An Idiot Abroad – My Adventures In London – Part 2

Those of a nervous disposition will be relieved to learn I landed safely in Belfast last night after my business trip to London. Thankfully there wasn’t a drone to be seen, although I suspect I will encounter several when I return to the office this morning. Boom Boom! Yesterday was slightly less eventful than the outward leg but there was still much to see and learn.

Having mastered the possessed lift at the hotel, we only had a short walk to where our meeting was taking place. Through Mayfair and Pall Mall, two of the posher parts of London. I almost got run over by a Rolls Royce, so busy was I gawking at it and then posed like a loon outside the Ritz Hotel, insisting my colleague photograph me. I’m the idiot in the bright orange coat by the way.

I came to the conclusion that nobody in this part of London eats anything but caviar. The remainder of their diet consists of Havana cigars and expensive wines that cost more per bottle than my monthly salary. These were the only types of shop we passed. There wasn’t a Tesco Express to be seen. Thankfully, tea and biscuits were on offer upon arrival at our meeting place.

We met in a very grand room, adorned with paintings of Waterloo and other legendary military encounters. I wandered around the room, like a star struck teenager, taking more photographs, while my slightly bemused colleague and our hosts politely made small talk until I had finished gushing over a bust of the Duke of Wellington. When it comes to 19th century military history I’m a complete and utter fanboy.

The meeting itself went well and we were treated to lunch in a members club by our hosts. Following that there was a further meeting, followed by handshakes all round and a quick dash back to Heathrow via tube and train. I am now an expert on such modes of transport, even remembering what side of the escalator to stand on in order to avoid being trampled over by my fellow commuters.

Security at Heathrow was slightly more glamorous than usual as a drag queen and her manager passed through. ‘I insist you frisk me dahhlliiings,’ she hollered, much to the amusement of fellow travellers and staff. It goes without saying that the sensors were activated. We retired to the lavish surroundings of the business lounge, where a fridge full of chilled Diet Coke almost reduced me to tears.

While the extensive buffet offered all kinds of hot dishes I was content to nibble on crackers and cheese, immersed in my Kindle. The flight home was uneventful and we landed in Belfast bang on schedule, where Fionnuala was waiting to whisk me home. I was in my own bed within 15 minutes, such was my exhaustion. I get the results of my latest blood tests later today, which will hopefully explain the fatigue I have been experiencing.

I enjoyed my trip to London, and it was successful with regards the purpose of our visit. But there really is no place like home. Who knows, the next time I visit it’s bright lights might be to sign a book contract. If so, I might treat myself to a plate of caviar. Hold the cigars. All washed down with a glass of Diet Coke, of course. A boy can dream. Until then, however, it’s back to the grind.

It Is Finished

It is finished.

The report, that is, which I’ve been fretting over these last few weeks at work. Following a final big push, it will be submitted today to they who must be obeyed. I can sit back, relax for 11.6 seconds, and then find something else to panic about, for that is who I am and that is what I do. I used to joke that I don’t meet deadlines, I beat them. Well, this one has left me feeling half dead, as well as pretty beat up.

I’m celebrating by taking a half day and going to watch Adam play a cup match against my old school, Omagh Academy. Today, though, I will be cheering on Lurgan College. Adam is returning to the team after a bout of illness. Part of me doesn’t want him to play in such a big match as he might not be 100% recovered, but I don’t think wild horses could keep him off the pitch today.

Watching my son play rugby is one of my favourite pastimes. Yes, I’ve become a ‘Rugby Dad,’ and I rarely miss a match. It’s nerve wracking watching him out there competing in such a tough, physical sport against boys two years older (and bigger) than him; but that’s the level he’s playing at now and he gives as good as he gets. He has no fear and a level of composure and concentration that I can only aspire to.

His position is tight head prop, one of the most technical and important roles in the team. He is the base of the scrum, the lynchpin if you will. If he is having an off day, then the pack cannot function as a unit, and it all starts to fall apart. I think that’s why the coaches are so keen for him to play today, in such a big match. They need him, in order for the team to perform to its full potential.

I’ve been feeling demotivated and a little jaded in work of late. Unappreciated and frustrated. But the report deadline, stressful as it was, has succeeded in making me realise, I still have a role to play in my 9-5 world. I contributed and know my boss valued my efforts. I surprised even myself with my knowledge of the subject matter and performed under pressure in order to hit the submission time on time.

