The police arrived within two hours of me making the phone call. “When did you discover you had been broken into?” the young officer asked as his two colleagues stood outside the house, dusting our bay window for fingerprints and footprints.
“I went downstairs at 7am this morning and the top window was open. The curtains were pulled down and the lower window was open,” I replied. The officer scanned the living room.
“Have you noticed anything missing?” he asked as he made notes in his little black notebook.
“No. Oh, er, the batteries are missing from the remote.” My husband laughed. “It’s a pity they didn’t take any of the catering equipment; they would have done us a favour. We wouldn’t have to find storage for it.” He laughed again.
“We’ve just moved out of our business,” I apologised, embarrassed at the state of our lounge, one half stacked with dinner plates, cups, cutlery, and all sorts that we never realised we had until we had to move out of our premises.
“It’s funny; most people break into your house and they want to nick stuff but these criminals must have felt sorry for us and left with nothing because we don’t have much of value to take.”
The young blond community officer smiled. “Maybe one of you disturbed them and they panicked and left.”
“I did go to the toilet at around 2am. What I don’t understand is how they got through the top window; they must have been the size of a monkey.”
I remember the excitement we felt when we got the invitation to a meeting which was potentially the biggest opportunity we had received since we started our catering business. We were suited and booted for the meeting with the Facilities Manager. We arrived at the entrance of the site, there was a small security hut with no security man to direct us. We drove in, unchallenged.
The mountains of tarmac and mud stood proudly, high like they were trying to touch the fluffy white clouds. The air smelt of wet mud, the earth was dry and the day was hot. There were mounds of dirt piled high as far as the eye could see and I could not envision the end product predicted by so many in the country. How were they going to create a historic event from all this dirt?
We met the young blonde-haired woman at the front of a brand new grey and blue two-storey portacabin. She introduced herself as the Facilities Manager. “My name is Sarah and I’m in charge of organising the catering on the site as well as other projects.” She was warm, friendly, and chatted incessantly about the plans for the derelict site. We warmed to her immediately. “Eventually we will be building across here, here and here,” she said, and pointed as she showed us a large map. “So there will be many more opportunities for you.” We looked at each other excited, our hearts beating faster and faster, not believing our luck. “This is the kitchen; it’s only for the white collar workers. The workmen will eat from the jiffy truck or from the window of the kitchen until we can get another canteen.” The kitchen was compact but was kitted out with all the necessary equipment, all shiny and new: griddle, cooker, oven, hot cupboard. “You will provide all the other equipment, like plates, cutlery, pots and pans and staff of course. We will need a varied menu for breakfast and lunch. Also, drinks and snacks.”
“Yes of course,” we responded.
“I will email the contract by tomorrow,” she said as she took us on a quick tour of all the offices, where staff were either having meetings or sat at their desks in front of their computers.
The contract arrived as promised. By the next week we had moved in and our jiffy truck was servicing the workmen around the other areas of the site.
“Why can’t we eat in the canteen?” they would complain. Our driver would explain it was because of their muddy boots and new carpets.
The friendly Sarah rang to inform us she was leaving in a few weeks. “Office politics,” she said.
We were disappointed and apprehensive, concerned about who we would be liaising with next. About a month later the new manager was appointed. We met her at our request. She was cold, frosty, and feigned warmth and a fake smile. She was like a snake wrapping itself around you, pretending to be friendly, but really waiting for the opportunity to lunge at your neck and expunge the life out of you. We both felt it. She introduced herself and gave us a limp handshake. She was short and plump with cropped black hair. “I don’t get a good feeling about her,” I said.
“I know, but we have to work with her,” my partner replied.
The next big opportunity arrived in an email. They offered us a second canteen in a portacabin. This canteen was just for the builders. It was much bigger than the current canteen. They did not want to sign a new contract. The boss, whom we had insisted on meeting, told us that it would be included as part of our first contract. We sensed that he really didn’t want to be there. He was distant; he was in the room with us but he seemed uncaring with his thoughts wandering elsewhere. He dismissed us as quickly as he could, unwilling to amend the flimsy contract.
By then security had been upped, passports were needed, security tags, staff references, men on the gates, induction courses. The whole project was beginning to take shape. Where there were once less than one hundred men on site, there were now a few thousand.
We organised the new canteen, built the kitchen and storage cupboard. Interviewed new staff, ordered equipment, planned menus. The list was endless. We somehow become embroiled in a mini feud of teething problems and complaints by email from the new manager. The laying of the expensive flooring created an issue. The unfinished electrics, wires hanging out of the ceiling, no water. A trail of emails from the snake with more and more requests. Our jobs became more pressurised as we dealt with other aspects of our business. Corporate lunches and other building site canteen set-ups across the other side of London.
Her continuous, daily, weekly, spiteful, hissing, snide, bullying remarks were ignored, because we had a job to do.
“You’re making a lot of money out of us,” she commented one day. What did she mean? We needed to have a meeting for this, a meeting for that, for, every, bloody thing.
There were many other comments about us to our staff. They were asked, “How did they manage to win this contract?”
On reflection, we realised she wanted more money from us. A backhander, some people said. We were too honest and would never have considered doing anything that was not above board. How could we even consider such a thing? The rent was being paid into her personal account. That was strangely unethical, but her bosses had okayed it.
One day she snatched our dreams and left us in a sea of devastation.
She rang and said, “The large building you are working from is going to be demolished. You have two weeks to move out.”
It was a lie, I could just feel it.
“Can I have that in writing, please?” I politely asked. The lie was confirmed many weeks later. The portacabin was moved one hundred yards down the road and a new company was moved into our dream.
Suddenly everything crumbled around us like a badly played game of Jenga. We stumbled blindly trying to put the blocks back together but it was too late. We had been crushed by a greedy slimy manager who was clueless as to what it had taken for us to do this, what it had taken financially and emotionally to create this, just focusing on her blind underhanded ambitions. We wandered blindly in a dark strangling maze, which held us imprisoned and captive like frightened mice, afraid and unsure of how to get out.
We finally made the decision to fold our business, cash flow almost zero and corporate payments coming in too late. We moved out of the premises feeling disheartened and lost.
We couldn’t talk about what had brought us to this point without breaking down, it was too painful. The fabric of our lives had been torn like a flimsy piece of muslin. Our very being had been snatched and stamped on. We didn’t discuss our feelings too often to each other but we felt each other’s pain. The pain lingered like a deadly smell which followed and circled us, laughing, taunting, and eating away at the shreds of our existence. How would we recover from this? Our sense of trust had been destroyed. We looked at new friends with suspicion. I became a stranger to myself, no confidence, afraid to go out, deeply depressed and completely lost.
We watched the rest of the site go up from a distance. We slowly, cautiously, created new dreams.
Everyone is talking about the 2012 Olympics.