘Vampire’s Revenge’.   It’s deep red in colour and surprisingly drinkable, taking the edge off the dreary powerpoint presentation she has been forcing upon us for the last 20 minutes, immodestly detailing her own ‘extensive accomplishments’ as  CEO.  These range from pencil sharpener penetration into the wilds of Arctic Tundra (a tricky market almost entirely dominated by polar bears), to firing 75% of our existing staff team.  It’s an unappealing list, and I tuned out some time ago…

‘Owww!’  A sudden and quite powerful jab to my ribcage.

‘Get up there, Kenneth!  It’s time for your acceptance speech.’

‘Acceptance …  WHAT?!’

My eyeballs swivel wildly. The voice comes from Jill, the people-hating receptionist.  In her heyday, Jill held an unchallenged record for maintaining an empty reception area at all times – visitors were simply too frightened to come to the building when she was in attendance.   But, even though its difficult to see much in this confined space, I realise that in the last 12 months, she has undergone something of a transformation.  Once a slumping, slightly chubby figure in a down-at-heel cardigan and permanent snarl, she seems to have acquired a figure-hugging dress, had her hair done, and lost several stone in weight.

By now the whole room is looking at me and chanting the word ‘Speech!’ repeatedly.   Has everyone gone mad?  I am just on the point of ducking down and crawling through people’s legs for the nearest exit, when I feel myself hoisted into mid-air by Derek from accounts, and propelled  forward relentlessly over the heads of the crowd towards central stage.   For the first time in my life, I am actually crowd-surfing. But before I have time to enjoy the sensation, I am thrown headlong centre stage, and land sprawling in a bedraggled, and panting mess wild-eyed mess at the immaculately booted feet of our departing leader, over which I am promptly and copiously sick.  

As remote leaders go, Racquela is one of the remotest, and I don’t imagine she is exactly enjoying this moment of enforced intimacy.   In a desperate bid to apologise, I attempt to stagger to my feet, but find my legs incapable of doing anything sensible.   Instead of achieving a vertical position, I lurch headlong into a giant sculpture of Racquela created entirely from pencil sharpeners which currently stands at the side of the stage.   Swiping wildly to steady myself on the way down, I grab Racquela accidentally by the arm, and pull her, flailing wildly, on top of me as we fall sideways into a sea of broken pencil sharpener pieces. 

And then, dear Virtual Friend –  the detail that will haunt me in my dreams.  RACQUELA’S ARM COMES AWAY IN MY HAND.  A gasp goes up in the room, and someone screams.  I just have time to hear the one-armed version of Racquela hiss: ‘I retract my leadership offer.  I am making you redundant, you utter fool’ –  before I realise our company has, for the last year, been led by a beautiful, clever, evil-tempered robot.   And I do the only thing possible to do in this situation.  I pass out in shock.


TIP THREE:  Treat virtual meetings with the same social courtesy that you use in face to face ones.  Don’t just leave without telling people.  Always say goodbye.

It is now nearly midnight. I am sitting up in my own bed, which has never felt so warm and hospitable, and Dylan is licking my hands.  At the end of the bed, another familiar face – Jill, the people-hating receptionist.   Except I’m going to have to stop calling her that, because she now has the kindest smile I’ve come across for months.

‘You OK, Kenneth?’ 

‘How did I – ?’  I try to sit up, but my head is bursting.

‘We got you a taxi.  Mild concussion. You’ll be OK.’

‘Did you know ..?’  My voice comes out as a shrill bleat.

‘About Racquela?  No one did.  Seems it was some kind of weird experiment by the top echelons of senior management to see what would happen if a state-of-the-art robot ran our company for a year.  Some money-saving idea they picked up at one of these Internet conferences.  I don’t think she was collecting a salary, so there’s cash in the coffers to give us all a redundancy handout, anyway.’

‘Redundancy handout?  But … didn’t she make me CEO …’

‘For about ten seconds.   I think that may have been some kind of joke.  But after you’d publicly puked on her shoes and pulled her arm off, the powers that be seemed pretty keen to revise her decision.  Anyway, the company’s definitely being bought out – some digital media group.  Who needs pencil sharpeners these days?’

Ten seconds of power.  Does this make me the CEO with the shortest reign in office in corporate history?   

‘But what about – Dylan?  How …?’

She smiles again.  ‘Found him one night barking to be let in.  I’ve always liked dogs.’

Looks hard into my face for a few seconds.  ‘Didn’t know who he belonged to.  Found this, tucked inside his collar.’

A scrap of paper.  On it, I read: ‘Whoever you are, I accept!’.  Oh, dear God.

‘Your handwriting?’

Despite the extraordinary catalogue of humiliating moments that have occurred today, I am still capable, it seems, of sliding further down that scale of mortification.

Head throbbing with embarrassment, I reply:  ‘It was in response to a marriage proposal.’

 She’s not giving up.   ‘Who’s the lucky lady?’

My face is on fire.  ‘Well –actually, I don’t know.   I … I was desperate enough to just accept.’

‘You seem to specialise in surreal acceptance speeches.’

I see her staring at me in utter astonishment in the ill-lit room.  Then suddenly, she lets out a great gasp of laughter, and I find myself joining in.  Soon we are bent double, shaking, eyes running, all the stress and worry of the last year exploding from me in great waves and evaporating into thin air. 

We laugh for so long it hurts.  Then, when the laughter finally subsides, we look at each other again  – weak, panting, wondering what to do next.   

‘It’s getting late.’  She moves towards the door.

‘Don’t go.’  Try to sound casual, Kenneth.  ‘Cup of tea?’ 

I wave towards my little plug-in kettle on the floor.  ‘And biscuits.  I’ve got ginger nuts.’

She raises an eyebrow.  Her mouth is forcing itself into weird gymnastics trying not to smile. 

And suddenly the awkward, unintended innuendo sets us off on another tidal roll of hilarity, and we laugh until Dylan wakes up again and starts barking at us, which makes us laugh even more.  And somewhere in the laughter I notice that I feel happy, for the first time in months, and that I never, never, want this moment to stop.





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