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Saturday 21 February 2009


OK, I promised and here it is: my heart-warming story of staggering ineptitude. You need to understand that it is absolutely true, every bit of it, though I have changed names and locations to protect the innocent.

Before you read on, you need to understand three things:
1. Sophie, PR person extraordinaire and the star of my story, was wonderful and I really liked her. She battled with extreme conditions that were not her fault (sort of) and made me feel strangely (very strangely) relaxed. She was the bright spot in a terrible day. I would promote her if I was in power. I also want to emphasise that having directional confusion is very common amongst intelligent people (I should know) and I do not intend to cast aspersions on her undoubted talents and intelligence in other fields. Honestly, if I could afford a PR person, I would employ Sophie like a shot. I just wouldn’t ask her to drive me. By the way, Sophie works for a PR company, not my publishers. And my publishers are lovely too and this was not their fault either. Just so that's clear.

2. It may have been a terrible day, but no one died.

3. I have never written a book called Brainteasers. Nor do I plan to.

Anyway, to set the scene:
I was asked to do a charity (ie free) school event in a coffee shop somewhere not close to Glasgow. (Sensible readers are at this point asking “why?” As in “Why free? Why in a coffee shop? And why the hell did you say yes?” There is no answer to these questions.)

About a week before the event, a lucky school was told that if they took thirty ten-year-olds to a coffee-shop at a certain time, an unnamed author would read stories from her book "Brainteasers". And sign free copies of the book for them. When the school resorted to Google for more info, they were perplexed not to be able to find such a book in existence anywhere in the universe. Not surprisingly. Luckily, I cottoned onto the fact that there was a problem, and phoned the school, thus introducing myself and sorting things out. Kind of. Temporarily. We established, at least, that the book in question was actually called The Highwayman’s Curse.

I had almost pulled out of the event the day before, but was mollified by Sophie, the charity’s PR person. I was very impressed by Sophie’s ability to mollify me - she will go far. She even sent me flowers to apologise for distress caused - and that was BEFORE The Day From Salvador Dali-land.

So, Dali-Day arrives. Sophie is supposed to collect me at 8.30. At 8.30 Sophie phones and says she's "had a bit of trouble with the car" and will be "a bit" late. At 9.15 Sophie arrives. She then tells me that she won't be able to turn the car round in my very small cul-de-sac because she's dyslexic and doesn't know which way to turn the wheel when reversing. (I am very sympathetic to dyslexic people, having taught them for many years, and I understand the issues). So she asks me to help. I assume she means that I should stand outside the car directing her. Or maybe drive the car myself. Either of which would be fine. But she means me to sit in the passenger seat and show her which way to turn the wheel, with actions and WITHOUT using the words "left" or "right", because Sophie doesn't do left and right. (Nor do I, actually, but I decided not to tell her that, as one confused driver in a car facing the wrong way in a cul-de-sac is enough.)

We arrive at the venue late, (after we have tried to park in three places that are not carparks and Sophie has had the same issue with reversing without the concept of left and right). The cafĂ© is full of journalists, hyper children, bemused customers, and a TV crew from Newsnight. Yes, Newsnight. (Note to non-UK people: this is a big deal in the UK.) Unfortunately, although the kids have permission to be photographed, they do not have permission to be filmed on moving film - which is different - and the Newsnight thing was too last minute to get permission sorted. The cameraman explains to us that paedophiles prefer moving pictures. Which is a charming thought and doesn’t help my stress levels. So they can’t be filmed and the Newsnight team is mightily miffed.

I am told to start the event, with no introduction, something which always bugs me but which is the least of my problems today. The event involves me delivering my words of wisdom at the top of my voice for an hour and a quarter to the kids, while journalists take pics and teachers and PR people run here and there trying and failing to organise filming permission, and while innocent customers carry on drinking and chatting loudly to drown my voice, and while milk frothing machines regularly spurt incredibly noisily and coffee grinding machines grind horribly, to the extent that occasionally I have to stop shouting and give up. I learn afterwards that the Newsnight people were desperate to film because they thought the event was perfect (for a comedy show, I assume), but they can't get permission so they eventually scarper.

The kids (who are incredibly lovely and lively - probably helped by the free coffees they are slurping) ask questions on and on and on and on, and on quite a bit more, and no one thinks to stop them when an hour is up. I am too polite to ask if we can please stop. Eventually a teacher asks if they could possibly go and catch their bus, I look at her as though she is my saviour, and she takes them away.

First, however, they are all given a copy of The Highwayman's Curse. Some of them bring them back three minutes later, complaining that the covers are upside down, which they are. I try to persuade them that this might make them valuable later on, but they look at me as though I am a con artist or an idiot. I am certainly one of these.

I ask Sophie if I could have a sandwich and a coffee or I will pass out. She agrees. She doesn’t eat much. Her stress must be internal. She will probably collapse once this is all over but meanwhile she is determined to smile. We then go back to the carpark. Luckily, I have remembered about Sophie being dyslexic and have taken note of where the car is so when she says, "Which way do you think the car is?" I know the answer and we find it quickly.

But ...

...the weird unlocking mechanism doesn’t work and we can't get in. It's a car from a car-share scheme and there are fancy electronic devices to scan. Sophie's scanning card doesn't work. If we don't get in soon, we are going to be late for an award ceremony I’m supposed to be at, which is about 40 mins drive away, and which I really do need to get to because I am on the shortlist, although I would much rather stick red-hot needles in my eyes and twist them a few times while inhaling chilli powder.

Sophie phones the car-share scheme head office, says she can't get in her car and asks if they have any suggestions. They suggest she puts the key in the lock. She does. It opens. We get in. The car won't start. Sophie phones the head office again and they say that four buttons have to be pressed simultaneously on a special gadget inside the glove compartment. This is physically impossible for one person to do but, between us, Sophie and I get four fingers on the right buttons and the car starts.

Sophie then refuses to trust Simon, the Satnav voice, even though Simon really does need to be obeyed, and we get hopelessly lost on the outskirts of the place that is not Glasgow. Actually, I have sympathy with her, as I don’t really trust Simon either, and he is asking us to go onto the motorway back to Edinburgh, but I have a sneaking feeling that he must be right - he sounds so very confident and Sophie doesn’t. Sophie is now on the hard shoulder as she debates whether to go onto the Edinburgh-bound motorway or not. We don’t. Simon is concerned and patiently tries to force us to turn round "as soon as safely possible". Several times. Eventually, after much argument and concern, during which I am convinced I hear his voice begin to panic even though I remind myself that he is only a machine, Simon tunes in to Sophie's dogged refusal and allows us to go a very stupid way sort of towards Glasgow, until I say that actually we must trust Simon and we get to the award ceremony with five minutes to spare.

Simon and I are by now complete wrecks and I really need a bit of TLC, (or even maybe a cup of tea - well, anything really), but somehow survive without anything until two hours later when my friends Lindsey and Kathryn rescue me and drive me home. I can only hope that Sophie managed to reverse out of the narrow street I left her in. She may still be there. Perhaps I should check.

This is the sort of day I should be paid for. A lot. But I shouldn’t complain: I did get a very nice tuna sandwich and a more than decent (though cold by the time I got to it) Christmas Special coffee. Highly recommended. But preferably drunk in peace and quiet. Or maybe in the company of Simon. He does sound very charming. And he would stop me from doing stupid things like saying yes.