Andi Best Freelance Designer

Let's Have A Meeting


  • Published 24-01-2020
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Let's Have A Meeting
I like my desk. I like the art hanging on my walls. I like the assorted flashes of colour the books on my shelves make.
I like my space.
I like working in it, thinking in it, creating in it... hiding in it.
It's not that I'm an introvert or anything trendy like that. My email account is wide open and a privileged crop of clients have my phone number. Through some technological means clients are always popping in and out of my office, and that's fine by me. It's just that occasionally, those clients will desire more. They'll want to sit down in a room with me. They may want to consume a meal with me. They'll want to have what's conventionally known as a 'meeting' with me and I greet this prospect with well-founded trepidation.
On the whole the meetings I have with clients are productive, useful and even essential affairs. Discussing a brief, going over feedback; the usual. I'm very comfortable with this calibre of meeting and welcome it. Sometimes there's one or two irregularities during a meeting that unbalance the tone a little, like that time a manager suddenly exploded with rage when the website I was demonstrating used a sliding transition effect (he really hated those, apparently), or that time the end of a client's pen he was holding inexplicably rocketed off the top and landed several feet across the room at the exact moment I gave him a ball-park figure for a project. But on more than one occasion meetings I've attended have turned dark and peculiar corners from which there is no going back.
***
Dragging a Freelancer through the mud
One wet, autumn morning I had arranged to meet a new client - a high-end, celebrity affiliated florist - at their distribution yard. They wanted to discuss some print and packaging design work. The yard was fairly local to my office so I decided to go on foot, entrusting Google Maps to navigate me through the latter part of the journey less familiar to me. Obediently I pursued Google's dotted blue trail as it led me out of town, under a railway line, through the car park of a cricket ground and into a neighbouring field. 'This is probably fine...', I thought to myself as the buildings around me faded away and knee-length grass became the prevailing landmark.
I continued through this unmarked expanse of London's southeastern green belt, passing several rusted heaps of dilapidated tractor, pylons serving electricity to presumably nowhere and what was almost certainly predatory eyes of unknown beasts studying me from hedgerows, all the while believing that Google knew best. A few minutes later however it transpired that Google did not know best, as up ahead emerged an obstacle rendered effortless for a sequence of digital blue circles, but would prove very much a challenge for a physical human pedestrian. That obstacle was a weir, approximately 15 feet deep at its most threatening and spanning a river about 25 feet wide. The water was surging through it, loudly, and splays of iron spikes lined its brickwork with the single agenda of preventing passage.
The meeting kick-off time was closing in and my destination was a mere 12 minutes beyond this expanse of water.
I considered traipsing along the riverbank and hoping for a point where the channel might narrow enough that I could hop across, but how long might that take to find? What if it only narrowed up in Norfolk or somewhere?
No, there was no alternative, I did not want to be late - I had to traverse the weir right now.
I spotted on the calmer, much deeper side what looked like a large sewage pipe running parallel to the structure. It burrowed into both banks and didn't seem to be fitted with any climb deterring apparatus. It was the only way I could see across. I wended tentatively down the muddy bank and found my footing atop the pipe's curved surface. I moved forward, opting for cautious shimmying rather than a headlong dash, like some sort of ridiculously inept acrobat; arms outstretched like a crane taking flight and eyes firmly fixed on no particular thing in the distance. The roaring chasm of water below terrified me. It was so loud at the midway point I could barely hear my own laughter which was jerking involuntarily out of my throat as my mind conjured scenarios of having to explain to my client why I was drenched head to toe, peppered with algae and housing a mallard in my laptop bag. Oh, that's right, didn't I mention I also had my expensive, decidedly non-water-resistant anti-ballast of a laptop about my person? Yeah, that wasn't helping matters.
Through some miraculous fortune my foot eventually connected with the earthy incline on the opposite side. I had not fallen to my watery doom. I'd been holding my breath without realising and released it with a long triumphant sigh. I had conquered the weir.
12 minutes later I was shaking hands with the head florist at the yard. Her face was one of confusion and disgust as she felt the watery grit I had inadvertently transferred into her palm. Her eyes began to trace the length of my trousers and jacket, the sides of which were streaked horrendously in fresh mud.
