A new beginning – Week 1 of the 52 week challenge


‘Do you need a lift?’

Danny looked at his mother; still wearing her dressing gown and her hair was in a state of bird’s nest tangles.

He shook his head. ‘It takes me twelve minutes and forty-five seconds to walk to the centre. I have twenty-two minutes and thirty seconds to finish my breakfast, wash up and put things away, put on my coat  and trainers. I have already made my lunch and packed it into my rucksack. It will take you at least forty-three minutes to go back upstairs, wash, brush your teeth, get dressed and find your car keys – which are in the bowl on the breakfast bar. I put them there this morning because you left them next to the microwave. So, no thank you.’

Whilst speaking, Danny had already moved from the table to the sink and washed up his bowl and spoon. His mother was about to tell him to leave the drying up for her but she knew that Danny preferred to wash up his own crockery. She watched him as he moved to the hallway, pulled on his trainers and tied the laces meticulously. She longed to be the sort of mother who could give him a hug and a kiss before he left the house but was held back by the knowledge that this would make him freeze and back away from her.

His coat was on now, and after checking that he had his own keys, his wallet and was wearing his rucksack with the straps adjusted equally, Danny nodded at her and left the house.

Even allowing for pavement crack avoidance, Danny still managed to arrive at work with two minutes and twenty-five seconds to spare. He keyed in the combination  on his locker, hung his coat and rucksack inside, and carefully juggled the numbers again so that no one would be able to guess his secret code. Other workers were already waiting in the staff room; as was his custom Danny took a seat at the other end of the line of chairs, away from his colleagues. No one was offended by this however, that was just Danny.

On the stroke of eight o’clock, Maggie, the centre manager joined them and began cleaning off the white board so that she could write up the jobs for the day. Danny expected to be on kennel cleaning. This had presented him with a problem at first but Maggie made sure that he always had the right gloves, a boiler suit, boots and an apron to wear, and it gave him a warm sense of accomplishment when he left the kennels clean, tidy and ready for the dogs to come back to.

Today was different though. Maggie didn’t give him any jobs. This worried Danny. She had explained to him and his mother that the centre couldn’t afford to take on many permanent staff, and that Danny could have expenses as a volunteer but would need to prove that he could work hard with his colleagues, and for the good of the dogs that had been abused and abandoned by evil, thoughtless people. Danny loved the dogs. He loved his job. He began to breathe heavily as he imagined what life would be like without his job at the centre. Maggie was very quickly at his side.

‘Come with me Danny. I have a very special job for you. I don’t know how long it will take you or if you can manage to do it, but I have a feeling that if anyone can succeed, it will be you.’

Danny followed her out of the room. Maggie was nice. It didn’t look as if she was going to sack him after all. He hoped that he could do the job – whatever it was.

They walked along the corridor: anxious doggy faces peered through the bars of the kennels. Some dogs barked, some whined, some yapped. Most of them wagged their tails as they recognised people who only ever showed them love and kindness.

‘In here,’ said Maggie as she unlocked the door to the special kennel. ‘This little boy was brought in during the night. I’m afraid that someone has been very unkind to him and he is extremely scared. He doesn’t know what to do when you touch him because he thinks you are going to hurt him. The only noise he can make is a scream of fear. I need you to spend some time with him every day. Talk to him, try to stroke him if you can. Your job is to help him to trust people again. Do you think you can do it Danny?’

Danny nodded, not taking his eyes from the skinny, cowering dog hiding in the furthermost corner of the kennel.

‘I’ve put in a clean bean bag for you to sit on; there’s fresh food and water, keep the door closed while you are in here and lock it when you leave. The noise he makes is pretty bad so come out when it becomes too much. Any questions?’

Danny shook his head, his eyes still focussed on the little dog.

‘We’ve called him George. He didn’t have a name before.’

Maggie left the kennel, mentally crossing her fingers that Danny would be the one to save George. The centre relied on donations and being able to rehome dogs once they had recovered from their pasts. She was doubtful that George would ever recover.

