Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Make your dog work for you

This story was originally published on in 2010.

          "I've found the most reliable business partner in the world," says Millie Harris, one of Surrey's most remarkable entrepreneurs. "When we decided to take a puppy, we would never have guessed that he would double our family savings!" She's talking about her dog Ollie, who is a professional waiter and entertainer.
          We're sitting in her suburban living room with French doors that lead to a spacious garden. Millie sees me look at a large painting of a boy and girl with a big blond dog. "We knew Ollie was good with kids. That was the main reason why we wanted a Golden Retriever. They are always up for a cuddle and eager to learn new tricks."
          "One day, my husband, who is a builder, came home from work and he was absolutely knackered. He sat down, switched on the telly and told me to get him a beer. Ollie immediately followed me to the kitchen. When I opened the fridge, he looked at me with those big eyes, as if he was asking: 'Shall I do it?' I thought it would be a laugh, so I put the can between his jaws and sent him back in."
          "Two weeks later, Ollie demonstrated his trick on my birthday party. Not everybody likes drool on their cans, but the idea of having a dog butler was a major hit. One of my friends asked if I could teach Ollie to pull a trolley on his wedding reception. We taught him some more tricks, and before we knew it, our dog was performing every weekend." Millie lovingly pets the blond Labrador that's sitting next to her. "He's fully booked until August next year. A London-based company even tried to book him for a fundraising dinner in 2014. But we've said no. We can't predict the future. Right, Ollie?"

          When Millie goes to the kitchen to put the kettle on, Ollie follows her immediately. I half expect the dog to come back offering me a soggy biscuit. But he's a professional now, and he doesn't work on weekdays. Millie has to carry the tea tray herself and sits down again on the sofa. "As a builder, my husband knows what it's like to start your own business, so he does all the paperwork. All I did was make sure we chose the best dog insurance in the UK. Of course we already had one to cover the vet's fee. But when your dog is pulling trolleys full of wine glasses, you do want third party liability coverage. Even though we've got a clause in the contract that says that all accidents are the client's responsibility. Fortunately, we haven't had to use our dog insurance yet." Ollie yawns and settles down for a little nap.

          "As for marketing... word of mouth is working very well for us. We wouldn't even be able to deal with the requests we'd get if we would start a website!"

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Cellar in the city

This story was originally published on in 2010, under the title "Nothing to lose but your chains".

        "When I hadn't seen a crack of light for, well, I can only assume it was days, I promised myself that if I ever got out of that cellar, I would quit my job antravel the world. You can't imagine what it does to you to be completely alone, stone cold, hungry and not even able to see your own hands." Kate Farringdon has been locked up in a cellar for six and a half days before a cleaner discovered her and set her free. Three years ago, she sold her flat in Central London and booked a single flight to The Gambia, where she now works for a chain of internet cafes.
        "It was the most frightening thing that has ever happened to me," says Kate. "I was working as an accountant with one of the big firms in the City. It wasn't my dream job, but it paid particularly well. I was planning to work for ten years or so, save a lot of money and then follow my dreams." She shakes her head and smiles. "I can't believe I would still be stuck in that same job today if I hadn't worked late on the 24th of May 2004."
        "There was this project, I don't even remember what client I was working on, but at the time it seemed very important to me and I had to get things done. So I stayed in the office till midnight. I was the only one left in the office, and when I was finally ready to go home, I found that I had been locked in. The front door of the office was closed. I should have called security, but I thought it would be easier to take the back door. Now, you have to understand that I hadn't had dinner yet and had been staring at a computer screen nonstop for over 12 hours. I don't know what happened, but as I walked down the staircase at the back, I somehow missed the ground floor and walked into the basement. I knew something was wrong when I reached the bottom of the stairs and had to go through an unfamiliar door. But it's not like I was used to taking the back door – even if I would have taken the right turning, it would probably have looked unfamiliar."
        "I used my mobile phone as a flash light because the corridor was pitch black. There were black bins, mops and buckets, but no exit. I turned back to find that the door behind me was shut. I pushed the bar, but it was locked. At first, I couldn't believe how stupid I had been to allow it to close. Of course, my mobile phone had no reception down here, and it was running out of battery too. I tried to open the door with force, but to no avail. I was so angry with myself! But there was nothing I could do but wait for security to discover me on CCTV."
        "The next morning, the alarm of my mobile phone woke me up. I tried to door again, stamped on the floor, shouted and peed in a bucket. When my phone switched itself off, hours later, I was so thirsty that I started to contemplate drinking from that same bucket. I lost all sense of time until my phone woke me up again the next morning. I couldn't switch it on any more but the alarm still worked for three more days. After that, I knew it was the weekend. There was no soft bedding, no light, no food, no intellectual stimulus to distract me. And whilst I was locked up in that cellar, I realised how empty my life had been. For the last five years, my life had been nothing more than this imprisonment. In the same building even! The only difference was that I'd never had to face my situation because there had been food, soft beds and chairs and stress to distract me."
        Farringdon spent two days in hospital to recover after the cleaner had found her. "The worst thing was that nobody came to visit me in the hospital. My colleagues were barely aware of the fact that I had gone missing; they just assumed that I wasn't well. I hadn't talked to my parents for weeks, so I can't blame them for not noticing my disappearance. My life hadn't just seemed pointless from the damp darkness of a city cellar – it looked exactly the same from the hygiene of the hospital. So I kept my promise, quit my job, sold my house and put all my money in an online savings account. They offer competitive interest rates," she says. Apparently, the accountant in Kate hasn't completely vanished. But she quickly adds: "The best thing is that you're much more flexible with an online account than with a traditional savings account. I've got access to my money wherever I am, as long as I can get on a computer with internet connection."
        "It's hard to believe, but I'm glad I got trapped in that cellar. I could have died down there if that cleaner wouldn't have found me by accident. Especially since he had no reason for being there in the first place! Just like me, he took one flight of stairs too many. It makes me sad to think about it, but at least I can say I'm alive."


