In an excuse-for-an-office closet, in a disintegrating 70s office block, in a forgotten kebab shop-strewn alleyway of a deadbeat Midlands former steel town, we found Grant Pollard.
Grant Pollard had not made himself difficult to find. As a junior branch manger with the blossoming and publicity-hungry travel firm CheapoCruz, Mr Pollard allows that this is a necessary part of his brief, and although folks might find him in reduced circumstances, find him they most assuredly do.
Mr Pollard, true professional that he is, welcomes us with a Dulux smile in brilliant white with a hint of chiffon, and invites us to occupy the furniture. He even offers us biscuits, and we feel special.
Now you might be thinking that all the smiley-comfy-help-yourself-to-a-chocky-biccy stuff might interfere with our journalistic integrity. Not one bit of it. CheapoCruz may be flavour of the month with the undiscriminating consumer impatient to disgorge his savings on a cheap tour around the Med, but we were not likely to be bowled over by the glossy brochures and the smarmy chat.
Besides, we had already decided that Mr Pollard was a git.
"There was a time," Mr Pollard enlightens us once we're nicely settled, "when a luxury cruise would be a pleasure reserved only for the extremely wealthy."
We momentarily gasp in surprise, but otherwise disguise our astonishment. Mr Pollard, you will no doubt already have gathered, is a company man through and through.
"Now of course, thanks to CheapoCruz, such luxury is well within the reach of everyone!" he enthuses, emphasising the exclamation mark with a vulpine leer.
(Indeed - although such a change of affairs, we might pause to note, is a result of vigorous competition rather than the largesse of this particular tour operator. Nevertheless it has to be acknowledged that CheapoCruz - and we detest the name, by the way - has enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence and now leads the market in artless booze-cruises to distant brothels and far-flung nightclubs. We feel charitable enough to mention this.)
A bit of a splash
"You seem to be doing very well."
"Yes," he replies, then goes and spoils it all by adding, "we've certainly made a bit of a splash!"
Splash, get it?... Yeah, well, there's no need for that sort of thing.
Pollard permits himself a self-satisfied smirk before diving into the sales pitch and sloshing a few playful platitudes in our direction.
"But then we're very different from other operators. Certainly we offer the best value - but just because you pay less for your holiday, that doesn't mean you get any less of an experience. You see, at CheapoCruz the customer always comes first."
Mr Pollard makes this point very deliberately, as though it's a mantra that somehow sets his firm apart from any other - but we remain fairly confident that most other companies take the same line. Put it this way: we've never come across a business - any business - that claims to treat its customers like shit.
They might do it, but they wouldn't actually say it.
Naturally, we keep these thoughts to ourselves and smile pleasantly.
Opulence and splendour
"For a week or two in their otherwise mundane lives, ordinary folk can savour the opulence and splendour usually enjoyed only by the super-rich, before returning to their dreary lives as shop assistants or what-have-you," he continues.
"I like to think we can bring a bit of sparkle and a touch of adventure to their otherwise drab existences," he gushes.
"And our growing popularity is testament to our customers' appreciation of our service."
"Well quite," we say, before adding: "That said, it would be interesting to find out to what extent the public would maintain their enthusiasm if they knew about the frankly scandalous way the company is being run."
Biff! You see what we did there? Kept him sweet, nodded in all the right places, then hit him with the left hook just when he wasn't expecting it. Mr Pollard's smile could not have fallen any lower if his face had dropped off and rolled across the floor.
"I beg your pardon?" he says weakly.
"Well, we're sure you must be alarmed about some of the concerns that have been raised?"
He goes quiet, very quiet, and looks upon us with mounting agitation. "I'm not aware of..."
"Not least of which is the matter of how your fleet of ships is powered," we enlighten him.
Mr Pollard sighs. In fact, it's very nearly a sigh of contentment. Obviously the smarmy tit feels he's back in familiar territory.
