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Things I Have Learned This Month

The first thing I learned this month is that if you are attached (in every sense of the word) to your feet, you should never come between a lady and her corpse. Especially if the corpse hasn't quite become one yet…

It was about 6.00am on a drowsy Saturday. Harpo the Cat was cuddled up close to me, purring like a power drill. Robin was curled up close to me as well, and she too appeared to be purring. I've learned that Robin never snores. There is a subtle, though well defined, difference between purring and snoring. Robin is quite clear on this point and has explained it to me several times. With diagrams and gestures. And a rolling pin. I think I'm beginning to understand.

All ten kilos of Porgy were wrapped around my feet which were sinking deep into the mattress springs as a result. He too emitted an occasional purr. As a consequence of all this applied affection, I was wide awake and sweaty, but I didn't dare move. If the cats realised I was awake they would demand breakfast. I wasn't quite ready for that yet.

"Clatter, clatter," went the cat flap.

"Shriek!!!" yelled something that wasn't quite dead yet.

Robin, Harpo and Porgy all woke up, instantly alert.

"Sounds like Bess has brought breakfast home," said Robin.

We have a rule in the house. Robin is in charge of dead things and vomit. I'm in charge of everything else. Since it sounded like we might soon have a dead thing, she went to investigate. Harpo followed, full of curiosity.

"Shriek! Clatter, thud, shriek! Bang! Crash!"

"It's a bird," said Robin.

"So it is," said Harpo. "That looks as though it might be interesting. I wonder if it bounces? I wonder if it rattles?"

"Well done, Bess," said Robin soothingly, trying to make the best of the situation. Perhaps the cat could be placated enough to rescue the bird that was yelling its head off in her mouth.

"mmglfff", said Bess.

"Can I have a bit?" asked Harpo, starting to edge forward.

Bess opened her mouth a little, presumably to say no you can't, but before she could say anything at all, the bird slipped away from her and raced towards Harpo, yelling and shrieking at the top of its voice and scattering feathers in a fine black cloud.

"Oh, oh," said Harpo. "That looks a bit scary – I think I'd better run away."

He drilled one claw deep into Robin's naked foot and used it as a pivot to swing himself round a hundred and eighty degrees. All his other claws were out as well, and as he pivoted on the embedded claw they dug a neat semi-circle of flesh out of Robin's foot.

"Aaaaahhh, you little bugger," yelled Robin, grabbing hold of her wounded foot.

"SHRIEK!" yelled the bird.

"Bye, bye," said Harpo over his shoulder as he fled.

"Come back, you bastard", called Bess as she made a mighty leap towards the bird. She missed, and the bird took refuge behind Robin. For a moment, cat and bird played peek-a-boo through Robin's legs. Bess actually growled; a sound which is not normally part of her vocabulary.

"Get out of my way!" said Bess angrily, and she bit Robin firmly on the foot that Harpo hadn't shredded, in order to make her move aside. "Let me get at that bloody bird!"

"Aaaahhh!" yelled Robin one more time, grabbing hold of her other wounded foot. Both Robin's feet were now in mid-air as she tended to her injuries. With one foot in each hand, she was staying upright by sheer will power alone. She moved to the left a little. Bess shot through the gap so fast that the sonic boom stunned the bird into immobility.

"Ha! Got you!"

Bess picked the bird up and raced out of the cat flap into the garden.

There was a blessed silence, broken only by the splashing of blood from Robin's multiple cat-induced wounds. Black feathers swung gently down through the air and settled on the floor.

"Is it safe to come out yet?" asked Harpo, peering shyly round the door.

"Did something happen?" queried Porgy, who is definitely not the tastiest biscuit in the bowl. Events were taking place far too fast for him to keep up with them. He was still comfortably curled around my feet, pinning me immovably to the bed. "What have I missed? Is it breakfast time yet?"

The next thing I learned this month is: never tell the truth to a computer.

It all started when my AA membership came up for renewal. For the princely sum of $78.35 I could renew my membership and Robin's membership for another year. What a reasonable fee – I was keen to proceed! All that remained was to sort out the practical details.

