They’d held their annual company awayday at the same hotel for many years, apart from last year when the hotel had been closed for a major refurbishment.

‘I’ve checked out the hotel.  You’ll find quite a few changes,’ the managing director’s PA warned.  ‘It takes a bit of getting used to.’

‘What sort of changes?’ Sir Cedric asked, not looking up as he busied himself signing a sheaf of letters with his favourite fountain pen.  It had a nib he particularly liked because it converted his signature into a calligraphic masterpiece.

‘You’ll see,’ his PA giggled, carefully blotting each signature before gathering up the letters. 

‘Ah well, I’m sure we’ll cope,’ smiled Sir Cedric, putting the lid back on his pen.  ‘Adapting to change is good for us.  Keeps us on our toes.’

Sir Cedric was an orderly man, both in appearance and habits.  He cut a distinguished figure with a fine head of white hair parted on the left and a neatly trimmed moustache.  He wore bespoke, pinstriped three-piece suits, white shirts and highly polished black shoes. His shirt cuffs protruded sufficiently to expose the gold cufflinks his father had given him on his twenty-first birthday.  In everything he did he strove to maximise certainty and minimise surprises, firmly believing that careful preparation was the best guarantee of success.  He was aware that fussing over details, when he should be delegating and focusing on the “big picture”, was considered a weakness in a person of his seniority.  But he’d learnt from bitter experience that people ‘do what’s checked, not what you expect’ — a maxim he’d adopted from an American management guru.  He was adamant that scrupulous attention to detail had got him where he was today: the CEO of a large corporation.  

The hotel was a vast Victorian building perched on a cliff top with magnificent views over the Atlantic.  The old timber window frames — hundreds of them — that used to rattle when the wind was in the west, had been replaced with white PVC triple-glazed units.  Now the screeching of the seagulls swooping and wheeling outside could barely be heard, as if they had been fitted with invisible silencers.  The hotel’s expansive roof had been retiled and some of the redundant chimney stacks, turrets and finials had been swept away.  Black solar panels had been fitted to the south facing elevations.  A neon sign brazenly announced ‘Westcliff Hotel’ in large illuminated blue letters.  Sir Cedric, a traditionalist and wary of changes for changes sake, wasn’t at all sure that he approved.

As he alighted from his chauffeur driven car, Sir Cedric was surprised to hear music.  He paused to listen and traced the sound to the concrete bollards lining the approach to the hotel entrance.  On closer examination, he spotted speakers cunningly installed in each bollard.  He shook his head in disbelief.  Glass doors opened magically and he found himself in a vast reception area that reminded him of a Bavarian castle.  A huge stone fireplace dominated one wall, culminating in a domed ceiling decorated with shooting stars, picked out in gold leaf.   A gigantic chandelier, encrusted with bright red and blue pieces of glass, hung from the ceiling.  The wall behind the reception desk wasn’t a wall at all, but an aquarium.  A constant stream of bubbles rose up to the surface, like sparkling wine in a flute.  Colourful, translucent fish darted through bright green foliage and nosed their way through a network of valleys and caves.  King Ludwig II would have felt completely at home.   

‘Goodness,’ said Sir Cedric to his chauffeur, ‘I’ve been coming here for years.  The place is hardly recognisable.’ 

True to form, it was Sir Cedric’s habit to check into the hotel the night before annual awaydays.  It provided him with the opportunity to collect his thoughts and make last minute preparations: to have a final read-through of the documentation, to put the finishing touches to his opening speech, to double check the times for breaks and the arrangements for lunch. 

He decided to inspect the conference room they’d been allocated.  The events manager, a well-groomed young woman in a navy blue uniform with a colourful cravat, accompanied him.  She stooped to swipe the door handle with a plastic card, pushed a strand of hair back behind her ear, and switched on the lights.

Sir Cedric took one look.  ‘I’m afraid this will have to be reconfigured.  It’s too formal, much too formal.  I don’t want any tables, just the chairs arranged a big U shape.  And you can get rid of that podium.  I certainly won’t be needing that!’

‘Certainly, Sir Cedric.’  The events manger made a note on her clipboard.

‘And this music,’ he waved vaguely in the direction of the ceiling, ‘we’ll obviously need to have that switched off.’

‘Of course.  No problem, Sir Cedric.’  She made another note.

He returned to his suite on the top floor, resplendent with a jacuzzi and four poster king-sized bed.  He gently squeezed a plum in the fruit bowl to check that it was ripe, poured himself a glass of champagne and phoned his wife.  ‘Pity you aren’t with me, dear.  The hotel has to be seen to be believed.  Totally transformed.  God knows what the refurbishment must have cost.’

Next morning, Sir Cedric rose early, swam a couple of lengths of the hotel pool, spent ten minutes in the sauna, took a shower, dressed in one of his immaculate suits and, over a light breakfast, read through his welcoming speech one last time.  He changed a few words here and there with his fountain pen and, precisely half an hour before the awayday was due to start, he went to the anteroom where he mingled with the directors as they arrived and were offered coffee and croissants.  Sir Cedric was accomplished at small talk, circulating effortlessly, welcoming everybody and putting them at their ease.