"Now, this is something of which we're very proud," he drools, beaming broadly as he leans forward in his seat. "It's a breakthrough: we use a totally energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly power source."
"You use galley slaves."
"Transportation Associates, I think you'll find," a well-prepared Pollard is quick to reply.
Fair enough, we won't argue the point. We have far weightier matters to raise than his questionable terminology. "So, is it absolutely necessary," we press on, "to chain your 'Transportation Associates' to the oars and lash them repeatedly with a cat o' nine tails?"
Mr Pollard sinks a little deeper into his chair. He lapses into an uneasy silence, during which his eyes flit around the room like a bewildered bluebottle, bouncing off windows and doors, and struggling with increasing desperation to find an exit.
Satisfying himself that there is no easy escape route, the previously resourceful Mr Pollard responds weakly with an uneasy smile and the frail whimper: "Oh come now, I think you're exaggerating just a little."
We, in turn, proceed to smite his feeble attempt at bonhomie by extracting one of several well-stuffed box files from a bag and holding it aloft like a freshly un-bouldered Excalibur. "We have a good many testimonies to the contrary," we proclaim heroically.
"Okay," Mr Pollard croaks hoarsely. Finally realising that he has no option but to stand and fight, he clears his throat and says: "I admit that the business needs of the company do require us, at times, to make sacrifices.
"And admittedly, yes, it has proven necessary to chain some of our staff to their workstations. It's not pleasant, but it cuts down on absenteeism.
"And, occasionally, some colleagues are flogged, but this is always done in the presence of the company medic or a designated first-aider; and it's only ever carried out in accordance with the firm's dismissal and disciplinary procedure."
A measure of apprehension
Whelk. We frown. He, Pollard, leans forward with a measure of apprehension. We ask : "Are you quite sure about this?"
"Oh, yes, yes - quite sure," he responds, though ineffectually enough for us to question his conviction and have serious anatomical doubts about the presence of a backbone. "Look, it's all here in this pamphlet."
He scuffles about on his desktop, shuffles a sheaf of papers and drops them onto the floor in his haste. Wombling them up, he slips a slender leaflet from the dog-eared bundle and proffers it to us gingerly twixt thumb and forefinger, like a man offering a kipper to an angry walrus.
Flogging and You, reads the title. Flipping it open we find images of happy, smiling 'transport associates' bound to various pieces of rotting timber, all having sizeable chunks of flesh stripped from them. Sub-headings like 'Discipline in the Workplace' and 'Taking One For the Team' fail to convince us that this is strictly necessary for the needs of the business.
This sort of thing
"You know, some people might not be entirely happy to learn that this sort of thing goes on," we observe.
Mr Pollard shrugs. It's an abnormally dynamic gesture coming from such a depressingly indifferent man "Well, not everyone can be expected to understand modern business methods," he splutters.
"Some people," we plough on, "might consider this sort of thing barbaric."
"Oh no," Pollard gabbles defensively. "Barbaric? No, I really don't think so... Hang on, I'll check."
He reaches for his phone. We sit there, slightly puzzled, as he taps out a number and smiles obsequiously as he awaits a reply.
"Won't be a minute... Ah, Mr Lonsdale!" He twists away from us slightly as he speaks. "Yes, Mr Lonsdale, sorry to bother you. I've got some people with me here who are wondering whether it's barbaric to flog our transport associates. Yes, yes, that's right - barbaric."
Occasional redundant nods
Cradling the receiver with both hands, Pollard listens carefully, responding with occasional redundant nods and a scattering of randomly repeated words.
"Yes, yes... necessary, Mr Lonsdale... disruptive elements... needs of the business, Mr Lonsdale. Yes, thank you Mr Lonsdale. I'll put them straight about it. Goodbye Mr Lonsdale."
We watch him replace the receiver. "Who was that?" we ask.
