These days much of Carl’s work was taken up with account development, line management, creative oversight, quality assurance and achieving through others, but he had held on to the odd historical client who had begun their time at the agency with him and still liked having him around. He also still retained a few tricky clients, ones that had been flagged by the Account Management team as ‘high flight risk’. Alan of Diligent Storage® was a client who ticked both these boxes.
Carl and Alan got on famously. They both liked sport and beer, and had small children in common. They could happily wallow in all the topics and issues with which the childless are always being bored silly by the childful: teething troubles, broken nights, shrinking catchment areas — and, of course, the things they say!
‘She looked at the church and said, “Is that an astronaut’s castle, daddy?!!”’
‘Priceless, Alan, priceless!’
‘…And then she asked the beekeeper: “Can you get dragonfly honey?”!!’
‘Aw… So imaginative! How old is she again?’
‘I know!!! Only three!!!’
Carl was generally good company in such encounters, not least because if they did exams in small talk, he’d have an advanced qualification by now. He knew, for instance, that black rescue cats are always the hardest to find homes for. That there are more women than men who are gamers now (tipping point). That no one ever assaults the train driver, only the guard.
Quality shit, in other words. None of your ‘I think children actually want boundaries’; or ‘apricots are the fruit of the devil’ or ‘there’s an area of plastic in the ocean that’s about twice the size of France’.
But there were limits, Carl was aware, to this happy complicity. Alan had one child and was still in the Edenic phase of first-time parenting. A phase when every milestone – every first word, step, cough, belch and fart – gets recorded in at least three different digital formats, and is then lovingly tagged, captioned and shared with grannies and other allegedly interested parties on Facebook, whatsapp, Instagram and the rest. #myfirstrisotto!
Carl, a veteran of three, preferred not to remember that for Ava, their first, he and Helen had been just the same. Their scrapbooks and PC image folders bulged with happy memories. But such was the shock of the arrival of Alfie, their second, that the idea of ‘capturing the moments that matter’ had gone out of the window. There was a big hole in the family archive where Alfie’s earliest years should have been, filled only with a few random scraps of obsolescent phone video and some passport pics. They had taken loads of pics of the new baby, of course – partly out of displaced guilt – but this only made the lack of Alfie material more damningly blatant.
Kids say the funniest things, of course, but they also spout a lot of crap. That morning Alfie had said, about ten times: ‘I’m going to f-f-f-fart on you, Daddy. I’m going to fart on your…’ And then he’d pause. With each repetition, Carl went from mild amusement to irritation to a sort of captive suspense.
‘Daddy, I’m going to f-f-f-fart on your…’
Well, come on then, he thought to himself, what of mine are you actually going to fart on?
‘Daddy, I’m going to fart on y-y-your…’
He’s going to say ‘head’, thought Carl to himself. It’s got to be ‘head’. Or maybe ‘tummy’? ‘Head’ would be classical, but ‘tummy’ would be quite funny.
‘I’m going to fart on y-y-your…’
Carl clenched his teeth tight and bit his metaphorical tongue very, very hard. It was bad form, as he well knew, to pressurise a stammerer.
‘I’m going to fart on your b-b-bottom!!!’ said Alfie, at last, his face a picture of delight and triumph.
Oh yes, thought Carl. Kids say the funniest things. This was not, however, an anecdote that he chose to share with Alan that morning. It was one of many terrible truths that Alan – whose wife was now expecting a second, an absurd 14 months after their first – would not thank him for revealing.
Such as, for example, that it would not always be possible for you both to attend every single good-night-darling-now-what-did-we-do-today? tucking-up session together. That the coming chaos of a second child was about to make a mockery of your Ikea-inspired toy storage system. That you will lose friends and make enemies over your school choices. That your partner is about to become your deadly rival for sleep.
That there may well be times when you forgot your children’s names. (He usually referred to his third child as ‘the baby’. Exhaustion plays havoc with human working memory, and for day-to-day operations neither its sex nor first name counted as essential data.)
That you might sometimes feel hatred towards your children, or an urge to hit them. And that there will certainly be times when they feel that way too.
The slo-mo agony of spoon-feeding from scratch again. The shuffling inchoate longueurs of a primary school assembly. The agonised screeches of recorder practice. The withering looks of the ladies in the school office.
That very morning, Carl had roughly yanked Alfie into the bathroom to do his teeth when, at the seventh time of asking, the three-and-half year old had refused to put down his homemade Lego ‘super plane-car’ and come of his own accord.
‘Daddy,’ said Alfie, his resentful Colgate-frothy features up close at last. ‘I hate your mouth.’
‘Stop moving your head! Just stand still so I can do your teeth.’ He pulled his son again, roughly.
‘That’s not kind, daddy.’
‘Well I’ve asked you so many times! Stand still!’
‘And your eyes.’
‘You hate my mouth and my eyes?’
‘And your nose.’
‘You hate my nose?’
‘And your hands. And your head.’
‘Stay still, Alfie, I’ve nearly finished. Just let me do the lower ones.’
‘You’re not my friend.’ Then he said that other thing.
‘Thanks for that darling,’ said Carl with fake breeziness. ‘Can you rinse your mouth out yourself like a big boy now?’
