London Life

Can I help you?

I’ve recently come to dread it. Walking into the reception of an office building, I mean. Because between me and my ultimate goal – usually a meeting of some description – lies the receptionist. And lately, I’ve noticed how they seem to provide anything but a reception for visitors.

Based on my experiences, I’ve divided them into several species.

First, you have the gatekeepers. These are usually severe, power-dressed women and tend to be located in blue-chip corporate environments. Their role seems to be mostly about degrading every visitor that has the misfortune to approach their desk. With a frosty “Can I help you?”, delivered in a tone that seems to suggest they have neither the inclination nor ability to do so, these receptionists establish their pecking order in the vast scheme of things by taking a full medical history and DNA sample, while preventing you from entering the building until they phone someone else and announce “You have a visitor”.

They then direct you through another door, where you are met by another receptionist at a slightly smaller desk, who begins the information-suck all over again, collecting a family history , voting intentions in the event of a snap election and estimation of your sexual proclivities, before directing you to an uncomfortable couch. From their desk, they observe you keenly until your are met and escorted to your meeting. They studiously ignore you on your way out.

Then, there are the unfortunates. Usually male, uniformed in their early twenties, these are actually a cross-breed of receptionist and security guard, failing to fulfill the function of either. As you approach the reception desk, they look up and as you make eye contact, you can see the sheer blind panic spread across their face. Because they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to sign anyone into the building. They don’t know how to use the NASA-issue phone to seek help from anyone else. They’re just covering for “Dave” and he’s at lunch. And they sure as hell haven’t heard of the person with whom you’re hoping to have a meeting.

The sweat gathers on their forehead and upper lip, their eyes dart from place to place on their desk and computer screen. In an attempt to do something with your repeated pleading to be let into the building, they ask you to write down your name on the back of a scrap of paper. Gingerly picking up the phone, like it fell out of the ark of the covenant itself, they dial a seemingly random number and then brutally mispronounce your name to the person on the other end. This process is repeated a few times, while in between calls, the receptionist-guard looks at you with growing mistrust. In their mind, their inability to find someone to take you off their hands somehow transforms into a belief that you’re an international terrorist.

Only the return of “Dave”, still wiping the remnants of a Double Whopper from his shirt, brings this impasse to a resolution. Throwing a scowl in the direction of the poor unfortunate behind the desk, you are simply waved in by “Dave”, who indicates he’s above petty details such as indicating which floor you should go to.

Finally, there are those that I call the Harpies. Nearly always middle-aged women, organised in complementary pairs, they can be found in most public sector buildings. Forgetting for a moment that they’re behind the reception desk of an anonymous London office building, and somehow believing themselves to be auditioning for (insert name of god-awful talent show here), they engage in a double act of screaming hilarity and over-familiarity. You are greeted with a hearty “Alright my love?” You then explain you have an appointment with “Mr. Smith”. The conversation then departs from reality and enters a zone of utter madness:

Harpie #1: “You here to see Mr. Smith, then?”

You: “Yes, I believe we’re meeting in the board room…”

Harpie #1, to Harpie #2: “He’s here to see Mr. Smith, Lou…”

Harpie #2, giving you a head-to-toe once over above the top of her reading glasses: “Is he now?”

Harpie #1: “Yes. In the board room, if you beg my pardon!”

Ensuing gales of filthy laughter from both harpies.

Harpie #2: “Well I don’t think so, Ange. I haven’t seen Dave Smith all morning, and he normally comes down for a coffee at 10.”

Harpie #1, nodding sagely: “You’re right, you know. Haven’t seen him”

Harpie #2, as if speaking to a three year old: “Are you sure you’re seeing him today, love?”

Harpie #1, as if the above exchange was said in private, out of your hearing: “It’s just that he normally comes down for a coffee at 10 and we haven’t seen him”

You: “Err… yes. He confirmed it with an email the other day. He *is* expecting me.”

Harpie #1 and #2 exchange a glance that says “We’ve got a right one here”

Harpie #1: “Lou, is it in the book?”

Harpie #2: “The book?”

Harpie #1: “The meeting book, Lou. Has Dave put this in the meeting book?”

Harpie #2 picks up a large office diary from the desk and leafs through it, seemingly at random.

Harpie #1: “We’ve got a book, you see. And you put the meetings in it”

You, straining not to murder everyone in sight: “Yes”.

Harpie #2, muttering: “Nah… nothing in here for today”

Harpie #1: “Sorry love”, as if that ends the matter.

Harpie #2: “You’re not in the book.”

You: “Could you perhaps call him and let him know I’m here?”

Harpie #2 gives you a look of utter hatred, while Harpie #1 sighs and picks up the phone.

Harpie #1:”Dave? Dave? It’s Ange. At reception”

Filthy laughter.

Harpie #1: “You’ve got a young man down here looking for you. And you ain’t in the book. If I let you have that board room, there’ll be hell to pay”

Filthy laughter, which turns into violent coughing fit.

Upon recovery Harpie #1: “He’s on his way down, love.”

End of conversation. The harpies then turn to each other, trading news of family members’ intimate medical complaints and marital infidelities, while you stand to one side, mentally pleading with your contact to hurry up so you can get the hell away from them. You learn far more about Chris’s fungal infection and Tom’s wife’s inability to bear him an heir that you ever – ever – wanted to know before your escape into the safety of a meeting with someone who isn’t as mad as a box of hair.

I’m beginning to think Starbucks is actually the *ideal* place to have a meeting. No receptionists there…

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