"That was Mr Lonsdale," Pollard replies. "He's the regional manager." He cracks a smile, and it's not pretty. "And I'm happy to reassure you that flogging our staff is not barbaric."
This flat dismissal of our concerns takes us by surprise. We seize a brief moment to formulate a fresh plan of attack, before explaining that we have to disagree and would expect most of their staff to respond likewise.
"Not at all," Pollard counters, with all the compassion and humanity of a man who doesn't give a flying fig. "All our employees remain loyal and dedicated to their work. This is surely self-evident? I mean, if conditions really were unacceptable then wouldn't we have a much higher turnover of staff?"
His argument appears to be well rehearsed, but we don't allow it to throw us. "Don't you think the manacles might have something to do with that?" we challenge him. "Clearly, the only practical option for escape would be to gnaw through one of their own limbs."
"Oh, that's a little extreme."
"Although," we continue, "since the only payment they receive is a small chunk of stale bread once a day..."
"Well, that's not strictly - "
"...remuneration which, we are reliably informed, falls somewhat short of the minimum wage requirements..."
"I don't think that - "
"...gnawing off one of their own limbs might be considered a tempting option."
We fix Mr Pollard with a steely glance, because we've heard that sort of thing can be wonderfully intimidating. Also, he's getting on our wick and we feel this is the natural thing to do.
"Mr Pollard, we put it to you that the only reason your 'transportation associates' don't choose this particular way of resigning is that the loss of blood, malnutrition, armed guards and heavy, bolted doors combine to provide a more than adequate disincentive."
"No... No... That's just not true. Look... I'll..." Pollard panics, scoops up the phone once more, taps out a number and hunches over the mouthpiece. A moment's silence then: "Ah hello, yes. Mr Lonsdale, just one more... Yes, sorry, it's me again. Just a quick query... yes... yes..."
Pollard glances up at us uncomfortably. We're starting to wonder if this man is being worked by remote control.
"Yes, sorry, they're still here, sorry... They're talking about why more people don't leave the company... Yes, sorry, I know, but they're suggesting staff are forced to - "
Pollard dutifully falls silent as he listens to his lord and master, then apologises unctuously and replaces the receiver. "Well, there you go," he informs us, his confidence semi-restored. "Mr Lonsdale says that the reason we retain staff is that we provide an excellent package of benefits."
"Benefits?" we say.
"Benefits," he repeats, a little shakily.
"And what are these benefits?" we ask.
Pollard huffs and throws open his arms. "Ooh, where to start?" he begins, sounding like he's not exactly spoilt for choice. "Free uniform."
We cruelly allow the silence to endure, then: "Is that it?" we ask, feeling that he needs to be prompted to continue.
"Oh no, there's... things, you know?"
"Things?" we enquire.
"Yeah, medical things," he attempts to elucidate.
"A health plan?" we suggest accommodatingly, hoping to help him shed a little light on the matter.
"Something of the sort," he mumbles. "And they get, you know, food as well."
"Food!" we reply. "You know, you're running a very real risk of spoiling these people."
This proves to be a touch of sarcasm too far for our Mr Pollard. "Enough!" the weasel bellows, and he suddenly thumps his desk. Several piles of paperwork leap tempestuously into the air, rearrange themselves in mid-flight and settle back into their usual sedentary routine. We become equally agitated at this sudden and uncharacteristic outburst.
"You have no idea! No idea! No idea at all!" he shouts.
Apparently we have no idea.
"Listen up!" he barks at us, and we notice that he's turning a curious shade of beetroot. "We all want an easy life, but it's not that simple, is it? Head office phones me up and says we've got to increase productivity here, slash the wage bill there, come up with some new initiatives left right and centre - and if I don't deliver the goods it's my arse hanging out to dry in the morning.
"We've all got to buckle down, pull up our socks and get the flag up the pole. So, someone has to work a few extra shifts; someone has to get chained to an oar; someone - every so often, just once in a while - has to get keelhauled. Well, that's just too bad. I don't like it. Nobody likes it. But that's just the way it is."
