If you are a goofball like me, with the organisational skills of a hamster, then good customer service is an absolute essential. Just as the temperature swung down to minus three, I noticed that I had let the heating oil get perilously low. In a panic, I called Scottish Fuels late yesterday afternoon. The very efficient gentleman explained that Tuesday would be the delivery day, because the tanker that would be in my area today was already booked up. I explained my goofiness and said that I had all but run out of oil and instead of being a bit sneery, as he had every right to do, he laughed kindly and said he would do his best. He could not promise, but he would try.
I turned the heating off to save the boiler (it explodes if the tank runs dry), put on two cardigans and a hat, and the dogs and I hunkered down for the duration. I thought probably Monday at best. If the tanker was booked up, it was booked up. I would just have to do starjumps, I reflected, as I cracked the two inches of ice on the horses’ water trough. (I had to use a special implement, kindly given to me by the resourceful Stepfather.) Keep the circulation going, I thought. Also: make chicken soup, which I goodly did.
At 2pm, I heard a familiar throaty rumble. It couldn’t be, I thought. I live opposite a building yard, and they have endless huge trucks chugging in and out. It would be one of those, I told myself, stifling false hope. But Stan the Man and Darwin the Dog and I ran out to have a look, just in case.
There was the smiling Scottish Fuels man, cheerfully unrolling his hose.
Darwin, who is very pleased to see everyone, dashed up and tried to kiss the man on the nose. I said, pointing at the dog: ‘I’m not going to jump all over you, but that is exactly what I feel like.’
The smiling man looked at the dog, looked at me, suppressed the faintest flicker of terror, whether at the jumping remark or my resolutely unflattering hat I could not tell, and explained that he had a few last litres left and knew I was in need and had brought them to me.
‘I can’t believe it,’ I said. ‘I only called yesterday.’
He explained that when the tanker gets booked up, it does not mean that all the oil will be in fact delivered. People apparently order more oil than they need, so along the way he collects a surplus here and a surplus there. He left me until last, hoping that there would be something left in his great truck and so there was.
He told me all this with great good humour. He was not doing that jobsworth thing of making a tremendous put-upon performance of it, as some people might. He was not judging me for being the kind of flake who lets the oil run out in January. He seemed genuinely pleased that his plan had worked and he could keep me warm.
The AA, who occasionally have to come and help me in equally flaky situations (the last time was to change a tyre, because I had picked up a nail and I had lost the magic unlocking socket; no problem, said the smiling operative, and boosted the thing), employ people of a very similar character. I asked the changing the tyre man whether it was AA policy only to employ exceptionally nice people. I was joking, but he said that yes, that was exactly their policy.
I wonder if Scottish Fuels do the same thing. I had tried three other heating oil companies before I found them, with disastrous results. Those companies clearly thought me an idiot, and there was always a ten day delay on everything. The answer to every question was a resounding and rather triumphant no. I was always having to go to bed in my hat like Scrooge, because the house was so cold.
My paltry custom can make no difference to the Scottish Fuels bottom line. I have a small house and the amount of money I pay them is vanishingly small, in corporate terms. I’m never going to buy a mansion and keep it at the temperature of a greenhouse. If I went elsewhere for my oil, they would not miss me. Yet they treat me as I were the Queen of Sheba, with a hundred palatial rooms to heat and a bill in the thousands.
I don’t know quite why I love this story so much, and why it has brought such a smile to my face. The last couple of weeks have been rather fraught, with the floods and all. I’m missing my mother and I’m rather under the cosh in professional terms and I have been floundering a little bit, one way and another, which is why I have not been writing the blog. I knew that anything I wrote would end up being a wail, and I did not want to bore you with wailing. Suddenly, here at last was a story that was not a wail.
Out in the world, the news is, as it seems to be all the time now, bad. Even when it is not about great human tragedies like Syria, it is about personal tragedies like David Bowie, whose death hit my cohort as a hammer blow to the heart. He was the voice of our teenage years, and he was the one who made us feel we were not alone. He was the one we listened to when we slammed the doors of our lonely rooms and felt all that gawky, hopeless teen angst of not being understood and not fitting in. Bowie understood, and now he was gone. That mighty voice had fallen silent for the last time.
Even when the news is not death news, it is about corruption in high places and corporate malfeasance. I’ve almost got into that hippy thing of thinking that all big companies are devoted to fleecing the consumer and laughing at the poor drones who sheepishly hand over the cash. But here was a little good news story: a nice company, peopled by proper humans who did not speak jargon or stonewall or take the money and run, but who kindly made the effort to go the extra yard.
I value warmth because I spend a lot of my life outside, getting muddy and chilled and wet as I look after the mares. When I come inside, I sit at a desk frowning at my computer screen which is not much cop for the circulation. I feel the cold acutely. Those nice people brought me literal and metaphorical warmth.
Since I’ve been away from the blog, I’ve been thinking about it, on and off. I never really know what it is for. I used to think that I could use it as a promotion tool, ruthlessly pimping myself so that people would buy my books. When that did not work, I thought that I could use it as a daily exercise in prose, good for the writing muscle.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that it is the simple thing of having a record. I don’t have the discipline any more to write a diary, but I like having some written memories of my days. I’m at that stage with my mum when she is going now into the past. I feel that is probably a good thing, a right thing, a proper part of grief, but it’s also a sad, panicky thing. Her presence is fading. There are so many things I shall forget. I have crazed moments when I wish I had written down all the things she had said, the stories about Arkle and Vincent O’Brien and Lester and Peter O’Sullevan, her memories of childhood and of watching my father ride in races, her sudden deadpan remarks. Then I find that I did write some of them here, and I am passionately grateful. There is something here at least that is not lost.
I’d like to remember the nice man from Scottish Fuels, even though it is the smallest and most inconsequential of stories. So I tell it to you, and when I have forgotten it I shall be able to look back through these pages and remember. I can, as Yeats said, take down that book and slowly read.