Danny moved the beanbag closer to George and reached out a hand to touch him. George screamed. An ear-splitting noise that Danny had never heard a dog make before. He turned its head towards Danny’s hand as if to bite it but experience had taught George that this action would only result in a kick or a punch, so he was too nervous to actually make contact with Danny’s gentle fingers.

‘It’s alright George. I won’t hurt you. I promise to look after you. I’m just going to sit here on the bean bag next to you for now so that you can get used to my smell.’

Maggie found them there, side by side, when she came back near lunchtime. George still looked scared but he wasn’t screaming. Danny looked up at her and she could have sworn she saw a glimmer of a smile.

‘Time for lunch Danny. You can either take a couple of the dogs round the field this afternoon, or you can come back and spend some more time with George – but only if you want to.’

Danny got to his feet stiffly and turned back to George.

‘I am going for my lunch now George. It will take me precisely twenty-six minutes to wash my hands, eat my lunch, go to the toilet and wash my hands again. I’ll come back here afterwards and bring my magazine with me. It’s about computers so you won’t really understand it, but it will help you to get used to my voice if I read to you. Is that alright Maggie?’

‘Oh very alright. I’ve explained to the others what you are doing with George but it’s completely up to you how much time you spend with him. If you need a break and want to stretch your legs, come and find me.’

Danny nodded, knowing that taking time to have his lunch would be the only break he needed. Maggie closed the kennel door behind them and handed Danny the key. He walked quickly down the corridor, feeling proud that she had trusted him with this very special job and not wanting to take any longer over his lunch than necessary.

It took two weeks in all. Every day Maggie made time to visit the kennel and listen to Danny’s soft voice telling George about computer systems, how to cook scrambled eggs, cleaning out kennels and making sure that the dogs had a balanced diet – anything that Danny felt George would like to know about. George stopped screaming when Danny reached out to him, and eventually took to creeping closer to the bean bag until the wonderful day when Maggie peered through the kennel bars and saw George curled up on Danny’s lap, sleeping happily as Danny stroked him.

Maggie went back to her office feeling a bit choked. She picked up the phone and called Danny’s mother.

‘I have some good news for you. I haven’t told Danny yet so act surprised when he comes home.’

‘What? What?’

I’ve been given a grant to take on an apprentice kennel worker. I want Danny to have the opportunity  – if he wants it.’

Danny’s mother almost choked on her reply. ‘How wonderful! Oh Maggie! I never thought I’d see the day that Danny would have a real job. Thank you. Thank you so much.’

‘No, it’s all down to Danny. I gave him a job that I didn’t think anyone would be able to do and he’s excelled at it. Has he told you about George?’

‘A little bit every day. We looked at some of his old books and discussed whether George would be receptive to music. It always soothes Danny when he gets wound up. I’d better work on looking surprised for he gets home tonight.’

Maggie walked back to the kennel, smiling at the sound of Danny singing an old lullaby to George. It would be a new beginning – for both of them.


Cultural Divisions – Part 2


Is this the real life – or is it just fantasy?’

I sincerely hope that you know where that line comes from.

More musings from the sofa – the joys of being not-very-gainfully-self-employed – and sharing my viewing with a happily moaning Scooby.

Hands up all those who watch ‘The Apprentice’?

Ah – depleting numbers obviously.

I can remember when the candidates were reasonably sensible young men and women with an earnest desire to become Lord Sugar’s latest employee, and the ability to tell some semblance of truth about their backgrounds and experience.


The latest crop of  apprentices can no longer slide into a well-paid job in Lord Sugar’s mighty business empire but have to come up with an innovative business idea for SurAlaaaaaan to invest a quarter of a million pounds in. What a difference a life peerage can make.

Sorry. Did I say innovative business idea?

Innovative  – ‘a new idea, device or process’.

