Whilst a would-be fiction writer, I’m an active freelence marketer. Where these two worlds collide is in what I call Coffee Break Stories. These are little fictional vignettes – usually first-person stream-of-consciousness or similar, which I write for clients. They’re not for every client, but where the products or services – or my client’s potential customer base – make it appropriate, these can be great ways to communicate a company’s personality and aspects of their proposition, in a light-hearted way. Entertaining stories with a promo message in the tail, they mainly go into blogs and newsletters. A few I wrote a couple of years ago for a client are receiving a second airing on www.customsclearancetalk.com. I thought it worth showcasing one or two of them on my own blog.
Remember, these aren’t high-grade fiction, but light entertainment. This one is about a business trip to Hong Kong.
I had man-flu within a day of landing in Hong Kong – but I couldn’t let it crush me. I think it was a combination of being stuck in the cheap-seats for 13 hours then forced to queue for a taxi in the drenching humidity of a Far Eastern summer afternoon. Still, they’d booked me into one of the most spectacular hotels on the island, down by the Macau Ferry Terminal. Amazing – I was 30 floors up, overlooking the harbour, watching the Star Ferry crossing back and forth, and a thousand other boats going about their business. It was breathtaking!
I was only supposed to be in Hong Kong for 4 days – hardly enough time to get over the jet-lag. It was meetings, meetings, every morning, so I couldn’t give in to crawling back under the duvet. I dosed up with everything I could lay my hands on and did my very best to make the most of the trip – shook a lot of hands, exchanged even more business cards, talked up the business…. and despite a raging temperature, secured a couple of very important signatures on a couple of very worthwhile contracts.
Then there was the whole ‘corporate hospitality’ side, the evenings awash with crowded restaurants, pounding night-clubs and far, far too much booze. Well, you’ve got to play the game, haven’t you, especially when the ink has hardly dried on the contract and you need to get things off to a strong start. Plus, you don’t want people thinking you’re a wuss either.
But all that was as nothing, compared to the rising panic I felt at the one other task that lay ahead of me that week….
The way it worked out, I had just one afternoon and one evening free for by far the most challenging part of the trip. I’d hardly drawn breath from announcing that I was off to Hong Kong and the shopping list was opened. What ‘her indoors’ didn’t want, wasn’t worth having…. She wanted silk… raw silk palazzo pants (whaaat?!), work shirts, lingerie, and what she rather scarily called ‘something special’ – heck, I was supposed to know what that was without even the faintest clue. Then she’d heard there were tailors who could make exact copies of existing clothing, so I’d arrived with two ladies’ skirt-suits and an evening gown in my luggage – it’s a good job I didn’t have to explain that to any airport officials. Then she wanted jewellery (isn’t it enough that she gets gold every Christmas? Obviously not.)…. Opals the stone of choice, apparently, but diamonds would be nice as well. (As well….?!) Then my adolescent lump of a son got in on the act. Picking up a pen for the first time in months, he’d produced a list – a full page – of software, widgets, gadgets and other technological bits and bobs which he promised me I could pick up for a mere fraction of their UK cost. Between them, they were determined I wasn’t to have a moment to myself – nor a moment’s peace if I returned empty-handed.
So my afternoon off, I was a man-on-a-mission. I took the Star Ferry over the water, and trawled the streets of Kowloon, armed with my lists and my bag of women’s clothing. Indeed, she was right – there were literally dozens of tailors’ shops happy to produce replica garments in 2 or 3 days. This wasn’t quite as hard as I thought it would be. The jewellery shops were rather fabulous too – not cheap (never cheap!), but I did manage to pick up something rather nice – let’s see what she makes of it when I get it home… I was directed to a huge indoor computer market for my son’s demands, and again, it was all pretty straightforward. Triumphant, I nailed it all in the one afternoon, and only needed to return briefly on my night off to collect the new outfits. It was all going to be alright after all, less the weary traveller, more the conqueror returning home with his spoils….
I was at the airport a bit early as I thought there might be some hassle over the luggage – and yes, I was indeed over-weight. But I didn’t care – I had everything. I’d even located that mysterious ‘something special’ that I was supposed to ‘use my imagination’ to seek out (and no, I’m not going to tell you what it is), so I figured on getting richly rewarded when I got home. I must have been radiating success…. confidence… triumph…. at the check-in desk. Or maybe it was the aromatic cloud of vapour-rub and menthol that had been surrounding me for days. I don’t care what – for the first time in my life, I got an upgrade! Yes, life is good.
I settled smugly into my Business Class seat, and as the freshen-up cloths and champagne began to come round, I nodded politely to my neighbour. “You look happy,” he observed, with a cheery smile. Yes indeed, I was happy. And as the bubbly took effect and my tired bones sank deeper into the armchair seat, I couldn’t help recounting to him the triumphs of my week.
We chatted on, and I explained all about my business to him – the meetings, the contracts, and the work that I had ahead of me. He asked lots of questions – seemed really interested in the sort of shipments I was going to be dealing with – then explained his own business was all about making life easier for people who shipped goods around the world. He had particular experience handling shipments from the Far East and was very familiar with the customs clearance requirements into the UK and Europe. Where I’d been worrying about how to break down container-loads and dispatch them to my retailers across Europe, he had the answers. He didn’t give me the hard-sell – in fact, in the end, it was me asking the questions, and me pressing my business card into his hand. But I sensed we’d made a mutually profitable connection in those final few hours of my trip, which made that homeward journey all the sweeter.