In the autumn of 2004 I found myself suddenly relocating to Belgium, at the expense of an attractive job offer in Italy. It was one of those major forks in the road, the kind of big decision that could transform a life. Which, for better or for worse, is exactly what it did.
“Get out Henderson!” I snapped with my usual grimace, “you truly sicken me!” Typing up another delivery request on Paktel’s clunky old system, I poked my head out from behind the screen to peek at her in the gap between our computers. As expected she was smirking right back at me, shaking her head and rising above it all in the admirable way Henderson always did.
“Henderson, you’re fired!” I’d announce, at least two to three times a day, sometimes while she was on the phone trying to deal with a customer. This would invariably result in the corners of her mouth creasing up as she struggled against the urge to laugh out loud. Then, having finally hung up and removed her headphones, she’d let it all out. “Mr. Jobsworth!” came her protest in that melodious Scottish accent, “I’ve done nothing wrong! Why do you continue to persecute me?”
“I despise you Henderson!” was another favorite, my eyes raised to the ceiling, a cup of coffee clutched in my hands. “I despise you in ways Claude Monet would be unable to express with his favourite paintbrush”. “Ooh Mr. Jobsworth!” she’d cry, wringing her hands, “your disdain is palpable”.
It’s amazing the lengths Caroline and I would go to in order to relieve the mind-numbing dullness of our Paktel jobs. Not that it was always boring, sometimes the pendulum swung between tedious and unspeakably stressful, depending on the vitriol of each day’s customer complaints. In any case Mr. Jobsworth and Henderson were characters we’d taken on in an attempt to escape, keep ourselves entertained, “Av a larf” as Nikki would have put it. I have no idea how it got started, but our alter egos were born from a mix of comedy influences.
Mr. Jobsworth, the so-called Chief Warlord of Paktel Electronics, was a pathetic, pernickety dwarf of a man both feared and loathed by his workforce. Part Gordon Brittas, part David Brent, there were also liberal sprinklings of Blackadder and Mr. Burns. I had enormous fun inhabiting him, from his ratty indignant expression to the high-pitched squeal of a voice. Henderson meanwhile was a long-suffering call operative who Caroline played as a working class salt-of-the-earth type, a touch of Barbara Windsor to her theatrics.
“Henderson. You. Are. Sacked” came my vicious outburst one day as we waded through the morning emails. “Really?” she replied merrily, “that’s the fourth time this week”.
Putting all tomfoolery to one side, Caroline had been incredibly kind since my arrival at Paktel. In fact, nobody had done more to help me settle in. She showed me the ropes and gave me tips on dealing with irate customers. She was also more than happy to pitch in with my workload when she found herself with a quiet moment.
When Lucie and I split up and I moved out of our comfy apartment into a small student room, it was Caro who could see I was down, the only one who offered me a shoulder to cry on and genuinely meant it. As a Paktel veteran, she qualified for the food vouchers that came with each month’s pay check. Knowing I was short of cash, she thought nothing of it to slip me one of her shiny ten Euro notes, or treat me to lunch down in the office canteen. Genuinely kind-hearted and generous, she expected nothing in return and would have done the same for anyone else in the same boat.
On those rare but glorious days when the phone lines were quiet, Caro and I would put the world to rights with discussions about music, film, literature, current affairs, travel and all things Belgium. Her natural curiosity, open mind and love for life was inspiring and our conversations never failed to make me smile. I loaned her my Mansun CDs and after a few days she came back to me with her detailed thoughts. In turn, she got me into the author Margaret Atwood, gifting me copies of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake.
Though I knew Caro lived in Brussels with her partner Roland and their two beloved dogs Jinty and Morag, she wasn’t exactly an open book and it took time for me to get to know the real woman behind the cheery exterior. Eventually I learned that she had a sister who was a published novelist of some note, while I met her affable brother John one evening when he and his family came over from Scotland for a visit.
I was more than a little surprised to discover Caroline had once been married. This came out of nowhere one day during a chat about relationships. While details remained thin on the ground, she did reveal that he was “a gentle Welshman” and that things “just didn’t work out”. “Where is he now?” I asked. “I have no idea” she responded with one of her motherly smiles and that was that, we never spoke of it again.