I’m fortunate to have the job I do, and should never take it for granted. My family come first obviously, but publishing books and running marathons won’t happen unless the bills are paid. The job is the foundation, upon which the other dreams are built. I should be grateful for my job, not griping that it takes me away from the fun things I would rather be spending my time at. The two go hand in hand.

So, today, as I stand on the touchline, trying desperately not to embarrass my son by haranguing the referee, I will realise I’m only there because of the job. It’s a grind, it’s a pain, but it’s a blessing as well. I contribute, I make a difference, and this report is part of that. Like with Adam, the team I work in cannot function to its full potential, without my input. I’m a cog, but a crucial cog.

This deadline has breathed new life into me. It’s another corner turned, another obstacle overcome. Another step in the right direction, to where I want to be. To where I need to be. I have a plan, and I’m totally focused on getting there. I’m not going to give up now, not when I’m so close. Wild horses couldn’t keep me from playing in the games coming up. Yes, it is finished. But, in other ways, it’s only just begun.

Do you ever feel undervalued at work?

How do you handle pressure and deadlines?

Are you where you want to be in life?

The Winning Ticket – Part 1

As many of you know, I get the train to and from Belfast every day as part of my commute to work. My adventures on the 07:53 express to often feature on this blog. Today’s post is no exception. But today I want to talk about money, or rather saving money. Something I’m not very good at normally but we, as a family, have been making a big effort at of late in order to become more economically frugal.

I normally think nothing of landing at the station and purchasing a daily return ticket to Belfast – £9:60, no less. In an average month, I make this transaction approximately 20 times. Which, if you do the maths/math/finger counting, equates to forking out £192 per month on travelling to and from the office. A sizeable outgoing, I’m sure you will agree. With me so far? Good, then I’ll continue.

When it comes to good ideas in our house, you will normally find that 99% of them originate from Fionnuala. For it was she who suggested I research the price of a monthly return ticket to Belfast. When I checked, I was amazed to find that this cost a mere £138. A saving of £54 a month. That’s £648 a year! Imagine all the Diet Coke and honeycomb ice cream I could buy with that.

It was with some smugness, therefore, that I made my purchase at the beginning of the month. I clutched my brand new, shiny monthly ticket as if it was a winning lottery ticket. The conductor even gave me a little plastic wallet to hold it on, so that it would never become torn or creased. I felt akin to public transport royalty. Then it struck me. What if I lost it?

I’m a bit of an expert at ‘misplacing’ items. Keys, wallets, anything remotely valuable. My mind is a leaky sieve and Fionnuala and Rebecca are forever running around after me, picking up the detritus of my life. How on Earth then could I be trusted to hang on to a tiny ticket for an entire month without it going AWOL? Which would necessitate yours truly having to go permanently AWOL when he reported the bad news back to his wife!

What happened next? Find out later today in Part 2 of ‘The Winning Ticket.’

I’m Getting Paid To Go To The Movies

Tonight I’m going to the cinema. Unfortunately it’s not a date night with Fionnuala but, instead, work related. Myself and a colleague are attending the screening of a documentary at a small film festival in Belfast. It’s content is very relevant to an investigation we are conducting and my bosses are keen that we view it. I will be scribbling notes instead of eating popcorn but I can live with that.

It’s going to be a long day. I need to be in work early to brief another colleague about the events of the past week and hand over the on call phone. Thankfully, it’s been a relatively quiet week on that front, but I still have a few loose ends to tidy up. All that, and I have to squeeze in a lunchtime run. The Causeway Coast Marathon is only eight days away so it’s important I keep the legs loose and the engine ticking over.

We will grab something to eat before the film and head there straight from the office. I feel like a VIP as I’m getting the opportunity to meet the director beforehand. There will be no red carpet and you won’t have to endure the sight of me in a tuxedo but it’s still something special, a little bit out of the norm. The screening is a sell-out and I’ve had to pull a few strings in order to secure seats.