"Oh," I said with feigned nonchalance, "I slipped on a kerb just on the way in". I'm pretty certain she knew I was lying, but it was easier than explaining the truth; that shortly after my heroic weir crossing, the road along the tree line which Google instructed I take was locked at the far end by an eight foot tall security gate, with the only means of passage being a crawl space where the road cambered beneath it just deep enough for me to squeeze through its congealed, sodden, earthy sludge.
***
Face-to-face-to-face-to-face-to-face meeting
One late summer evening I was heading towards the area of Clapham Common to collect payment on a job I'd just completed, as well as discuss the client's next design brief. They were in the leisure and entertainment industry, producing tailor-made attractions for shows and events. I had just finished designing and illustrating a portfolio that brought to life their many imaginative concepts for a winter themed fairground including rides, bars and amenities. It was an enjoyable job to work on and the final portfolio was a thick wedge of accomplishment.
When I first met with this client weeks ago they were two hours late arriving to my office, so on this occasion I thought it best if I visited them instead. We'd arranged that I would head to the Common, call them, and they would guide me to their location from there. I'd interpreted that as meaning the street layout was perhaps tricky to navigate or that there might be some nondescript doorway to pass through. Maybe there was a river I had to cross?
What it actually meant became clear as I rounded the corner onto the Common and saw, under the evening sun which was dipping behind the rooftops on the far side, a huge fairground sprawled out in front of me. It was a glittering, pulsing, shadowy entity swarming with people. It smelt sickly sweet, it was rippling with luminescence and it sat beneath a veil of fog entangled in shards of floodlight. And it was much much louder than a weir. The screaming, the bass lines, the churning machinery, hydraulic squeezing and grumbling engines - all conspired to ensure I'd place three unanswered phone calls to the client before giving up trying to reach them as arranged.
Reasoning that they were likely inside the fair somewhere I stalked across the field towards the perimeter fence and followed its circumference until I found the entry point. Admission was ticketed and quite a long queue of revellers were waiting to get in. Much to their vocal disapproval I didn't join the back of it, but rather slid in front of the first punter in line to initiate contact with the ticket booth occupant. She too seemed to take an immediate disliking to me.
"Good evening, I have a meeting with Captain Rollercoaster". (Author's note: for the purpose of this story I've altered the client's name to conceal identity. I thought about simply using "[client]" to do this but since the name Captain Rollercoaster refuses to leave my mind now, there is definitely no way I'm not going to continue using it).
The ticket booth lady's eyebrows rocketed to a higher position on her forehead than where they were already drawn. These were likely the first words she'd heard all evening that weren't variants of ticket quantities followed by, if she was lucky, "please". Resuming her frosty demeanour she calmly reigned in her eyebrows, tapped upon a mobile phone on the countertop, then raised it to her ear. "Oh, you'll have no luck with that" I said, "I've tried three times and it just-"
"Hello Captain?" she interrupted. "There's someone here to see you." She hasn't asked me my name.
She hung up the phone and strained her lips into a smile. "He'll take you" she said, pointing two fingers clamped around a cigarette towards the wall of her booth. On the wall hung a calendar bearing a shirtless muscular male model. She didn't mean him. On the other side of the wall, outside the booth, was a burly chap in a grease-stained T-shirt, who seemingly without instruction knew where to take me and that he was even supposed to take me anywhere at all. He set off with a jerk of his head and I followed.
We manoeuvred around gaggles of teenagers and heaps of litter, in search of what I thought might be a porta-cabin office, or perhaps one of the caravans I saw at the fringe. To my utter bewilderment the man led me up a short flight of metal steps, knocked on the door at the top and wrenched it open. He nodded again, motioning that I should enter. I obliged and found that sat inside was Captain Rollercoaster, who without standing extended a hand toward me to shake. He didn't stand simply because he couldn't. There was no space. The room in it's entirety was about five foot squared. On one side of him was a man who had evidently given up on haircuts many years ago and on the other, a man whose attention was so engrossed in his mobile phone screen I suspected he himself hadn't realised he was in the room; that he was oblivious to the entire fairground having been constructed around him as he stood, preserved, like a fossil.
Grease Shirt shut the door behind himself as he too stepped in, further cramping the conditions.