The other limit to Carl’s friendship with Alan was of course the fact that one was the client, the other the supplier. Alan had been tasked with launching a brand-new ‘information & inspiration area’ for the new website of Diligent Storage’s® (note to team: never just Diligent please!), a national storage company of long standing that had recently been losing market share to some of the brighter, younger, more disruptive storage players. The hungry, up-and-coming storage challenger brands.
Along with a suite of new online tools for calculating space required, checking availability by branch and reserving online, Alan had been working with Carl on the brand storytelling strategy for the new area – which, over a series of workshops with key stakeholders, they had agreed should focus on the idea of ‘getting more space in your life’. Carl himself had helped to draft the Overarching Brand Story Statement®:
Just as Diligent’s dedicated storage solutions enable consumers to find more space and flexibility for their things, so our e-magazine-style storyhub – #SpaceAge – will provide our audience with tips, ideas and advice on ‘how to get more space in your life’ in the wider sense. We’ll cover everything from ‘How much value would a loft extension add to your property?’ to ‘How to feng shui your love life’…
Carl’s company was contracted to deliver an ongoing flow of articles, videos, infographics and other material to populate #SpaceAge. The new content would be promoted in social media and email newsletters, with a view to driving up positive consumer sentiment towards storage in general, and towards Diligent Storage® in particular.
Over time that awareness and feelgood factor should translate into enquiries and even sales, Carl had argued. And as long as he could find ways to demonstrate that his company’s work was moving Diligent Storage® towards these goals, the long lunches and occasional cricketing jolly he and Alan enjoyed would doubtless continue.
‘So Carl, how are the numbers looking?’
‘Well, we’re seeing dwell times and depth of visits really starting to climb.’
‘Great! So that’s, what? More people looking for longer, and clicking through to other pages?’
‘Er, well not more people as such. But definitely looking for longer. Email newsletter sign-ups and Facebook follows are both up by over 100%.’
‘Wow! That’s stellar. What are the actual numbers?’
‘Well, follows are up from 12 to about 26.’
‘Not as such.’
‘So we have exactly 26 followers on Facebook?’
‘Well we’re still very much in the embryos of the bedding-down and awareness-building phase right now, as we discussed last time. This is still very much the content distribution and amplification piece.’
For a moment, Carl felt a spasm of intoxicated delirium at the thought that he could say something like in the embryos of out loud without someone like Alan even blinking. But worse was coming.
‘I guess it’s the return on investment piece that my project sponsors really care about, Carl,’ said Alan, the mask of jollity slipping for a second. ‘I mean, have we generated any enquiries? Actual bookings? Sales?’
‘I don’t think we can really expect leads to have been nurtured that far along the funnel as yet, Alan.’ He wondered, not the first time, why everything was a ‘piece’. The ‘pay-per-click piece’. The ‘brand guideline piece’. The ‘putting our incumbent agency on notice piece’. At his back, Carl felt the insidious creep of chair-speration.
‘What about the recipes?’
‘It’s a slow-burner, that one. We all thought the tie-in with National Kitchen Declutter Week would be spot on, as you know, and we sourced some great dishes made from all those forgotten back-of-the-cupboard basics.’
‘Well, we haven’t quite seen the traction we’d hoped for, Alan, not as yet anyway. Of course, we’re still in the process of building up to that Brand Storytelling Tipping-Point®…’
‘Hmmm… Very strange. And they’re great recipes too. We had that sausage casserole one the other night. Jessica loved it – her very first sausage!’
‘Probably not her last, Alan!’ said Carl, pleased to switch the subject back to children. ‘She’ll be a sausage monster in no time!’
Alan shot Carl a mildly scandalised look. ‘Well I don’t know about that, Carl. Viv’s very hot on the whole infant obesity thing.’
‘Right, right, Alan. Quite right!’
‘It’s all about the fat cells, apparently. If you over-develop them when they’re under three, they’re virtually guaranteed to be massive for the rest of their lives.’
There followed one of those pauses you get in meetings before the arrival of that moment that every party recognises as the only really important bit of the whole thing.
‘Now look, Carl, I get that we’re in a kind of Brand Story Break-Even Period® here, as it were, but I’m going to need to get back to my project sponsors with something a bit concrete soon.’
‘I get what we’re at here, and you get it, Carl. But the powers-that-be take a more traditional line. They’re obsessed with generating leads and sales in the short term. They don’t get the idea of building a storytelling brand over time. They don’t get that marketing is all about permission and not interruption these days. And right now, we’re teetering dangerously on the verge of, uh, self-sufficient-rope-suspension territory.’
‘Understood Alan.’ Carl’s voice wobbled, and there was an unwanted droplet or two in his eyes.
‘Hey – don’t worry, Carl,’ said Alan, with a weak, embarrassed smile. ‘We’ll get there.’
Carl’s voice wobbled some more. ‘This morning, my son said my heart stinks.’
Dan’s first collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone. He is also co-author of a comic novel with Unbound, Kitten on a Fatberg. Two of his stories have recently received Pushcart nominations.
He won the 2019 Riptide Journal short story competition, was runner-up in the 2019 Leicester Writes contest, and was highly commended in the Manchester Writing School competition 2018. He has words in places like Slackjaw, Pithead Chapel, X-RAY, Ellipsis, Reflex Fiction, Cabinet of Heed, Bending Genres, The Esthetic Apostle, Spelk, Ginger Collect and Fiction Pool.