’On a river there is no escape. A boat party is where corporate hospitality meets factory farming’
Quentin Shears, 48, is a partner in Newt UK, the recently rebranded Hertfordshire-based quantity surveying subsidiary of US construction giant Gator Corp. While Quentin has been coming to terms with his new masters’ work culture, they have been deciding quite what to do with their new outpost in Austerity Britain.
After a few mildly scarring weeks in which he has been accused of being a Russian spy and accidentally agreed to work unpaid for a local free schools group, Quentin has finally made it to the tranquility of August …
A quiet week was beckoning. The free schools group had decamped to various parts of the Dordogne. On the home front, Alison had taken the children to her parents, leaving me in sole custody of the TV remote for the first time since 2003. Summer, in short, was working its magic.
And then Alan Quimby burst into my office. “Quentin, did you hear about the summer party?” he asked in an obvious state of panic.
“Of course I didn’t,” I replied. “You know I turn my email off for the duration of August.”
“But it’s our worst fears realised!” he stammered. “It’s … it’s on a boat!”
This was serious. My approach to office parties has always been to pre-arrange for my wife to phone me an hour in, demanding my presence at some ill-defined family emergency. But on a river there is no possibility of escape. A boat party is where corporate hospitality meets battery farming.
And so it was with a heavy heart that I cancelled the appointment I had made for Wednesday evening with a sofa, a bottle of Taste the Difference Shiraz and a two-hour documentary on nuclear submarines, and instead found myself boarding the Sawbridgeworth Queen, the River Stort’s premier pleasure cruiser.
“What are we meant to do on this thing?” I asked Matt Keen, one of the younger QSs, by way of small talk.
“Well, there’s karaoke later, a casino, and a limbo dancing competition on the upper deck! It’s called having fun, Quentin,” he snorted. In hindsight, I probably should have asked someone who wasn’t wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a fashionably distressed panama hat.
As we chugged downstream, I couldn’t help but feel there was something quite ominous in the general high spirits. I needed a drink, but couldn’t reach the bar without passing either Matt, limboing frenetically, or my boss John Gatz Jr, who had commandeered the karaoke machine and was working his way through the entire back catalogue of Garth Brooks while instructing the retail division in a rudimentary line dance.
Just then the boat lurched dramatically. I’m no engineer, but it was clear that the synchronised nature of the dance steps was upsetting the boat’s internal frequency (I’d seen something similar the previous evening in a fascinating three-hour programme about bridge building). John Jr was reaching the climax of a particularly rousing hoedown, the line dancing was getting more and more fevered - and the Sawbridgeworth Queen was sinking.
Suddenly there were QSs running in every direction. I stumbled onto the deck and, to my relief, saw a lifeboat. “God bless the Health and Safety Executive!” I cried. “Quick, women and children first!”
In the chaos, an unfamiliar figure in a bonnet ran past all of us, leapt onto the lifeboat, and frantically began to lower it into the river. From under her coat, I caught a glimpse of a Hawaiian shirt. “Good God man, have you no self-respect!” I bellowed, hauling Matt Keen back onto the stricken vessel. “I should have you shot, sir.” In the background, the karaoke machine played on.
The fact that there were no casualties that night can be put down to many things. Luck, certainly. The heroism of a few quick-thinking colleagues, quite possibly. And the fact that, as it turns out, the River Stort is only knee-deep - that probably played its part too. All I know is that it will be a long time before I’m emotionally ready to go to another office party. As told to Nick Jones