The biggest revelation though, and one that literally left me speechless, came from the tail end of a conversation I overhead between two colleagues, Ian and Nikki. “A wig?!” I blurted out, perhaps a bit insensitively, a few heads craning inquisitively in our direction. “Why does Caro wear a wig?” I continued, lowering my voice. I’d never seen Nikki look so sheepish and for once there was no snappy comeback. “Oh sorry, I just presumed she’d told you”. Retiring to the kitchen, I stood and listened as Nikki talked, unable to fully process what I was hearing. Never once had it crossed my mind that Caro’s full head of wavy blond hair was not her own. I’d have also had trouble believing she’d been in any kind of ill health, let alone a two-time cancer survivor!
Heading back to Leuven that night, I tried to imagine what my friend had gone through and couldn’t help but admire her strength and courage. Not only to beat her illnesses, but that she’d remained such a kind, positive, life-affirming person that always thought of others ahead of herself. I also found myself wondering whether I should tell her that I knew. What would I say? Would it be of any use? After a restless night I decided that I wouldn’t bring it up, that if she wanted to tell me she would in her own time.
“Good moooooorning!” she sang, breezing into the office, her matronly frame wrapped up in a thick winter’s coat, wooly hat and rainbow scarf. “I despise you Henderson” I replied, heading for the kitchen to make us some hot chocolate, “I despise you in ways the death metal band Slayer would be unable to express through their signature brand of hateful music”. “Oooh Mr. Jobsworth, that’s a particularly cutting jibe today!” Settling down with our drinks, Caro leaned in, still a bit breathless from the morning commute, “Ere Leighton, did you see The Antiques Roadshow last night?”
For some odd reason, Caro and I had been obsessing about British TV shows aimed at, to put it bluntly, old people. The Antiques Roadshow was one such program, a long running format in which seventy eight year old Doris from Bognor Regis might bring in her old collection of teapots, hoping they were worth a few quid. “Oooh lov-lee!” she’d exclaim, upon receiving a favorable valuation.
Similarly, we had long discussions about the UK soap opera Emmerdale Farm and our favorite characters Seth and Amos, two grumpy old dinosaurs who’d been in the program for as long as we could remember. Nothing much ever happened to them and indeed they seemed to sail through each episode via a series of incomprehensible exclamations and manly grunts, a pint of warm northern bitters resting between their wrinkled old fingers.
Always looking to be creative, Caroline and I came up with the idea of a TV sitcom about a local radio program for senior citizens. Simply called The Show, we imagined it presented by two crusty C-list celebrities who offered knitting advice and a slot where listeners could call in to complain about their illnesses. Bitter couples that hated each other could get free counselling live on air and there would be a wistful section called Memories From The War. After much discussion we agreed on a studio audience format, a bunch of half-comatose old dears wheeled in each week from the local nursing home. There would be chaos one episode when one of these regulars, Ethel, quietly died in the middle of a communal sing-along.
Imagining it as a black comedy shot in the style of The Office, the whole thing was in such bad taste there wasn’t a broadcaster in the world that would have touched it with a ten-foot pole. Not that this stopped us! Having scripted a six episode series, Caro and I drafted in an oddball Belgian called Martin as producer. An introverted redhead with scholarly spectacles, a Geography teacher beard and an insatiable appetite for weed, Martin suggested we use his Antwerp apartment for HQ, as that’s where all his recording equipment was.
We also recruited Kristof, a suitably eccentric but lovable chap known in Paktel circles as Projector Man! (He was virtually a one-man department). Kristof played the minor but pivotal role of Kristof, The Show’s general dogsbody. It was Kristof who made tea for everyone, who manned the phone lines, cleaned the toilets and wiped Mavis’ chin when she was dribbling. Tragically mistreated by the show’s arrogant presenters Leighton and Caroline, it’s barely a surprise when, in the final episode, Kristof arrives at the studio with an AK47, unleashing his fury upon everyone.
Caroline and I had a great time recording The Show. Every Sunday we’d drive over to Martin’s place from Brussels in her car. I’d make a mix tape of tunes, while Caro would whip up a home-cooked batch of deliciousness for the ride. One day it was a box of peanut cookies, another a dark, cream-filled chocolate cake. On one infamous occasion we arrived in Antwerp only to find the notoriously unreliable Martin had “forgotten” we were recording and gone to visit friends in Bruges! “Oh well!” chirped an unflustered Caro as I sat there seething. “Ere Leighton” she whispered conspiratorially, “Let’s get to work on this Vanilla fudge”.