Wow. An outburst like that deserves a round of applause, but we resist the temptation, fearing it would only serve to antagonise our little friend. Besides, we're intrigued by something else he let slip.
"Keelhauled?" Pollard responds, his voice breaking. His little tirade seems to have sapped his strength, and we're confident he remains a spent force. "Who said anything about keelhauling?"
We tell him who mentioned it, breaking the news to him as gently as we can.
"Did I?" he says. "Well, yes, all right. There is a little bit of keelhauling that goes on amongst staff and management, but it's - "
"The management?" we say. "So, you find yourself in line for a bit of keelhauling yourself, do you?"
He's bright red now, and we're revelling in his discomfort. "Well, yes," he admits, a little shamefully. "We all have to, er, play by the same rules. From time to time... it has been necessary... in the interests of efficiency... along with walking the plank... "
"And you're happy with that, are you?" we ask him.
Interests of the business
The question confuses him. "I... I... it's in the interests of the business that - "
"But do you think it's right?" we interrupt him. "Do you think it's okay for you to be abused in this way?"
"Well, you know, you say 'abuse', but... " He makes a sudden, desperate lunge for the phone, but we stay his hand.
"No, Mr Pollard," we insist, holding his wrist firmly. We can feel his tiny, timorous heart pounding frantically. "We want to know what you think about this. We want to know if you think this is fair; if you think this is right."
He looks up at us now with a plaintive, piteous expression that almost - but not quite - makes us weep. "No," he eventually offers in a small voice. "No, I don't."
Ah ha! Maybe we've made a breakthrough?
"Then do something about it!" we tell him. "Speak your mind! Demand respect! Your destiny is in your own hands, Mr Pollard!"
But the timid Mr Pollard isn't quite ready to be empowered and shrinks away from the harsh light of emancipation.
"Oh, I don't want to make a fuss," he replies.
"You have a right to be treated with dignity," we persevere.
"It's difficult," he continues. "In my position... I don't really want to get involved."
"Like it or not, you are involved, Mr Pollard!" we insist. We're starting to get carried away now. "Either you stand up for yourself or you roll over and let it happen. You don't have the luxury of sitting on the fence."
"Stand tall, Mr Pollard!" we thunder.
"Break free, Mr Pollard!" we roar.
It's too late - we've lost him. That brief glimmer of hope has been extinguished by a lifetime of subordination and the timid Mr Pollard breaks our grip and once more reaches for the phone, like a drowning man grasping at a space hopper.
"Mr Lonsdale! Mr Lonsdale! Yes, sorry, sorry, so sorry. Yes, important meeting - I understand but, I'm having a little difficulty with... Oh, yes, yes, they are. I've tried to explain it all, but - "
A fearsome noise erupts from the telephone. We're alarmed, but Pollard seems appreciably bolstered by this furious outburst.
"Yes, yes," he responds, with something close to eagerness. "I'll tell them." He looks up at us. "Mr Lonsdale says that this isn't fun time," he announces. "He says that we're not playing party games. This is a business! We're not making fairy cakes for pixies; it's not all ice cream and currant buns. Mr Lonsdale says that this is the real world!"
"Right," we say. "Well that's all very well but -"
But Pollard only has ears for the less-than-dulcet tones of his overlord. "Mr Lonsdale says that you should piss off out of my office!" he says as the phone goes dead.
"Ah, okay - "
"So," Pollard says awkwardly, all alone now with just the dialling tone for comfort. "I think you'd better leave now."
Yes, we think so too. For a moment we consider asking if Pollard could arrange a meeting for us with his Mr Lonsdale. After all, we might be better off talking to the organ grinder than the monkey. Pointless, though, since the guys calling the tune are never the real problem, rather it's the mindless creatures who dance to them. So we politely thank the spineless prick for his time, collect our things and go.