We still had to pay for our entry. And what an ordeal that was as our finance section made me jump through hoops in order to secure the princely sum of £12 for the tickets. Countless e-mails were exchanged and forms filled out before they reluctantly handed over the cash, accompanied by ominous warnings that I had to forward them the receipts first thing Monday morning or suffer the consequences.

My colleague has also insisted that we eat before the screening as she doesn’t want to end up getting ‘hangry’ when we are both representing the organisation and required to be on our best behaviour. I’m happy with an extra sandwich in my lunch but will tag along with her to guarantee she doesn’t turn into ‘The Incredible Hulk’ mid movie and wreak havoc within the auditorium. She’s around 5’2′ and weighs seven stone.

The silver lining is that I can claim overtime for the evening. That’s right, I’m being paid to go to the movies. Of course, I will be working incredibly hard, networking beforehand, taking copious notes during, and pressing the flesh and back slapping afterwards. There will be no munching on wine gums or dozing off during a quiet scene. Although I might smuggle in a Diet Coke or three.

I’ll have to remain wide awake and bushy tailed throughout as I’ll be expected to provide the bosses with a detailed briefing on Monday morning as to what l we viewed, accompanied by recommendations as to how it impacts upon the investigation and the needs of the organisation. Although, few and far between, there are moments when I can impersonate an adult and ‘do the grown up stuff.’

As perks go, it’s not the highlight of my career. I once travelled to Spain for four days on enquiry. But it’s something different and an interesting start to another hectic weekend at chez Black. I’ll provide further updates over the next few days but, for now, it’s almost time to leap out of bed and face the day ahead. Writing about it is one thing. Living it is an entirely different proposition. I’ll see you all on the other side.

When were you last at the movies?

What’s the biggest perk of your job?

What are you up to this weekend?

I Have No Idea What Day Of The Week It Is

I returned to work yesterday (Thursday) after three days leave. The problem with this was that while my colleagues were beginning to unwind for the weekend (some might query did they ever wind up in the first place) I bounced into the office with a bad case of Mondayitis. In my mind it was the first day of the working week as opposed to the fourth. I had no idea what day of the week it was.

This led to all sorts of problems. I made phone calls arranging meetings on Tuesday when I meant Friday. This made me look an even bigger idiot than I normally am when I make such calls. And my relaxed five day list of tasks suddenly became a panic stricken race for survival as I desperately tried to cram them all into two. My time management and prioritisation skills went out the metaphorical window as I struggled to adapt.

It was all a bit disorientating, like being in a different time zone from everybody else. They were buzzing along in an East Coast stylee while I was plodding along several thousand miles behind them, just off the coast of California. I was trudging through treacle as they shot out of the starting blocks and sprinted towards the weekend. For once, Stephen the Tortoise was not winning the race.

I often feel the odd one out where I work. As I head out for a lunchtime run, many of them are tucking into not so healthy lunches. When I mention I’m writing a novel, most of them look at me as if I have two heads. And a tail. They scramble over each other to ascend the slippery career ladder. I care about my job and what it involves but now have other competing priorities in my life. Work is no longer the be all and end all.

This can be a lonely existence at times. Some might view me as a dreamer who needs to wake up and smell the coffee. Who needs to get his head back in the game and his body back on the hamster wheel of reality. But that’s not me anymore. And yes, while I may dream, I am working towards making those dreams a reality. A reality that will provide a better future and lifestyle for my family. While at the same time scratching an inch that I have had for most of my adult life.

What I am trying to say in my own hamfisted way is that it is okay to march out of step from the masses. You are not a rat and this is not a race. You might be sitting reading this feeling unhappy or unfulfilled. That is good believe it or not for those negative emotions are the fuse you need to light in order to propel yourself towards a better, brighter future. Towards becoming the person that you were created to be.

Become a Thursday person. Or a Friday person. Or an any day of the week you want to be person. Life is about making choices and you have been blessed with the freewill to do so. It might result in a few wrong choices but that is how we learn. And who cares if your choice is against the flow and results in a few funny looks or snide remarks. To me that proves you are headed in the right direction….wherever that may be.

I write this on a Friday morning. When I woke up I was convinced it was Saturday before realising I had to get up and go to work. I have no idea what day of the week it is. But I do have an idea of what I want to achieve today. And the day after that. And the week after that. I encourage you to do the same. Get up, stand tall and walk free. The rest of your life is just around the next corner.

