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Open Features: Eric

...There was not much time for socialising, so I can’t tell you much about Eric’s private life or even if he had one. On the few occasions when we chatted I learned that he had quite a few well-known, even important, friends. For instance he knew Bill Gates quite well. And Richard Branson. And Alan Sugar - as well as several senior government ministers and religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury...

Is Eric For real, or is he a Walter Mitty dreamer?

Brian Lockett brings us a deliciously entertaining tale. If your read a better story than this before 2012 comes around we'll be surprised.

Eric Webster is not his real name. I have called him that to save him embarrassment, should he ever read this. Come to think of it, however, I doubt if he has ever been embarrassed in his whole life. You will see why as the story unfolds. Anyway, having given him this name, I’ll stick with it.

Eric and I worked together in a large open-plan office in the City. When I say ‘worked together’, I mean that we occupied adjacent cubicles, each furnished with a desk, a computer, a telephone and the usual stationery items. When every cubicle was occupied eighty four people worked in serried ranks supervised from a raised cabin at the far end of the room. We all came in about the same time every weekday, switched on the computer and sat in front of it for eight hours with tea, coffee and lunch breaks, which we spent in the office canteen a floor above. When I joined the firm - my first job - Eric had already been there quite a few years. Indeed, he was probably the oldest person in the room. He took me under his wing and saw that I got the hang of things pretty quickly.

He was in his fifties, a little chubby, with blue eyes set in a fleshy face topped with nondescript thinning and greying hair. His eyes were constantly on the move and he rarely made eye contact for more than a few seconds. He fidgeted constantly, flipping his tie, patting his pockets or fiddling with his hair.

We all did roughly the same sort of work and used words like ‘data’, ‘input’, ‘collation’. ‘analysis’ and ‘output’. I don’t think any of us really understood what we were doing, but the pay was good so we stuck with it.

There was not much time for socialising, so I can’t tell you much about Eric’s private life or even if he had one. On the few occasions when we chatted I learned that he had quite a few well-known, even important, friends. For instance he knew Bill Gates quite well. And Richard Branson. And Alan Sugar - as well as several senior government ministers and religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the early days of our association I wondered why, with such connections, he spent most of his time beavering away at a computer doing work which was unutterably boring and pointless. When I asked him about this, he tapped the side of his nose, winked and muttered “You don’t think this is the only work I do, do you?” He refused to elaborate.

The important people Eric knew, he told me, regularly consulted him on the phone for advice on economic, legal, religious and social problems which occupied the media day after day. He would often mention these consultations to me, finishing up his account with such expressions as “well, I said, it’s up to you, Prime Minister, if you want to go down that road, but you asked for my advice and that’s it” or “Rowan needs that sort of support, you know, and I’m always ready to give it. Lovely man.”

In other words Eric was a bullshitter.

Because I was quite young at the time it took me some time to latch on to this, but when the penny finally dropped I caught colleagues exchanging indulgent smiles, which, naturally, irritated me.

“Don’t give it another thought,” said one of them kindly. “The rest of us know Eric for what he is and pay no attention to him at all. In fact, you’ll notice that most of us speak to him only when we have to. He gets his stories mixed up sometimes - about how he was awarded the Military Cross during the Gulf War or how he saved the Queen’s life once. Then we take the piss, of course, but it’s like water off a duck’s back and we move off before he launches into another of his Walter Mitty tales.”

Still I was a bit cross with myself for being taken in so easily and kept looking for an opportunity to get even.

That opportunity came one Spring when it was announced that the Pope would shortly be making an important announcement about the Catholic Church’s social policy. He was to address the faithful in St Peter’s Square.

Eric was way ahead of me on this.

“I think you’ll find Joseph is going to say something really important next week” he said to me one coffee break. “Should make the headlines.”

“Joseph?” I asked.

“His Holiness. Sorry, forget sometimes that only a few of us use Joseph.”

“Eric, are you telling me that you know the Pope?”

“Many years, old boy. Don’t like to boast, but we chat on the phone from time to time. He values my judgment.”

“And what do you talk about?”

“Can’t go into detail, you understand. Confidentiality and all that sort of thing. Don’t want to risk losing his friendship.”

“You talked to him about what he is due to reveal to the world next week?”

“Of course. He likes to know what the grass roots think. Surrounded by cardinals and bishops all the time he never gets a balanced view. I’m always ready to fill him in.”

I thought this was going a bit too far, even for Eric, but at the time I said nothing. The man’s unabashable gall astounded me.

Needless to say Eric’s latest outrageous statement went the rounds quickly and one lunch time three of the lads joined me in the canteen.

“Why not call his bluff?” one of them asked.

` “How?”

“Take him to Rome and get him to introduce you to the Pope.”

They exchanged glances and then explained.

“Everybody knows you’re mad at yourself for being taken in by Eric. So why not ask him to bring the two of you together. He’ll have to agree, because he’s never been known to retract any of his absurd assertions. We’ll pay.”

“You’ll pay for the two of us to fly to Rome?” I couldn’t believe this, but I had to admit that the whole idea appealed.

