Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Open Roads - Meet Hal Corbett

Some customers at September’s are instantly recognisable, either because of their larger-than-life personalities or because they stand out from the crowd visually. Hal Corbett is neither of these, but Nessa always notices him nevertheless. Each Wednesday afternoon, at around 2.30pm, Hal enters the café, seeking a seat on the roof terrace if the weather is fine or, if it’s raining or too cold, somewhere near a window. On sunny days, he can often be found enduring barely-whispered criticisms from Annie and Edie, resident elderly spinsters at September’s, as they vehemently object to the laid-back manner in which he rests his feet on the lower rung of the cast iron tables or tucks a leg up under his chin as he enjoys his coffee.

But the reason Hal catches Nessa's attention isn't for the irritation he causes to certain fellow customers. From the first time she encountered him – during one of her first shifts at the café – Nessa has found herself fascinated by the air of complete peace that seems to surround the quiet, unassuming man. Whilst they only ever exchange polite words briefly as he orders his coffee, Hal’s steady countenance speaks volumes to Nessa as she studies him covertly from the serving counter.

Hal is a man of uncertain years; Purdy and Nessa have guessed anywhere between mid forties to early fifties. His greying hair has receded completely from the top of his head, settling happily in a half-ring from ear to ear, yet his face is surprisingly young. He always enters September’s with glossy, string-handled bags from one of Northbridge’s designer boutiques, resting them on a vacant chair by his chosen table (much to the further annoyance of Annie and Edie) But far from bearing the visible signs of a man caught in the iron grip of a mid-life crisis, Hal exudes classic, relaxed style – clearly taking pride in his appearance. Purdy suspects he may be gay, a verdict she proclaimed too loudly last week: ‘No straight man ever looks that good’ – much to Nessa’s alarm.

In truth, Hal is a man reborn.

For twenty-three years, Hal Corbett worked for the same company – L&H Pharmaceuticals – in the nearby town of Netherborough. Joining straight from college, he gradually progressed from trainee lab assistant to Department Head, always diligent in his work, never happy to accept praise for his successes without including his colleagues in the equation. Yet despite his generosity and great humility, Hal never fully received the recognition he deserved in his position – either verbally or financially. Instead the plaudits fell to his immediate manager, Derek Lorrimer – a small, spiteful man of limited intelligence, short temper and over-inflated ego, who greedily snatched sole credit for Hal’s work time after time.

Year after frustratingly fruitless year, Hal endured Lorrimer’s endless personal insults, blatant disregard and professional jealousies – all without a word. Promotions eluded him, vital funds for his work were denied and blame for Lorrimer’s own mistakes was planted firmly on Hal’s head. Despite the crushingly personal blows rained mercilessly on him by a man whose only virtue was an ‘old boy’s network’ frequently called upon to save his sorry hide, Hal never spoke to anyone – neither colleague nor friend – about his predicament.

Until six months ago.

On a completely unremarkable Tuesday, he opened his email to learn of Lorrimer’s plan to take a personal patent out on Hal’s recently formulated anti-bacterial hand-wash, which had been proved to eradicate hospital-acquired infections. Quite by accident – but devastatingly indicative of his woeful lack of skill – Lorrimer had copied Hal in on a private memo to another colleague in the company. Without warning, something inside him snapped. Moved by an ice-cold compulsion, Hal calmly typed his resignation, emailing it – together with a copy of Lorrimer’s email – to the CEO of the company. Then, his feet propelled by an almost unearthly force, he marched into Lorrimer’s office slapped a copy of the evidence on his desk.
‘I’m leaving.’
‘Right now.’

And with that, Hal Corbett magnificently abandoned the only job he had ever known, walking out into the bright sunshine. Three weeks later, he patented his hand-wash and, a month after that, sold the formula to a global pharmaceutical conglomerate for a figure with more noughts than he ever bothered to count.

Sitting in his favourite spot on the roof terrace, gazing beyond the froth of his cappuccino to the meandering silver river curling through the valley below, Hal has no plans beyond this moment. He may travel the world. He might write a book. He may even buy his own personal Caribbean island. But for now, Hal is enjoying the priceless luxury of simply waking up every morning without dreading what lies ahead…

© Miranda Dickinson 2008

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Welcome To SEPTEMBER'S...

...it's a coffee shop with a difference. Meet the people who work here and the customers that visit - all of them have a story to tell. So pull up a comfy chair, enjoy your coffee, maybe even indulge in something sweet - and listen to the stories that surround you...

written by Miranda Dickinson, author of Remember and The Mystical Wombat's Guide to Life