I was approaching the sixteen-month mark at Paktel when life at the company started going from bad to worse. The once jovial us against them bond between us all had begun to rot. People came and went and a new department manager called Franco arrived to kick off a new era of unprecedented incompetence. There had always been a culture of gossip and backstabbing, but the more disillusioned everyone became the more tension and conflict there was pulsing through the office. If I’d been a bit more mature and experienced I’d have handled it better. But I didn’t. I let people get to me, allowed my motivation and work ethic to be eroded by game-playing individuals with toxic agendas. Like relentless woodcutters they kept chipping away until I was at the end of my tether.
Most disappointing of all was when I clashed with Caroline. While at the time there was much anger and frustration from both sides, I later realised the whole sorry affair was little more than a storm in a teacup. Back then though it felt like working in a war zone, so I decided to take some time off and a few months later I left the company. While Caro and I eventually made our peace, the relationship never really recovered and we stopped hanging out.
Over the next few years we would check in with each other now and then with the odd email or Facebook message. But sadly communication petered out altogether when I left Belgium for China in the summer of 2009. In fact, we didn’t get back in touch again until the following summer when I moved to Amsterdam. “How are things at Paktel?” I asked. “Oh, it’s still crappy, but you know, pays the bills” she typed with a complimentary smiley face. “Have you spoken to Mr. Jobsworth recently?” she inquired with an emoticon wink. “Yeah, he’s the same old miserable git he always was” I replied. “Does he despise me in ways Freddie Krueger would be unable to express via his razor-sharp fingers?” “That is EXACTLY what he said when I last talked to him” I wrote, laughing out loud.
Some months later I got a surprise message from Kristof, who told me Caroline’s cancer had come back and that she’d gone on extended sick leave. I immediately tried getting in touch, both on Facebook and through email, but received no reply. It took repeated messages before she finally got back to me and when she did, in typical Caro fashion, she was keen to place the focus firmly on me. “What’s it like in Amsterdam?” “Your China photographs are great!” “Have you finished writing your short stories?” When I gently pressed her on her own situation she remained characteristically positive and stoic. But as she talked about chemo and abdo scans and explained what metastases were, I knew that things were not looking good. Over the next weeks I tried to arrange a time to go and see her in Brussels, but all I got back was radio silence.
I’d just recorded the movie news at work one morning when I returned to my desk to check email. There was a message from Ian, an old Paktel colleague and as I sat there reading it I felt my heart drop through my stomach and splatter all over the floor. In the few months since we’d last spoken, Caro’s doctors had told her there was nothing more they could do and a short time later she’d moved to a hospice to see out her final days.
Feeling physically sick, I almost broke down right there on the production floor in front of all my colleagues. Thankfully I managed to make my way up to the office rooftop, where I stood awhile gazing out over Amsterdam, thinking about the old Paktel days. I relived some of our ridiculous conversations and thought of our recording sessions in Antwerp. I recalled some of the many nights out and dinners, the birthdays and the Christmases, a memorable New Year’s Day party at her place in Brussels.
I felt deeply for Roland, a man I’d only met a few times but who’d always come across as a perfect gentleman that had clearly been crazy about Caro. I also couldn’t help but feel a sense of regret and shame over how we’d fallen out. It had been so silly, so unnecessary and our friendship had never been the same since. I’m not a religious man and I suspect I never will be. Nor have I ever held much belief in any kind of afterlife. But if by some small miracle there is something out there and Caro is able to read this, then there are a few things I’d like to her to know. Mainly that she was a fantastic friend who did so much to help me settle in Belgium. I’d also tell her that I haven’t laughed so much or so consistently since those Paktel days and that I deeply regret not seeing her again after I left.
Finally, I’d explain how I bumped into Mr. Jobsworth the other day and that we’d had a long chat. Touchingly, he told me that he’d never really despised Henderson, that it was all a big joke. He also gave me his solemn word that she’d never be fired again, that she had a job for life.
‘Henderson’ is the fourth chapter of my short story collection Based In Belgium.