Do you ever get your days muddled up?

Are you stuck on the hamster wheel of life?

Why Are You Settling For Second Best?

There was uproar in the office yesterday when ‘Fast’ Eddie, my colleague and proprietor of our charity tuck shop, returned from his lunch break with fresh supplies for the ravenous hordes I like to call ‘the team’. Tayto Cheese & Onion Crisps? Check. Double Decker chocolate bars? Double Check. But most importantly, cans of Diet Coke? Er….no. He produced a box of Pepsi Max and, looking very pleased with himself, announced that it had been offer and was too good an opportunity to miss out on.

Now call me a prima donna (and nobody wants to see these legs in a tutu) but I was at a very delicate stage of writing a complex, sensitive report that required total focus and concentration. In order to drag it kicking and screaming over the finish line I needed Diet Coke and lots of it. What was this Pepsi Max madness? I cautiously circled the office fridge, inspecting its contents dubiously while berating ‘Fast’ Eddie for his utter lack of respect for moi, his most loyal customer.

‘Doesn’t it all taste the same?’ was his response. It was like a red rag to a bull for a Coca-Cola connoisseur such as yours truly. ‘No it most certainly does not’ I spluttered in disbelief. ‘It’s like giving a new born mother somebody else’s child and saying It’s a baby. They all look the same anyway’. An uneasy ceasefire settled across the office interrupted by occasional sarcastic exchanges and thinly veiled threats to withdraw my custom from his business empire.

I mulled my options over. While I can quite happily run ten miles on my lunch break I am much too lazy to walk the five minutes it takes to go around the corner to the nearest shop to buy my own supplies. Plus it was now a matter of principle. To back down would be a sign of weakness and my principled stance would be in tatters. I decided to tough it out for the afternoon and settled down to scale the north west face of the report from Hell sans my favourite beverage.

This resilience lasted approximately 23 minutes before I cracked, flounced to the fridge and admitted defeat. As a decidedly smug ‘Fast’ Eddie looked on I flung open the fridge door and removed a can of this ever so second rate substitute. I opened it and took a very reluctant swig before retiring sheepishly to my desk. I spent the remainder of the afternoon sulking at my work station, only occasionally raising my head to mutter ‘It doesn’t taste the same’ and ‘This had better be a one-off.’

I had settled for second best. I wasn’t prepared to go the extra mile (or 100 yards in this case) to get what I truly wanted. I caved in and opted for the easier, less demanding option. The comfort zone of a spacious, air conditioned office tool precedence over trudging through the mean streets of Belfast in order to satiate my aspartame addiction. ‘Fast’ Eddie claimed the moral ground and the office hyenas roared their approval.

I have spent most of my life settling for second best. Traveling the safer, more well worn path as opposed to taking a risk and pursuing my dreams. My family deserve better than that. Heck, I deserve better than that. We get one chance and it is only this late in the day that I’m finally realising that. It involves a lot more hard work on my part but isn’t that what makes it all so worthwhile in the end?

This morning my on call week ends and the weekend begins. Fionnuala and the kids are picking me up after work and we are going to spend the evening at the seaside before watching a blood red moon set over the horizon. The old Stephen would have turned his nose up at this in the past as it would have eaten into his precious beer drinking time. But that was then and this is now. Why settle for less when what you really want is more?

I’m off to work now. But I’m stopping en route to purchase my Diet Coke supplies for the day.

Have you been settling for second best?

What path are you traveling at the moment?

What is holding you back from seeking a better life?

I’m Writing A Book….Part 465,589

Or to be honest I haven’t been writing a book. Or at least not very much over the last two weeks. After a creative spurt which carried me to the end of the second draft I hit a mental brick wall. It wasn’t writer’s block as I knew what I had to write. I just couldn’t find it in me to type the words, to pick myself up and head out on another lap of the literary track. Despite hour upon hour hammering away at the keyboard the finish line seemed further away than ever.

Part of it was life. There has been so much going on that it has been difficult to find the time to commit to writing. Decent chunks of quality writing time that is as opposed to a hurried half hour here and there which are as self defeating as they are unproductive. Hurried writing equates to garbage writing, at least where I am concerned. I need a month in a darkened room. Or a padded cell. Whichever comes around first.