One mechanism for paying the fee required me to spend thirty seconds walking across the road to the AA office where I would have to stand in a queue for two minutes, after which I would wave a credit card at the nice lady behind the counter and sign a piece of paper. Total elapsed time, approximately four minutes. It all seemed far too onerous to contemplate. Feeling indolent, I determined to see if technology would solve my problem. Why leave my seat if I didn't have to?

A few clicks of my mouse brought me to the AA web site where, I was pleased to observe, I could fill in an electronic form and renew my membership online. That'll do me! I clicked and typed and typed and clicked. The only fly in the ointment was that I had to tell the computer my credit card number so that it could take $78.35 away from me. I'm always dubious about giving my credit card number to a web site, but the site assured me I had nothing to fear. It was a secure web site, safe from prying eyes. Surely I could trust it?

Convinced, I filled in my credit card number and expiry date and I clicked the submit button. There was a short pause while the web page verified my card details and then it thanked me very much and told me my AA membership was renewed for another year. Easy!

The total elapsed time was approximately four minutes; about the same length of time it would have taken had I done it in person at the AA office. But this method had the substantial advantage that I didn't have to endure thirty seconds of exercise as I walked across the road to the AA office, and I didn't have to suffer through a further debilitating thirty seconds as I walked back again. All in all I felt well pleased.

A few days later, I had occasion to do some internet banking, so I logged on to my bank account. My credit card details are also available at this same internet banking site and I glanced cursorily at the account balances as they displayed. Funny, I thought. Why is my Visa balance $391.75? I don't recall spending that amount of money on anything. Perhaps I ought to look at the details. I clicked on the link that displayed my credit card transactions.

Much to my bewilderment, I discovered that I had renewed my AA membership five times. There it was in front of my eyes. Five charges of $78.35, making a grand total of $391.75 which Visa was now insisting I pay them. Immediately. Or else!

Hmmm. That's not supposed to happen.

I printed out the transaction details and then spent thirty seconds walking across the road to the AA office where I stood in a queue for two minutes. Then I explained what had happened to the nice lady behind the desk and I showed her the printout of the credit card transactions.

"That's odd," she said. She called up my account on her computer. "It all looks normal here," she said. "It just shows that you have renewed for the next year. I can't see any extra charges. I'd better talk to my manager."

Her manager happened to be passing as she said this so she grabbed him and explained. Being a manager, he was far too exalted to deal with mere mortals like customers and so he completely ignored my existence. He wouldn't look me in the eye and he refused to answer me when I directed a question at him. He spoke only to the lady behind the desk, and he spoke very rudely, because he was a manager and she was an underling.

"Ring Paula Upstairs," he said. "It's her department. She'll know what to do." He bustled away to do important managerial things.

The lady rang Paula Upstairs and explained the problem. Paula Upstairs asked to speak directly to me.

"Did you notice anything odd when you renewed online?" she asked.

"No," I said. I explained what I'd done and what happened. "Everything was quite normal and I saw exactly what I expected to see."

"You didn't click the submit button five times, did you?" asked Paula Upstairs.

"No," I said. "I only clicked it once."

"Very peculiar," said Paula Upstairs. "I'll report it to our systems people and see if they can make anything of it. Meanwhile I'll put through a credit of $313.40 to your Visa account which will reverse four of the five transactions so you'll only have to pay Visa the $78.35 of your actual membership fee."

"Thank you very much," I said. "That should do nicely."

I returned to my office. Total elapsed time was approximately eight minutes, including one minute of exercise (thirty seconds each way). Plus the original four minutes I'd used on the web site. Twelve minutes in all. Perhaps I really should have renewed my membership the old fashioned way. It would have taken only a third of the time.

Truly it has been said that all the time you save by using a computer will need to be spent checking the computer to make sure it got everything right, and then fixing everything it got wrong.

Paula Upstairs was as good as her word. The credit came through straight away. Ten out of ten to the AA for sorting the mess out quickly, politely and efficiently as soon as the cock up was pointed out to them. Zero out of ten for letting it happen in the first place – if any of you renew your AA membership online this year, check your credit card statements very carefully. Who knows what you'll find…

I learned one more thing this month. I learned that econometrics is pedagogic play therapy. But that's so trite and obvious, that I'm a bit ashamed to even mention it at all.

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