"One please" said a voice to my right. A boy was standing outside a glass window with a small opening at the bottom, through which Abandoned Haircuts extracted money from the boy's hand and replaced it with a small plastic disc. That's when I realised where we all were. We five grown adult males were huddled together in an actively trading bumper-cars token kiosk. The meeting was taking place here, under purple neon lighting, with no table, no spare chairs, little room to even open my work bag and several blokes surplus to requirement positioned close enough to smell.
"Two please" came the next voice, and several more like it, siphoning my already wavering attention as I tried to present the portfolio, perched like a peak-time commuter. At one point I was speaking to the back of Captain Rollercoaster's head as he squeezed in beside Abandoned Haircuts and joined in dolling out tokens to punters.
I stopped talking. Grease Shirt coughed to himself. Abandoned Haircuts hit a button on the console in front of him and a cacophony of new sounds joined the persistent chorus; a short bell ring, the screech of rubber being dragged, the bumper-cars jolting to life. Captain Rollercoaster turned back to me as if nothing had happened.
I'm not sure how long the meeting lasted, how the meeting concluded, or if it even was a meeting at all, but as I passed the expressionless ticket mistress on my way out, I took solace in knowing that this was the first time I'd left a fairground holding more money than before I went in.
***
Hot hot hot desking
My 3 year old daughter is a lot like John Hurt in the movie Alien. Like he, she wanders off into unknown territories, mixes with organisms of varying contamination severity, then returns home to inadvertently infect us all. The ramifications of this are usually only slight; I can still make it to my desk and contend with my freelance workload, I just do it stewing in a foul mood and plethora of biological afflictions - afflictions that render me totally intolerant of any and all other human interaction and certainly in no fit state to participate in a meeting.
During peak unbearableness of the heatwave we encountered in a recent summer I found myself emerging from the underground at Canary Wharf station with what was unbeknownst to me at the time, the early onset of rotavirus, unequivocally care of my daughter. I was a shuffling cocktail of temperature; simultaneously icy with sweat-inducing chills from the poison wriggling under my skin and also baking beneath the layers of my smartest suit which I was steadfastly unable to remove, feeling I ought to blend in to the upmarket area and observing that absolutely everyone else in the vicinity had not removed their own despite the billion-degree heat of reflected sunlight caused by precisely everything in a mile radius being made of glass.
I was on my way to a mid-tier floor of one of the high-rise buildings to meet a new client and discuss their requirements for technical and functional illustration. Illustration meetings, at least the introductory ones, are typically quite brief and in my condition I welcomed the swiftness. Only this was not to be a typical illustration meeting.
I was greeted by the in-house web developer because the CEO I was due to meet was initially elsewhere. The developer was a very astute and friendly chap who was bristling with conversation about the web pages he was building, probing for feedback and ideas. In fact, he seemed really keen to collaborate with me right there and then, briefing me on all manner of web design tasks he'd like me to carry out. Taken aback I explained that I was here to discuss illustration, not web, which seemed to perplex him. He withdrew a little but continued to fire questions at me about the layout he was working on. Later, the CEO arrived and discussion turned to illustration as planned. As predicted, it was a short and smooth affair; I secured a brief, jotted some notes, expressed some ideas and was satisfied that I had everything in place to go away and formulate a proposal and quote. Thrilled that I could have a duvet and Lemsip in front of me in just a matter of hours I extended my hand to the CEO for shaking and got ready to depart.
He did not take my hand. He looked at me blankly, then spoke. "We have a meeting after lunch with a consultant, it would be great if you could sit in."
My eyes bulged. It was 11am. Lunch would be at 1pm, maybe 12pm, but definitely 1pm. That's two hours from now. Lunch will be an hour and who knows how long a consultancy meeting will last?
The Lemsip moved further away.
Reluctantly I flipped open my notepad and tried to focus my eyes on the page swimming around in front of me. I wasn't really prepared for this, but ever the professional, I felt I should attempt to pass the time productively.
I started scribbling.
Doodling.
Anything.
A two hour slog of scribbling and doodling and trying to breathe through my ever diminishing nasal passages. I felt really warm and drowsy now. Why wasn't this over yet? Why was I still here? Why was I pretending to work on a project when I hadn't yet even quoted for it yet?