Innovative.  One of this year’s candidates wants SurAlaaaan to invest in a residential unit for young adults with learning disabilities.  What is innovative about that? There are already many such units around the country; some able to provide a safe and inspirational environment for their service users,  but others charge a small fortune, often employ untrained and sometimes abusive staff, and hit the headlines when someone has the courage to blow a whistle on them.

Innovative – yeah.

SurAlaaan hit on a winner with Tom Pellereau and his StylFile – a truly innovative product. A lovely curved nail file that enables you to get to those awkward finger and toe corners. The idea was inspired by Tom’s sister and is readily available in Sainsburys and Amazon – to name but a few. I have three Stylfiles, one of which is handbag size and has a curly wire cover to protect it from the other strange things I keep in my handbag (which may be discussed at a later date).

I also liked the fact that Tom’s main boast was that he was a nerd.

Good old Wikipedia defines Nerd  as (adjective: nerdy) a descriptive term, often used pejoratively, indicating that a person is overly intellectual, obsessive, or socially impaired.

I like nerds. The nerd admission is honest but usually inaccurate  –  all the nerds I know are entertaining, fonts of knowledge, very handy in a pub quiz and often quite shy.

The current would-be apprentices are not nerds.

They are a mixed bunch.  Some have ordinary occupations – social worker (yes – he spent a year doing community work with Eskimos in the Antarctic and is the person with the residential unit proposal), a couple of lawyers (who really ought to know better), some marketing managers (can sell a variety of products on a market stall) and others who skulk under the dubious titles of ‘operational manager’ and ‘brand manager’.  There is also a bank manager, the owner of a swimming academy and the most irritating woman in the world, who does at least admit that she is a former PA and a hypnotherapist rather than anything containing any job title containing meaningless business jargon. This woman volunteered to project manage the first task and her team unanimously agreed in front of SurAlaaan that she was lazy and bad at the job. Perhaps she’d better brush up on the self-hypnosis before she tackles the next task.

The Apprentice stage that I love the best is when we get down to the final three candidates, and each one is interviewed by SurAlaaan’s head-hunters. All the fabrications and fantasies contained in their CVs and application forms are hauled out, laid on the table in front of them and systematically hacked to bits till all that is left is a name and date of birth – and sometimes these are false too.

Of course, the production team could save a lot of time by having a more rigorous research process at application stage so that the true fantasists (sounds better than ‘liars’ – a tip I picked up from watching Jeremy Kyle) will be weeded out right from the start.

But hey, that would make the whole series far less amusing, wouldn’t it?

Part of the enjoyment for me is watching those fantasies burst like multicoloured balloons filled with confetti.

After watching four hours of Jeremy Kyle, I came to the conclusion that SurAlaaan’s apprentices have better teeth, glossier hair and more expensive clothes. Even those with regional accents have polished them up to an more intelligible level.

Essentially though, many of them are every bit as deluded as the cheats, the philanderers, the liars and the drug takers that are given a platform on Jezza’s show.

Apprentice  Mr D says that he can charm any woman into buying his goods – and some men too – well he is a barrow boy aka marketing manager and has an impressive line in patter.

Some of the males on Jezza’s show exhibit the self-same arrogance with regard to their lovelorn cheated partners. The spotty face and missing front teeth gurning above the uniform grey hoodie and tattered jeans, is less convincing than Mr D’s designer stubble above his sharp-cut suit and tie. Mr D committed a cardinal business sin however, and lost a contract by criticising his team’s own product – does he diss his market stall wares in the same way I wonder?

Cue a volley of rotten tomatoes and flawed china plates.

If I cringe at Jezza’s participants, they can at least be excused their ignorance once they recount their abused childhoods, lack of schooling and familiarity with the penal system (males and females). That’s penal as opposed to penile – another kettle of proverbial Jezza fish.

SurAlaaan’s apprentices have – on the whole – had the advantage of an education and some element of wealth that Jezza’s bunch could only fantasise about. I have no doubt that some of the apprentices started by selling chocolate bars at an inflated price in the playground, or that Ms B knows enough about stockings and associated lingerie to encourage SurAlaan to jump into a metaphorical business bed with her.