Then there is the fear and doubt which permeate every word I type. The voice continually snipes away at me, chipping away at my fragile self confidence. Who are you kidding, Stephen? This is rubbish, another of your pathetic pipe dreams which will never come to fruition. Give it up and accept that you are never going to be a published author. You’re not good enough. You never have been and you never will be. Fraud. Failure. Fake.

The voice is persuasive but I know it well. It and I have crossed swords many times before. Over my family, my faith and my fitness. I choose to ignore it and push on. It’s tactics are tiresome and if I let it succeed then I am giving in to all those who fuel its furtive whispers and sly suggestions. Every time I open my laptop and start to write it skulks away to curl up in a ball and lick it wounds. I fear it but I will not let it reign supreme.

Next is the sheer enormity of the task. Sometimes it feels like one step forward, one hundred steps back. There is so much still to be done, despite the many hours of work I have already put in. It’s as if I’m frantically swimming towards shore but every time I stop and look up, the beach is further away than ever. My stroke grows weaker and the current stronger. Am I destined to sink to the bottom, where my corpse will lie with all the other drowned dreamers?

All I can do is limp on, or doggy paddle as the case may be. I remind myself of how far I’ve come. It might be akin to excavating the Grand Canyon with a tea spoon but every word, every sentence, every paragraph is another one nearer the culmination of the project. After talking over my concerns with Fionnuala last night I’ve set myself the target of finishing by the end of September. I need targets otherwise this will drift on forever.

At that point I’m going to allow Fionnuala to prise the manuscript from my ghostly white knuckles and forward it to those I have selected to perform the roles of critique partners and beta readers. I hope that their feedback will polish and fine tune my meandering, haphazard word dump into a polished piece of prose fit for public consumption. If you would be interested in volunteering as a literary guinea pig them feel free to hop on the wheel and drop me a line.

I’ll keep providing regular updates of course. The blog is my lifeline, my bread and butter. Yes, it is time consuming when I could be working on the book but it is how I connect and interact with fellow writers going through similar experiences. It’s much preferable to have company on this journey and I truly support those of you who take the time to read and comment upon my random ramblings. Thank you.

Where are you on your writing journey today?

I’ve Got The Doms – Part Two

Yesterday I wrote about my doomed attempt to build a chiselled physique becoming of my kick ass, marathon running persona. Alas, despite the best efforts of my ever patient son Adam, I failed miserably and crawled away from my first weight session in years a broken man. Far from looking like a Greek God my arms felt like they were made out of Green yoghurt. Little did I know that there was worse to come. Much worse.

It is now four days later and the pain is finally starting to subside in my arms. It’s merely a dull throb now as opposed to a constant, searing ache. I can perform basic tasks unaided such as dressing and feeding myself. On the bright side I reckon I’m close to overcoming my nail biting habit if I keep this up as I’ve been unable to raise my hands to my mouth for a nervous nibble all week.

My timing, as ever, has been impeccable as at work this week I’ve been working on a redraft of a big report which the powers that be are expecting a rapid turnaround on. Having upper arms that feel like they have been set in concrete is not conducive to meeting tight deadlines in a pressurised office environment. It’s a good job I like a challenge. So I’ve been typing through the pain barrier with only the occasional break to sob inconsolably.

I think I’ll stick to running from now on and leave the He-Man heroics to Adam. My legs are strong and I trust them not to let me down come race time. As for my upper limbs? Well I’m afraid I will just have to make do with what God gave me. Much as I’ve thought they might drop off this week, as long as I have enough strength to write the words then that will do just fine. I’ll leave the weights to Arnie and Sly.

Travelling Sober

I’m on a works trip to London today and, as I write this, I’m sitting in the lounge at Belfast City Airport awaiting my flight. Everywhere is packed not least the airport bar. In fact no matter what time you are at an airport the bar is packed to the gills. People seem to throw acceptable etiquette concerning alcohol consumption to the kerb when they get airside. No matter what the hour, they can be found downing over priced drinks to their hearts content.

In my drinking days I would have been in the midst of them. It was never too early and some of my most memorable (what I can remember that is) trips to sporting events began at some ungodly hour seeing how many pints of Stella Artois I could get down my neck in the bar before the flight was called. There then followed an Olympian sprint to the departure gate which normally sobered me up sufficiently in order to board the plane. Where I would promptly start drinking again.