“Yup,” they said. “There’s quite a few of us prepared to chip in. Wouldn’t cost you a thing. Only a couple of days’ leave, which shouldn’t be a problem.”

I told them I’d think about it, but I already knew I had to do this. It was about time Eric was forced to face reality.

When I mentioned it to him, he showed no surprise.

“Introduce you to the Pope, old boy?” Not even a raised eyebrow. Just a flip of the tie. “When?”

“Well, since he’s already discussed with you what he proposes to say next week, it would be reasonable to flatter him by letting him know that you and a friend would like to meet him after his address to the world, wouldn’t it?”

He looked at me hard, but I kept a straight face.

“I’m not sure that I could afford the fare right now,” he said. “Things are a bit difficult … ”

“Don’t worry. I’d pay. Would be worth it to meet the great man himself. My parents would be immensely proud of me and my status at home would rocket. No-one else from my village could hold a candle to me. A couple of photos would be all I’d need.”

“Well,” he said, his eyes darting about, “I suppose I could organise things.”

“Great!” I said, holding out my hand. “It’s a deal then.”

He had no choice but to shake.

Over the few days before our departure I detected an uncharacteristic lack of exuberance in Eric. The name-dropping, the tall stories, almost dried up and I got several winks from the lads, which I interpreted as gratitude for my part in reducing the flow. His unnatural lack of joie de vivre continued right up to the take-off from Heathrow, which I thought would have prompted a flood of reminiscences about his flying days and his close relationship with senior ranks in the airforces of several countries. He was silent throughout the flight, too, and it was left to me to hire a taxi to take us to St Peter’s Square. The driver, like his counterparts all over the world, was voluble and, although I had no Italian, I gathered that he was as excited as everyone else about the forthcoming appearance of the Pope on the famous balcony from where he would speak to the world.

“Questo è un giorno meraviglioso per er mondo intero,” he shouted enthusiastically as he swerved to avoid a group of pedestrians. “Ciò che dice Sua Santità er Papa oggi cambierà probabilmente la nostra vita per sempre. Occhio ai borsaioli – la piazza sarà gremita di gente de tutti i posti de’la tera. E non so’ tutti Cattolici.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I said guessing more or less what he had just said. “My friend and I will remember this historic day all our lives.” I was becoming more and more certain that I would.

Eric flipped his tie and said nothing.

The crowd became denser as we approached our destination and eventually the driver announced that it would be impossible to penetrate further. I interpreted his gestures as instructions for us to get out and proceed on foot. We did so, but there was little need for us to navigate as the crowd cheerfully absorbed us and surged forward, smiling, chatting and from time to time bursting into spontaneous applause. I had to make strenuous efforts not to become separated from Eric.

Suddenly we found ourselves in a vast, sunlit open space facing a magnificent ornate façade, the centre of which was interrupted by a projecting balcony with tall, glass-fronted doors at the back. A pair of bearded men in medieval uniform stood on either side.

“The Swiss Guard”, said Peter, the first time he had spoken since we left Heathrow. “Look,” he added quickly, “I’ll just slip away now and arrange things. All you have to do is wait here and I’ll come back to collect you.”

And he was gone, swallowed up into an excited whirlpool of humanity.

“Bloody hell,” I said, uncertain what my next move should be.

A man’s face appeared alongside.

“A bit crowded and uncomfortable, I agree,” said this face, “but that’s not really a remark appropriate to what promises to be a fair dinkum occasion, don’t you think?”

The face was that of a 50-odd-year-old, smiling, dressed casually and sweating profusely.

“Sorry,” I said. “My friend has just slipped away and, with a crowd as large as this, I fear I may never see him again.”

“English?” he asked. “I’m Bill, Australian. Somewhere here is my wife Ellen. Expect I‘ll find her later.”

I introduced myself and we managed awkwardly to shake hands.

“You’ve come all the way from Australia for this?” I said. “Sorry, didn’t mean to sound rude.”

“No, we booked our holiday before the announcement was made, so we consider ourselves very fortunate. Something to tell the grandchildren about, believe me.”

Just then the crowd fell silent And I saw that the doors on to the balcony were beginning to move. The Swiss Guards snapped to attention.

“This is it,” muttered my new friend with a sort of awed reverence which was quite lost on me.

A small figure in white appeared unaccompanied in the middle of the balcony and raised a hand in blessing. Bill and a large part of the crown dropped to their knees, but my attention was elsewhere. Several other robed figures fanned out from behind and took up positions on either side of him.

I gasped as I suddenly recognised a tubby figure in civilian clothes amongst the acolytes. He was flipping his tie and smoothing down his wispy hair.

It took me a second or two to take this in. Then a possible explanation filled the blankness of my mind, bizarre, surreal even, but just possible.

Bill had risen to his feet, his face glowing with joy, ecstasy.

“Bill,” I asked urgently, tugging at his sleeve, “can you confirm something for me, something very important. That man in the centre - is that really His Holiness, the Pope?”

Bill didn’t look at me, but he gripped my arm as tightly as I was gripping his.

“I can’t really say,” he stammered, “but I am so excited, because that man on the left there in a suit - that’s my old friend Eric Webster!”

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