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Collecting Characters in The Rain

There’s a sign above my desk I’m wondering about making into a lapel badge. “Warning; Novelist at work. Bystanders may be written into the story.” Then again, if I did that (and it would need to be in French), would I lose all the wonderful stories that fall into my notebook when I’m out and about?

The events and interactions I collected on Monday past gave me at least the material for a short story or an episode for a sit-com. This is where the value of the lapel badge comes into question. Would people go shy and forget what it was they wanted to say or enforce if they noticed it?

Saving €14.10 we took the non-toll route to Montpellier; setting out at 07.30 and according to Mappy, we would arrive at our destination at 10:04. Perfect; that would allow the person at our first port of call an hour to blow away the Monday blues. Mappy however, didn’t note the torrential rain across the region and the journey took almost an hour longer than scheduled.

Inner-city parking at its best, there was nowhere except illegal parking slots free so we took one of those and walked to the halls of residence office in the complex where our son would stay for the rest of this academic year. Amicable introductions quickly went down the drain with the rain outside when within the first minute, the grumpy advisor told us we didn’t have the correct papers and our son wouldn’t be allowed to stay.

Yuri looked panicked. Homeless on day one of the New Year and lectures to attend in the afternoon.

‘So would you mind explaining which papers we have forgotten?’ I smiled and made direct eye contact.

‘This, that and 2 of those,’ she didn’t smile or make eye contact.

‘Oh they aren’t on the list,’ I smiled again, she avoided eye contact.

‘Of course they are,’ she stared into the torrent outside.

‘No, they aren’t. Look, here’s the list and we have all those documents.

Silent scrutiny. ‘Well you are still missing these four.’

‘Apart from number two, your finance office has the other three on the system. Without them, Yuri wouldn’t have been offered accommodation. We will send you the second document first thing tomorrow morning.’

‘I need all four. Please show me what you have brought.’

We handed them over, she returned one.

‘That one is unacceptable, it’s in English.’

‘Yes, it’s a UK official tax document. Your colleagues in the finance office have a translated version on the system.’

‘Do it again.’

Still calm, taking deep controlling breaths. ‘Very well. What about those that you say are missing?’

She listed them again; we knew they were already on the system, I asked her why the repeat. No response.

Several tuts and mouse clicks later, her demeanour suddenly changed to the person we all like to meet. Smiling, friendly and helpful.

‘Yuri isn’t on the email list. Somebody must have left him off. I was on holiday.’

More taps and clicks on the computer followed by resizing of the passport photos we provided and she produced the card key giving Yuri access to the compound entry gates and his room on the fourth floor of block two. The system failed. We had to wait ten minutes for it to come back online but our son was in. His ‘I might be homeless’ look faded, he smiled and after almost an hour armed with a list of four demands for repeated papers, we went to view his nine metre square box with a view.

It was quite a walk from the front gates and our illegally parked car but there was plenty of space on the internal car park so I buzzed the intercom and our new friend answered. She wouldn’t let me in, I didn’t have a pass and as a parent, I couldn’t get one.

Four trips through the unceasing torrents of wind and water, stairs to the fourth floor because there’s no lift and at last, Yuri was installed among his boxes, bags and duvets with just enough time left to catch a tram to his lectures. We did the sensible thing and joined the traffic to Ikea at the other side of the city.

‘There it is! Take the next exit.’

I did as instructed and we found ourselves on a tree lined dual carriageway passing the east side of Ikea. Using my built in GPS, I followed the last exit at the roundabout, two kilometres down the road and we got lost on an adjacent out-of-town shopping centre. The blue and yellow of Ikea was gone and still pouring, the rain kept people off the streets. Nobody to ask, midday had swapped its place with midnight and it took another twenty minutes to find our destination. We headed straight to the café for Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes with all you can drink coffee cups.

Hey man, the atmosphere was so relaxed and although not very loud, I could hear my favourite performer on the radio. It would have been his seventy-first birthday. I thought you died alone, a long long time ago, dear man who sold the world. The art on the walls reminded me of him too although it was nothing like his. I drifted away to the lake in Sweden and thought about a friend who lives there, hoping it wasn’t raining so hard in Sweden.

I don’t like shopping much but it’s almost a pleasure at Ikea. Especially on a quiet day when the money you are spending isn’t your own. My usual character scans didn’t come to much though. Everybody calm, relaxed, almost clone-like, going about their business with dignity and awareness of other shoppers. By the time we reached the clothing stores in a different section of the Oddyseum complex, it wasn’t far off closing time. Shoppers were easily outnumbered by assistants pretending to be busy.

Still not much to say about characterization until sale signs drew us to a Walmart style store called Géant; the fifth largest hypermarket chain in the world. Needing new clothing for work and a great bargain spotter, Sarah quickly found two tops with 30% reduction labels. Off we went to the checkout and a smiley cashier served us. But no reductions on the till receipt.

‘Oh, I’m sorry. You need a store card to get those reductions.  Go to customer services. They will organise it for you.’

Customer services was a considerable walk and the only person behind the counter leaned on the till looking jaded.

‘No, I can’t help.  Go back to the checkout operator, tell her to refund, issue a store card and then resubmit the goods and pay again.  Go back into the store through the entrance and walk down to the checkouts.’

A security guard stopped us because the alarms sounded when we tried to re-enter the store. We explained the situation, and he spent a few minutes attaching security labels to our shopping. Back at the checkout with the smiley cashier we joined the queue. Five minutes later she informed us that only customer services could issue refunds, we would have to go back. Flabbergasted we did as instructed once more and the customer services lady told us we had misunderstood her. She issued the refund, and we went back through the procedure with the security guard and back to the smiley cashier who had gone off duty.

The new cashier processed our goods, gave us a store card and explained that the 30% reduction was only redeemable against other purchases that had to be made at that store and within seven days.

‘We live two-and-a-half hours away; can’t we use our local Géant?’

‘No, I am sorry; it has to be this store.’

‘Why is this not explained anywhere in the store?’

‘I don’t know you would have to ask customer services.’

We stayed positive, maintained our good manners and left with Sarah’s bargains but we would never see the 30% off.

The rain didn’t let up once all day. Leaving the city, we aquaplaned around a corner and I momentarily lost control of the car when the rear decided it wanted to lead the way. Recovering the situation without mishap we headed for the countryside, deserted villages and very little traffic after our day of unnecessary challenges. It had been such a challenging day we did something unthinkable when we spotted a McDonalds and went in for a drink. If our children found out, our reputations would be finished.

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