What about life experience?

Ms B – she of the former PA and hypnotherapy status – is an elegant blonde who informed her team that they had the sales advantage over the male team because ‘men will buy anything from women’. She exhorted her team members to wear their highest heels, their shortest skirts and to slap on the make-up – thereby setting back the hard work started by the suffragettes and promoted by those who followed in their footsteps. Fortunately Ms B’s simpering principles were shot down in flames by some of her more sensible team members – but there was still a lot of power-dressing strutting around and some shots of very high heels as the team climbed into their chauffeur-driven cars.

Ms B really was a rubbish project manager. She was significantly quiet on the second task (also won by the female team – go girls – whose project manager was more proactive but still hopelessly inexperienced). Perhaps she did some self-hypnosis on keeping her mouth firmly closed so that her foot had nowhere to go but the floor.

Although he was  unbearable snobbish and effete, I will miss the lofty proportions of apprentice Mr R, who was sacked by SurAlaan for having the temerity to refuse to be project manager when SurAlaan ‘suggested’ it.

Mr R had a natty taste in clothing but moaned about the lack of wardrobe space in his team’s accommodation – and the lack of a shower curtain! He stuck the final nail in his Apprentice coffin when, as his prospective clients were questioning the ethics of wearing a sweater with an inbuilt video recorder and filming in public places, Mr R shouted ‘Privacy is History!’.

Hmmm. Phone tapping. The right to a personal and private life. Data Protection. Current – not historical thank goodness.

Mr R was tall. He was thin and a flashy dresser.  He was entertaining but he was undoubtedly a prat.

SurAlaaan has raised the stakes this series by having twenty apprentices  but having fired three of them in the first week – I worry about whether he’ll have enough bodies  to last till the end. Other reality shows have a crowd of desperate subs sitting on a bench comparing entertainment column inches, CVs, and fake tans – so why not ‘The Apprentice’?

Silly me! Unlike these other live ‘reality’ programmes, SurAlaaan and his team have already picked their winner but the participants have signed a secrecy contract so that they can’t kiss and tell until the whole series has been broadcast.

A large part of my viewing enjoyment comes from the lovely Dara O’Briain and his Apprentice follow-up show on BBC2 straight afterwards.  His panel usually contains at least one of my other favourite comics, together with more successful business entrepreneurs whose critical comments cut through the candidate’s crap like a laser beam.

What confuses me most is that Dara’s programme is live and by this time the apprentice we have just seen fired by SurAlaaan has often changed their hair and style of dressing completely, and has opted for contact lenses or glasses depending on what they were using before.

Their failure to impress SurAlaaan is just an unpleasant memory by the time they get to sit next to Dara and have people poke fun at them. I expect this is written into their contract however and that they get well paid to sit and sport a fixed grin whilst the audience waves red and green fired or hired cards at them.

We decry the people who are desperate to appear on the Jeremy Kyle show as sad sacks who are desperate for their fifteen minutes of fame.  What about the Apprentice candidates though, who have spun their elaborate fantasies so littered with popular buzzwords and corporate jargon that they are unintelligible too?

Ah but the Apprentice candidates have a bit more savvy.

They must have, because they are being well-paid to make themselves look stupid, incompetent and false, whereas Jezza’s lot are lucky if they get a return train ticket and overnight accommodation to bolster their DNA results and lie detector tests. Even the first apprentice to be fired gets more airtime than the most garrulous of those baring their unhappy souls on daytime TV.

There are so many ‘reality’ shows now that escapism is a far more attractive prospect.

Let me get lost in ‘Dr Who’, gossip below stairs at ‘Downton Abbey'(I know my place) or chortle at ‘Plebs’.

Ah but despite my desire for escapism – I am drawn like a moth to a flame by Jezza and SurAlaaan – Dara on the other hand I will watch in absolutely anything.