One of the (predictable) questions the Guardian people asked me yesterday was how well I know my way around London, and whether I still need to use the A-Z. I launched into a well-trodden, and utterly mendacious, speech about how of course I can name every single street and junction inside the congestion zone, one-way systems included, before admitting that even courier superheroes like me sometimes muddle up Heddon Street and Hollen Street, or Portland Mews and Portman Mews. Fortunately, none of these are very far apart in W1, so if you accidentally go to the wrong one, you can always get to the other one within 5-10 minutes, and with any luck your controller won’t even notice.
I wasn’t so lucky with Long Lane though. Sometime during my first week, I was sent to pick up a special from Long Lane, going up to King’s Cross. I’d been riding up and down Long Lane EC1 for several minutes, searching in vain for the address, when my controller pointed out that the company I was looking for was actually based in Long Lane SE1. So I apologized profusely, spent another 5 minutes studying the A-Z and planning my route down to SE1 (my geography was a lot less instinctive back then), and set about getting there as quickly as I possibly could. When I eventually found the place, I was told that this was a tender for a major contract, and absolutely had to be in by midday. It was now 11.40.
I assured the controller that I’d be as quick as I could, and raced off again – but of course, I was new; there were still bits of London that I had no idea existed, and I kept running into dead ends, going round in circles, and realizing that I was heading in the wrong direction altogether. By the time I’d got up to King’s Cross, found the office where I was meant to deliver the envelope, and handed it over to the receptionist, it was 12.15.
At the time I felt awful, but the controllers didn’t seem to mind too much, and the industry has a short memory – I barely remember the jobs I’ve done in the morning by the time I go home in the evening, and even major events and massive cock-ups tend to be forgotten within a week or so, as long as there’s no lasting damage. And since then I’ve had lots of similar tight deadlines – often the clients will still be printing off the documents when I arrive, and when they’re finished I’ll have to race across town to meet the deadline, only to find that the people at the other end couldn’t care less, or are out on their lunchbreak, or didn’t even realize there was a deadline.
But when I told S. from the Guardian this story, she improbably announced “Oh, I think I know the one!” and proceeded to tell me about her friend who worked for the company I’d mentioned, who’d told her about a major tender last year, that was rejected because it arrived 15 minutes after the deadline.
Obviously she was having me on.
“You’re joking, aren’t you?” I laughed.
“No – seriously” she said.
“You’re kidding me” I replied, a little more shakily.
And after a few minutes, I realized it wasn’t a joke. I really did ruin several weeks (or even months) of someone’s hard work, by going to the wrong Long Lane, and by not being able to ride from SE1 to King’s Cross in 15 minutes. The very fact that S.’s friend told her about it means that it was probably quite a big deal.
Part of me was aghast and astounded at the coincidence – of all the thousands and thousands of jobs I’ve done and could have screwed up on, it happened to be this one that she’d heard of. And the rest of me just felt awful – and still does. There isn’t a happy ending to this story. I can only hope that it’s karmically balanced out by all the times I’ve saved the lives of orphaned children by being on time with a package. And that S. won’t tell her friend where I live.