Alice in the Departure Lounge

Alice was not happy. A holiday at the Hotel Humpty Dumpty had seemed like a fine idea when she had read the reviews in the tourist brochure. How could it be that, after just checking into a hotel, everything in your life could become so difficult? Her discussion with the hotel concierge the previous day had been most frustrating. Was it really necessary for her to secure the agreement of her tour company and for them to secure the agreement of all the other tour companies as the only way she could extricate herself from this dystopia she had fallen into?

Anyway, buoyed with the strength of a new day, she had determined to give it her best shot. After all, what had she to lose? Her tour representative, it turned out, was a cocky public-school type called David (“Just call me Dave”), who had a certain used-car salesman air about him. That didn’t altogether bode well, but she persisted:

“So, I understand Article 50 of the Ts and Cs allows the contract that ties us perpetually to this Hotel Humpty Dumpty to be terminated.”

“Indeed that is the case, but it is something the tour company would be very unwilling to do, given the amount of business we obtain through the hotel chain.”

“I see, but what if a large number of your clients posted negative reviews and boycotted your company?”

“Well, if the number of clients who felt this way was in excess of 50, we would feel obliged to act.”

At this point Alice reached into her handbag. Unlike fly-by-night Dave, she had done her homework:

“Well it just so happens that I have here a petition signed by 52 of your clients on the tour, requesting that you take such action with immediate effect.”

“Ah, well, that does change things. Give me that petition and let’s reconvene this afternoon in the ballroom, you know, the one with all the mirrors.”

At this Alice felt some trepidation. She had previous bad experience of being disorientated by entanglements with mirrors.

“Oh that shouldn’t be a problem,” assured Dave. “All the mirrors are on the ceiling. And they have the most wonderful pink champagne; and an excellent 1969 vintage Bordeaux for those with less trendy tastes.”

This suggestion stirred another negative association which troubled Alice, and it wasn’t just that she was aware 1969 had been a complete wash-out in Bordeaux. But reluctantly she agreed.

Why does this place feel so familiar, Alice mused as she gazed up at the mirrored ceiling, awaiting Dave’s arrival. And what was keeping him?

“Allow me to introduce myself.” A tall middle-aged woman approached and announced herself. “I’m Mary, the new tour representative. My friends call me May. But you can call me June if you like. Julie is also acceptable. Anyhow, the good, I mean bad, news is that Dave resigned this morning and sends his apologies. The good news is that I am his replacement. You can have confidence I am someone you can do business with; no one knows more than me about the art of the deal.”

That sounded rather encouraging, well at least the second bit did. But while the used car salesman could at least be assumed to know something about deals, this woman did not instil confidence, arriving as she had, performing a rather poor imitation of a Michael Jackson moonwalk which gave the impression of forward movement but had the effect in practice of inducing a slow drift in a backward direction.

Alice, having been an impressionable teenager in 1982 had nothing against the popular culture of that time. But there was just too much of a feeling that at the Hotel Humpty Dumpty she was caught up in a script from back then which was past its sell-by date and she needed a way out. (Where were the Kevin Costners and Richard Geres of this world when you needed them?) Anyhow, this woman with her idiosyncrasies was her only hope.

“So I have requested,” the woman went on, “that under Article 50 of the Ts and Cs, we be released from the terms of our contract with the Hotel Humpty Dumpty Union. I have appointed a negotiator and will be giving the matter my full personal attention.”

“Don’t you mean that the negotiator will be giving it their full personal attention?” Alice, although irritated by the woman’s verbosity, remained attentive and alert.

“Oh I am sure David will likewise be most attentive when he attends the quarterly update meetings.”

“You are not talking about Dave, the used car salesman who resigned this morning?”

“Oh no, I think this is a different one. The other one is too busy writing his memoirs now. But negotiators come and go. You needn’t worry about that. As I was saying we will be leaving in exactly two years from this date. That is, when I say leaving, I mean we will enter into a two-year Withdrawal Agreement period during which the terms of our leaving will be agreed.”

“And when you say leave, I presume you mean being entirely free from the onerous burden of the current contract?”

“Did I say that? No, when I say leave it means exactly what I wish it to mean, not some arbitrary interpretation. I have every confidence that through these negotiations, I will secure the right of all our clients to leave the hotel.”

“Hang on, are you saying that we cannot even leave the hotel for four years?” Alice was aghast.

“I will deliver what the people have demanded.”

“I think I would rather just walk out the door and be done with it.”

“Oh no, that won’t do at all. Leaving with a deal, or even without one, can under the conditions set out by the other tour representatives gathered at the Hotel Westminster down the road only happen with their explicit consent. The tour representatives are committed to honouring your request and defending your interests. And you have my assurance that when I say leave I mean leave.”


Well, dear reader, as you can probably imagine, things did not go as Alice had somewhat naively hoped. But, rather than bore you with details, let’s fast forward a couple of years to the present. The action is taking place, as it has on most days since we left Alice in the ballroom with May/June/Julie, in the hotel’s spacious departure lounge. The tour guests are sitting with their luggage packed beside them, engaged in a lively debate about current affairs, or rather about one current affair in particular.

“Well, I’m glad that is decided,” opined a grumpy-looking old man with a professorial air in the seat next to Alice, as he put down his newspaper. “It is about time, is it not, that the Tour Company got a grip and stopped this May character from wearing us all down with her incessant lecturing about the merits of her ‘deal’? Why don’t they just sack her?”

“You are talking I presume about the decision of the Tour Company to put the whole process on ice, go on holiday for the summer and reconvene for a Ghosts of the ’70s Hallowe’en Party?” As had become the custom in these regular lobby gatherings, she had taken the rhetorical question as having been addressed to herself and responded with another rhetorical question.

“Indeed, it is time some decisiveness was injected into this process.” Her interlocutor either missed or chose to ignore the self-evident irony of the situation.

“I cannot disagree with that sentiment,” sighed Alice, closing her eyes. She was already tiring of this conversation. But the old professor was not so easily deterred.

“We all told her she was deluded and the only deal she would be offered would be a back-stab. Since we all signed over our houses back home to be serviced by Humpty Dumpty Hotel Union while we were on the tour, why ever would they want to give us back control? Only an idiot or a fantasist would imagine they would let us return with the opportunity to put our houses out for rent on Airbnb and undercut their prices.”

“All I want is just to be able to leave,” Alice sighed to herself. But unfortunately the professor overheard her and was back on her case.

“Anybody with any sense and a mastery of basic arithmetic knows that the tour company representatives will never allow that. Only an idiot or a fantasist would imagine they would vote to leave without a deal and undermine the business model that suits their own interests so well.”

“I wonder if he includes among the ranks of the mathematically illiterate idiots and fantasists the group of tour representatives who sought (unsuccessfully) to sack that awful women, whom he now so despises, when her contract came up for renewal last year?” Alice wondered to herself. But she had indulged in enough idiocy and fantasy for one day so she put her headphones back on, re-started “The Eagles’ Greatest Hits” and returned to her volume of “Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” which had become her sole source of consolation in her prolonged incarceration.

[Ed. While appreciating the sentiment, Alice would ask that sympathisers refrain from sending her copies of the new Julian Assange autobiography “My Life in the Ecuador Embassy”, since she already has 17 copies and is running out of friends (and enemies) she feels she could usefully send copies on to.]

Categorised as Sketch

By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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