A conversation with my sister turned to talk of mistakes and being afraid; she had an upcoming university visit and was worrying about the journey there: what if she missed her bus, got the wrong train, couldn’t find the right room, or missed the start of the tour? What if her childcare arrangements fell through and she couldn’t go at all?
I’m 18 years older than my sister so, by her estimation, I’m a lot more ‘together’ than she is. More confident. Less likely to make a mistake. And right now, I guess that’s true. I don’t fear the fickle nature of public transport or panic about new experiences but I do remember how it feels to be in your early twenties when your skin is altogether a lot thinner and the world feels much bigger. I thought, therefore, the best thing I could do was share with her some of the mistakes I made when I was about her age. At the time, they were embarrassing, stressful and a little bit upsetting. In hindsight, I found them pretty funny and I thought you might do too. So here goes:
The Cup of Tea Mistake
I am 20 years old and I have never made a cup of tea. And now I’m being asked to make one for the visiting Regional Sales Director who is Very Important. I am a coffee drinker and coffee is easy: a teaspoon of granules, some hot water and a bit of milk. Oh yes, and a couple of teaspoons of sugar (this is back when everybody had sugar). Tea is an entirely different proposition. Tea for the Regional Sales Director who is Very Important is terrifying.
I know how it starts: bag in cup then pour your boiling water in and leave it for a bit, but for how long? The Regional Sales Director says he’d like it “Builders”. What does that even mean? How do builders like their tea? With cement in?
I stand and stare at the kettle before asking the office manager for help who (and I will be forever grateful to him for this – cheers Spencer) doesn’t rip into me but instead calmly talks me through the process. Before going off to tell the whole of the front office and then standing in the doorway to watch me make my presentation.
Tea made, I proudly walk from the kitchenette into the back office (which is attached to a warehouse and has no natural daylight and yet is where the management team choose to sit), and as I cross the carpeted floor…. I fail to hold the cups level and spill tea all the way from the door right to the regional sales director’s feet. Like Hansel & Gretel and their breadcrumbs, a trail of tea leads me past the laughing office manager and back to the kitchenette where I begin the process again. At least I know how to make it this time.
The Cup of Coffee Mistake
I am 23 years old and going to visit a customer. I have driven there in a company car – a real life company car! I have a very nice leatherette Filofax of which I am inordinately proud, I like to think its says I’m “serious”.
The meeting with the customer is in his office and he has something much nicer than my Filofax – a real leather, padded ‘conference ring binder’ with many pen holders, zipped compartments and slots for business cards. If there were a game of Top Trumps based on stationery accessories, he would definitely win. It lies open on his desk, ready for him to make notes based on all the very interesting things that I will have to say about structured cabling (hahaha!).
Before I can wow him with my knowledge of CAT5 however, he asks me if I would like a drink. I am tempted to request builders tea to see if his secretary knows how to make it but instead stick with what I know – coffee, white with two sugars.
The coffee arrives. It gets placed on the desk and as I reach across to take the handle I knock it everywhere. I watch as a tide of hot brown liquid rapidly makes its way across his desk towards the waiting leather ring binder. Mortified? You bet. Thankfully his reactions are lightening fast and his precious executive accoutrement is saved. However, the coffee does meet with a yellow legal pad which begins the process of mopping up before we can even grab a paper towel.
Like my manager before, the customer did not make fun of me right away, instead he offered tissues and said “It doesn’t matter”. When I returned to my office, I had to relive the whole damn thing again as my sales manager wanted to know how the visit had gone. My penance was to make him a cup of coffee every day for the next week.
The Passport Mistake
We’ll rewind a little bit here – this occurs not long after the ‘Cup of Tea’ incident. I’m 21 years old and it is 4am on a very cold December morning. There is snow on the ground and more on its way but, for now, I’m feeling warm as I am in a minibus with my colleagues from the freight forwarding company I work for. We’re all off on a jolly to Calais to buy continental lager from a hypermarket and maybe some French cheeses – the excitement!
Despite the early hour we’re in good spirits and there is plenty of banter to be had. Talk of the night before and what the rest of the day might bring when someone pipes up “Alright then, who’s forgotten their passport?”.
Passport? What do you mean I need my passport? Somewhere in my mixed up mind I seemed to think that I didn’t need mine….because we are part of the EU. Ah. It is fair to say that my comment of “I have!” quietened even the birds as they began their dawn chorus. My fellow minibus occupants looked at me as if I’d told them that….well, that I thought I didn’t need my passport.
Taking the collective decision that they can’t take me all the way to Dover because that would give me a stupidly long journey home, and they can’t take me home because they’ll miss the ferry, they drop me off in a village. I don’t think it was too far from our starting point but it’s 5am and there isn’t any passing traffic so I’m going to have to walk. Which is what I do until I come across a knight in shining armour – or rather the knight in a battery powered vehicle that is the milkman. He kindly drops me at the train station and when I finally get back home, I am in tears; a mixture of embarrassment, exhaustion and freezing cold. Fortunately my landlady is also a friend – she holds fire on laughing at me until she’s made me a much needed cup of tea.
The next day I discover that my colleagues’ minibus broke down on the way home and they were stuck in it for seven hours. They may have had their passports but they didn’t have any heating……
Sharing these memories with my sister made her feel a bit less worried and gave us both a good laugh – the conversation was far more useful than me offering her advice. It also served as a reminder that at a time when social media leans towards the celebratory, sometimes it can do us good to own up to our mistakes.