And so on. Once checked into the hotel there would be a quick turnaround before the imbibing started again. Food was reluctantly eaten but the primary concern was more alcohol. At some point the evening would become a blur and I would vaguely recall stumbling back to my room following last orders where I would lie comatose for a few hours before the dreaded morning came around. At which point hell would be unleashed.

Waking up in a hotel room in a strange city with a horrific hangover is no laughing matter. Especially if you need to bring your ‘A game’ to an important business meeting in less than two hours time. The fear strikes hard. Did I embarrass myself in front of my colleagues last night? Where did I leave my wallet? Will Fionnuala still be speaking to me when I phone her later? Waves of paranoia and self loathing would sweep over me as I struggled to work out how the shower worked and recovered my crumpled clothes from the floor.

Breakfast was a continuation of the torture. Pushing greasy food around my plate and pretending I wasn’t ‘that rough’ to my invariably chipper colleague who had wisely retired at an early hour to leave me talking to some random stranger about football and the meaning of life. You would always meet the same guy in the lift the following morning and exchange embarrassed small talk before we shuffled off to our respective tables to die the death of a thousand fried eggs while trying to avoid projectile vomiting over the waitress.

There then followed the meeting itself which was always held in a hot, stuffy room. You tried to nod and smile in all the right places while inside your stomach performed somersaults and your inner voice condemned you as the most useless, worthless human being ever to have cast a shadow on God’s earth. Your colleague would make excuses for you and you would thank them profusely during the nightmarish tube journey back to the airport.

Today the strongest liquid I will be partaking of is Diet Coke. I’m giving the bar the widest of berths and muttered about having to fork out £1.15 for a bag of crisps. I’m dragging my colleague out for a run later as opposed to dragging her to a pub. And I fully intend to be tucked up in bed with my book by ten pm at the very latest. Breakfast tomorrow will be a totally angst (and vomit free experience). My wife will be speaking to me and all will be well in the world.

I’m not perfect but I’m feeling perfectly fine today. Progress to becoming a better human being is measured by how you behave when faced with situations that you previously failed miserably at. I’m taking small steps but I’m taking them in the right direction. Sobriety is a choice and I choose it today. Then when I wake up hangover free in my hotel room tomorrow morning I’ll have to make the same decision all over again. It applies to any vice, struggle or temptation you face.

What do you choose today?

What’s been your most horrific airport or hotel experience?

What Are You Writing About Today ? (1)

I took a day off from novel writing yesterday. I ran and I blogged and I worked. I was still a father, a husband, a son and a brother. But I didn’t write. Which was weird as in the last week I’ve churned out in excess of 11,000 words which is prolific for me. 50,000 plus in total now. But I realised it was time to hit the brakes and reflect on what I have produced so far.

I need to spend a little more time on planning and preparation. I’m in the second third of the book now and I know exactly where I’m going. It has a flow and a direction that I’m pleased with. It is chronologically written in this third which I find so much easier. I wish I could say the same for the first section which involves a lot of flashback scenes. It jumps around a lot which is necessary in order to build the story and for character development. But it means I need to devote some serious time towards editing and structure.

The more I write the more I realise that there is so much more to writing than the physical activity of writing. It the tip of the iceberg, the cherry on top of the cake, the serene swan on the surface while below the waters it paddles furiously to maintain its dignity. The best writers make it appear so effortless, the words flow so naturally. It all seems so simple to the point where one wonders ‘Why can’t I write like that?’ But this is deceiving. Behind the scenes and beyond the pages the reader does not see the blood, sweat and tears that go into crafting every sentence.

They don’t see the frustration, the doubt and the failures. Often you have to take ninety nine steps back in order to move one step forward. And that’s where I am at the moment. I need to pause, put my foot on the ball and reflect on where I am, where I’ve been and where I’m going. In order to do so I’m going to post a series of mini blogs today about that process. I’m hoping this will entertain and educate you as to the creative literary genius that is Stephen Black. Er….right. But I’m also hoping I will unearth some nuggets of knowledge myself along the way.

What are you writing about today?

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