Monday, 15 January 2018

Born to be fast, loud and on the move

This story was originally published on in 2010 

            Laszlo Zappador was born in a car. Not in a car park, not at the roadside, but in the back seat of a rattling Fiat 126 that was racing at 80 miles per hour from Gyor to Budapest. It was the 19st of May 1989 and Laszlo's mother, who was 17 at the time and single, was hitchhiking to the capital of Hungary when her labour suddenly sped up. It was a kick start that would determine the rest of his life.
            "I think about my mother a lot," says Laszlo, "especially on days like today. I'm turning 21 today and I hope she would have been proud of me. I've got my driving licence, have owned 8 cars in total, have lived in four different countries and I'm still a virgin. I really try to live my life in her honour and make her dreams come true because she didn't have enough time to do so. Don't you think it's sad she never went abroad, not even on a holiday? She hated Hungary, hated it so much... yet she never got to see another country."
            When I ask Laszlo how she died, he picks up a star spanner from the floor and starts polishing off the grease with his t-shirt. For a whole minute, the workshop is quiet except for the sounds of running engines in the back.
            "Nobody knows what really happened," he finally says. "I was six at the time, and all I remember is that one afternoon, she didn't come to pick me up from school. She'd run away from her family when she was expecting me, so at first, I was afraid she was running away from me too. Because she didn't have very honourable jobs in Budapest, she never introduced me to any of her friends either. There was no one I could ring, no one I could go to, so my teacher took me home with him. The next day he found out from the police that she had been ran over by a car with no licence plates. That was the first time I decided to go abroad. I didn't even have a passport; can you imagine what I was up against?"
            He puts the now shiny star spanner in a toolbox and runs his fingers through his greasy hair. "The struggle never ends. Even for an experienced driver like me, it's hard to find cheap car insurance because I'm young and a foreigner. But when I was 14 years old, I had won the national go-kart championship twice and was noticed by a coach. He helped me move to Germany, where I learned to drive on real racing tracks."
            "I was very good. Experts started to compare me to Kimi Raikkonen. But in 2007, I fell ill. Depression, emotional blockage, that sort of thing. I'd never dealt with my mother's disappearance, hadn't even been to her funeral. And all of a sudden, I started dreaming I was driving the car that hit her. I couldn't get in a car anymore without breaking into a sweat. I thought I needed a change of scenery, so I moved to Amsterdam. I joined a community of artists living in a large squat, but soon started to miss cars. Especially the sound of the engine and the wheels on the tarmac. I didn't have my licence yet, so I wasn't allowed to drive outside official tracks but I bought my first car there, anyway. A red Nissan Sunny from 1994."
            "Inspired by the people that surrounded me, I started to see the car as a piece of art. Not a very nice one – she was decrepit and rusty – but she had potential. The first thing I did was replace her wheels with massive, round speakers. I put several microphones in and around the engine, the exhaust, the emergency break and the gearstick. I connected all of these to a switchboard with separate volume control switches and voila: my first sound machine. I performed at several squat parties and sold the Sunny Sound for € 6500, more than six times as much as I paid for it."
            His pale complexion lights up when he shows me the pictures of his first car. "I believe the Dutch lad that bought her still gives the occasional concert. Someone sent me a bootleg recording the other day. Bloody amazing. But Holland was too small for me, and I couldn't get the hang of that silly language. So I spent my money on a ticket and flew to England. I've just managed to sell the Roaring Rover for £60,000 and am now working on a Clamourous Cadillac."