I was booked on quite a late coach back to Wellington from Palmerston North. As it happened, I managed to finish my business in Palmerston early, and so I went to the coach company to enquire about the possibility of changing the booking to an earlier time.
That was my third mistake.
The first mistake was making the original booking on that there intraweb thingy, and the second mistake was paying for it with my company credit card. Those actions immediately turned me into a second class citizen of the coaching world, and help was not forthcoming.
"I'm sorry, sir," said the nice lady at the counter, "but I can't change an internet booking. I'm only allowed to make modifications to proper bookings. But I'll tell you what, here's an 0800 phone number to ring you might be able to persuade head office to do something for you..."
She seemed genuinely sorry that the hidebound rules and regulations prevented her from helping me. She really wanted to please me by changing my booking, but since I'd made an improper booking in the first place, her hands were electronically tied and there really was nothing she could do.
"Have you a phone I can use?" I asked.
"Of course, sir; you can use this one." She proffered a complex device that looked capable of controlling a cruise missile bound for Iraq. "Press button five, then press the blue button that says 'External' on it, turn the light emitting diode gauge to 4.5 on the Richter scale and then dial the number," she instructed me.
I did as I was told. Then I fought my way through the elaborate defences erected by the alarmingly vague automated menu which insisted on offering me choices that had nothing to do with what I wanted to achieve, and finally I ended up talking to an extraordinarily dim and unhelpful American lady who appeared to have recently graduated with distinction from a course on customer dissatisfaction.
I explained that I'd like to transfer to an earlier coach from Palmerston North to Wellington and that the lady behind the counter couldn't do anything for me because the original booking had been made on the internet.
"How can I help you sir?" asked the American lady.
I said it all again.
"Do you have a booking number?"
"5995536", I told her, and I could hear her computer grinding as it extracted me from her database.
"That coach ride was booked on the internet," she said.
"Yes, I know that," I told her. "That's why I'm ringing you. The lady here at Palmerston North said that you would be able to do the transfer for me."
"So how can I help you sir?"
I explained again what I wanted.
"But it was booked on the internet," she said, puzzled.
"Yes," I said. "So can you transfer the booking to an earlier coach? I'm told there is one at 4.50pm."
I heard a distinct clang as the penny finally dropped. Lightbulbs sizzled and glowed above her solid ivory skull. "I'll see what I can do, sir."
There was a long pause and I could hear keys clattering as she typed furiously at her computer. Then she said, "There's a coach from Palmerston North to Wellington at 4.50pm."
"Thank you," I said, raising my eyes to heaven. "Can you transfer me on to it?"
"There's a surcharge fee of $1 for the transfer," she said. "How would you like to pay for that?"
"Oh I'll just give the cash to the lady at the counter here in Palmerston North," I said. "I have a shiny new dollar in my pocket which I can dedicate to the purpose."
"I'm sorry," said the American lady," but the original booking was made on the internet and paid for by a credit card, so we cannot accept payment across the counter. You will have to put it on the credit card. Can I have your credit card number?"
With a superhuman effort, I refrained from asking her why she had given me a choice of methods for paying the $1 surcharge, since only one acceptable payment mechanism existed.
"Don't you already have it?" I asked. "After all, you've got a complete record of the original booking."
"I really need you to give me your credit card number at this time," she said, her language becoming more impenetrably American as the task she was facing began to overwhelm her with its complexity. I decided to just go with the flow and I quoted the number to her.
"And the expiry date?"
I told her.
"And the name on the card?"
I told her that as well.
"That's the original fee of $34 and a $1 surcharge, making $35 dollars in total for the 4.50pm coach from Palmerston North to Wellington," she said, slurring thirty into thirdy.
"It's a transfer," I said, "not a new booking. Shouldn't you just be charging me $1?"
"The original booking was made on the internet and paid for with a credit card," she explained to me.
"Yes, I know."
"So that's the original fee of $34 and a $1 surcharge, making $35 dollars in total for the 4.50pm coach from Palmerston North to Wellington," she said again, in the robotic tones of a Star Trek computer.
I could almost hear her brain frying under the stress of my unusual and complicated requirements.
"OK," I said, giving up the struggle.
"Booking number 5995536," she said. "I'll change it momentarily."
I winced, deeply hurt by this abuse of the language. Would she really change the booking for only a moment and then, perforce, change it back again? But I kept quiet. If I said anything to her about the proper meaning of the word she had just inflicted on my eardrum, I was afraid that she might blow a circuit breaker and I'd have to start all over again. Anyway, the coach company already had its own definitions of 'proper' and 'improper'. Who was I to rock the boat?
"Booking number 5995536 is confirmed for the 4.50pm coach from Palmerston North to Wellington," she said.
"Thank you," I said, and she rang off.
"Well, I think the transfer has been done," I said to the Palmerston North lady. "Can you check it on your machine and, if possible, print me a piece of paper with the details?"
"Of course," she said, "no worries." And thirty seconds later the paper was in my hand.
I await the credit card bill with interest. It seems highly likely that it will show a charge of $34 for the original booking and an additional charge of $35 for the new one which will almost certainly lead to some interesting arguments with the bean counters at work as they endeavour to figure out just what kind of ingenious scam I'm trying to defraud them with this time. It will take reams of paper and countless phone calls to clear up the mess. The administrative effort involved will cost the company orders of magnitude more money than the cost of the original coach fare. As a direct result, profits in the next financial year will be seriously lower than forecast, the share price will tumble, bankruptcy will loom and all my friends will lose their jobs.
And it's all my fault.