I must have been drifting off as the CEO suddenly spoke, jolting me awake and skitting my pen across the desk. He announced it was lunch time (finally) and that we were all heading out somewhere. I fell in step with the CEO who, on the entire journey down to the ground floor, sold me the benefits of a particular Mexican eatery.
"It does great food. Mexican food. It's great. The food there is great. We eat there all the time. It's very popular. Great Mexican food... we eat there all the time." He kept insisting.
Sure enough as we rounded the corner of the food court beneath the building, there stood an appropriately themed Mexican food outlet with a queue stretching out the door. We joined the back of it and the CEO clapped his hand on my shoulder. "Do you know what you're ordering?" he asked enthusiastically.
"Er, not yet" I replied "I can't really see the menu from..."
"Try the burrito!" He exclaimed with even more enthusiasm. My sickly stomach tightened at the words.
"The burrito?" I asked. "What's in the..."
The answer to my question never came. When I looked round at where the CEO had been standing I saw he had now gone. He and the rest of the staff had their backs to me, moving off in the distance towards a separate sandwich kiosk. They were all ordering lunch at the sandwich kiosk. They were sitting down and consuming lunch at the sandwich kiosk.
What the actual Hell was this?! They'd ditched me! They'd lured me to a Mexican eatery they'd been gushing about and abandoned me in it, swaying on my feet with delirium. I couldn't believe it. I was utterly mortified, least not because the place turned out to be horrible. It was one of those human-conveyor-belt places where your lunch gets handled by at least six strangers before you're allowed to touch it, where the staff assume you know exactly what questions about ingredients to expect next, and where the other customers get furious at you for holding up the line when you don't. Naturally, I ended up ordering all the wrong things leading to some rice-heavy, moisture-sodden travesty that looked like a drowning victim's lung. It required a plastic fork to eat and there were precisely zero tables upon which to comfortably eat it. So I perched like an injured flamingo in a dark corner, slurped down my burrito, and looked on at my jovial, comfortable, sandwich consuming clients...
Back upstairs and feigning delight over the bloated mess I'd just consumed, the consultant strode into the room. He was a fantastically confident chap who had plenty of ideas to strengthen the company's position, but like the web guy, seemed to have misconstrued my presence. "The branding is pretty shit, you can fix that right?" he shot at me.
Stunned, the whole room looking at me, I murmured in the affirmative.
"And we'll definitely need to improve the slide decks too, you can handle that right?"
Again, all eyes fell upon me.
"Of course", I responded, hoping my face wasn't actually as riddled with confusion as I suspected it was. The problem wasn't that I'd be unable to deliver all this surprise additional workload beyond the agreed illustration - I was more than capable of that - it was that my mind, I'm certain, had already packed up and left the room. It had totally deteriorated. I was sweating and freezing all over again. I could feel my eyes turning to stone and the hum of neighbouring offices was growing into a deafening cascade of trombones somewhere in my thick, spongey skull. That damn burrito was the final nail in my coffin. It was accelerating all my symptoms; it has sapped all my energy and now it was coming for my consciousness. I was confident that I was going to die in this meeting.
As the talking continued I nodded - or struggled to keep my head stable - but had no idea to what I was agreeing. The consultant went on;
"Business cards..."
"Uh huh".
"Sales docs..."
"Yep".
"Web design" reiterated the developer from the corner of the room.
The list went on.
My body was now an empty husk. All comprehension had vacated.
"Fresh bedding, hedgehogs, burritos..."
Was I hallucinating?
"Carpet samples, drip trays, masking tape..."
Had I actually lost my mind to this illness?
"Wednesdays, isotopes, compost..."
Perhaps I'd ingested one of those brain disabling parasitic worms you read about?
Somehow it was six o'clock in the evening. The sound of everyone in the room scuffing their chairs backwards and rustling their coats (their coats! In this heat!) and bags onto their backs jolted me awake for the second time during this marathon meeting which had lasted needlessly the ENTIRE day. I'm not sure how, but the client and I were clearly on different pages, perhaps entirely different books, about my involvement in this project. I thought I was popping in to pick up a new brief, he thought I was clocking in for a full day's labour. I was too high on making a good first impression and too low on energy to confront the misunderstanding.
But finally it was over.
Handshakes.
Fresh air was coming.
Small talk.
Freedom was coming.
Doors locked.
"Thanks Andi, great start. What time will you be in tomorrow?"
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