When the time came for the formal proceedings to begin, the participants moved obediently through into the conference room.  Sir Cedric was pleased to see that the desks had disappeared but alarmed to find music was still playing.  He asked the HR director to summon the events manager and, while they waited for her to arrive, some directors, keen to be seen to take the initiative, experimented with various switches.  Lights came on and off, curtains closed with a gentle hum and opened again, a huge screen descended from the ceiling, hovered momentarily, and rose majestically back up into its casing.  A glitterball turned slowly on its axis, scattering lights like confetti into every corner of the room. 

But the music played on.    

The events manager, still clutching her clipboard, arrived and joined the hunt to locate the elusive switch that would silence the music.  Looking increasingly flustered, with escaped strands of hair dangling over her glasses, she eventually admitted defeat.  ‘I do apologise.  I’ll put out a call for maintenance.’

A man arrived dressed in overalls, pulling a trolley with a tool box.  ‘Since the refurbishment we’ve been having a few teething problems.’  He gave Sir Cedric a disconcerting wink, as if to acknowledge him as an accomplice who surely understood such things.  ‘I’ve just checked the wiring diagram and it would seem that no switches have been installed to isolate the sound system in any of the meeting rooms.  I’ll have to open up some ceiling panels and disconnect the speakers.’  Another wink.

‘Are you serious?’ said Sir Cedric.  ‘We obviously can’t conduct our business with this din going on.’ 

‘Don’t worry, we’ll get it sorted,’ said the events manager, as much to reassure herself as anyone else.  ‘In the meantime, I’ll get the music turned off at the central panel.’ 

‘Yes please,’ said Sir Cedric, feeling irritated but remaining outwardly calm.  ‘We need to make a start.  We are losing valuable time.’ 

But the music continued, if anything a little louder.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Sir Cedric announced.  ‘I’m afraid we need to take a short break while we wait for this music to be turned off.  Please be back here in ten minutes.’

Sir Cedric was not at all pleased.  He was a stickler for punctuality and they were already running late.  What’s more, the music was inane, some sort of jangly pop music, a far cry from the soothing Baroque music he much preferred.  Just two weeks previously he’d been at Glyndebourne enjoying Handel’s Giulio Cesare.  Reluctantly, he pushed the memory aside and, recalling Wellington’s advice, ‘wise men pee when they can, fools pee when they must’, took the opportunity to pop to the loo. 

He swept into what had always been the gents and found himself in a room painted in subtle shades of pink, with cubicles and no urinals.  ‘They’ve gone way over the top in here,’ he muttered to himself as he used a toilet in one of the cubicles.  It was only when he emerged at exactly the same time as an elderly woman from an adjoining cubicle that the truth dawned on him.  ‘I’m so sorry, madam, please forgive me.  I’ve been coming here for years and this has always been the gents.’  The woman looked far from convinced and he made a quick exit, bumping into the events manager as she scurried back to the conference room.

‘Whose idea was it to change the toilets around?’  he asked.  ‘For as long as I can remember this has always been the gents.  Almost as silly as having music you can’t switch off.’

‘I think you’ll find everything is in order now, Sir Cedric.  The music in the hotel has been temporarily silenced and during your lunch break I’ve arranged for the maintenance team to disconnect the speakers in your conference room.’

‘Why bother?  Just leave the music switched off.  I’m sure none of your guests will mind.’

‘Forgive me, Sir Cedric, but we need to restore the music to the communal areas as soon as possible.  It’s company policy.  Research has shown that music has a relaxing affect on people and makes employees are far more productive.’

Dumfounded, Sir Cedric, not for the first time, shook his head in disbelief.  ‘Well, so long as we can’t hear it in the conference room.’   

The morning’s business was conducted without further mishap and, as they left the conference room for lunch, men in overalls, equipped with step-ladders, moved in and proceeded to remove ceiling panels.  Some of the panels split and bits of polystyrene fluttered down like snowflakes to settle daintily on Sir Cedric’s notes.

In the dining room, just as Sir Cedric and his team were enjoying their deserts, the music suddenly resumed, if anything more intrusively than before.

‘I sincerely hope this means they’ve managed to disconnect the speakers in the conference room’, said Sir Cedric to the HR director sitting on his immediate right. ‘What a farce!  By the way, what is this blasted tune?  I can’t get it out of my head.’

‘I’m not sure.  It’s certainly catchy.’

Sir Cedric turned to the IT director seated on his left.  ‘Reuben, you’re a young chap, do you happen to know what this tune is?  I can’t place it.  It’s driving me mad.’

Reuben cocked his head.  ‘It’s vaguely familiar, but I can’t think what it’s called. They’ve played it a few times and I’ve been humming ever since.’

In desperation, Sir Cedric beckoned to a passing waitress.  ‘This tune,’ he looked up at the dining room ceiling, ‘would you happen to know what it is?’

The waitress inclined her head and listened.  Suddenly she beamed.  ‘Yes sir.  It’s an instrumental version of Joe Dolce’s hit, Shaddapya Face.’   

Back at the office after the awayday, Cedric’s PA asked him how it had gone.

‘Eventful would be a fair description.’

‘And how did you find the hotel?’

‘Interesting,’ he replied. ‘Never a dull moment.’

‘What’s that tune you’re humming?’ she asked.

‘I’m surprised you don’t know it,’ said Sir Cedric with a straight face.  ‘I’m reliably informed it’s called Shaddapya Face.  Catchy isn’t it?’

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