INDEX 2

Yeah, I know. 'Column' columns can be annoying. The following was written for a mountainbiking dot.com which is, no surprise, no more. It was my first and last venture into straight-to-html columnizing. I only managed to crank out three or four before giving up; my heart just wasn't in it.

NOUVEAU COLUMN
It was a dark and stormy night. "You have mail," my computer said, which is odd because it doesn't talk. I groggily picked myself up off the couch, where I often sleep because of its cursed proximity to the television, and shuffled over to blink at my Macintosh, which is also cursed. "Hit 'Reply'", the message said, so I did, and settled into the chair to await developments.

"You have mail," it chirped again before I could drift off.

The subject line was cryptic: "Would you like to be a columnist for madformountainbiking.com?" Maybe not so cryptic.

The body of the email was empty, which proved that this was a genuine offer, written by the Editor Himself. Editors take a professional pride in never saying more than they must to writers. "Don't you people keep regular office hours?" I immediately posted, interested but not sold.

"It is regular office hours," he replied bare seconds after I'd hit 'Send'.

I went over and opened the curtains. Sunlight flooded the room. He had a point. I looked at the television, with the pile of DVDs stacked on top. Sad, really, as I don't have a DVD player. Writing a column would pay for one, wouldn't it? But I had to remind myself of the possible consequences. The last time I'd done this sort of thing a small riot had broken out in Nottingham over a split infinitive. The power of words is an astonishing, frightening thing.

"What would I have to write about?" I asked, stalling for time to think.

"Why don't you ask a focus group?" he answered, choosing a particularly sarcastic font.

"OK, I will," I typed. And I did.

The next day a dozen strangers gathered in an anonymous room which looked suspiciously like a broom closet. Brooms haphazardly stacked outside the door added to this impression. The people stared at me as if I were mad. "No TEA?!?" one of them finally managed to choke. "You've invited us here and we're not getting any TEA!?!"

When I'd appeared at madformountainbiking.com's global corporate empire an hour ago, the Editor had been nonplused but warily helpful. "You Americans take everything so literally," he'd sighed, summoning a minion to "ready the Executive Conference Room for this gentlemen and his guests." Unfortunately his largess hadn't extended to refreshments, and I had a mutiny on my hands before we'd even started. I grabbed what tea mugs I could find cooling on the desks of their absent madforsport.com owners and quietly stole them away. Also some biscuits for good measure.

"Let's get down to business," I announced, after they'd stuffed their faces.

"When do I get my Free Gift?" someone in the back asked.

"Yes, he promised me a purple Mag-lite," a woman with an excited gleam in her eye announced to the group at large.

"You're kidding," said a man who hadn't yet removed his helmet, though I'd reminded him twice already. "All I'm getting are tyre levers. And I've already got tyre levers."

"Let's focus, people," I interrupted, steering clear of that particular topic. I'd lured them here with the promise of swag only to learn that my expense account wouldn't cover it. Well, we'd cross that bridge when we came to it. "What topics would you like me to cover in future?"

"How about the Conspiracy," said a man who'd ridden his singlespeed right into the offices and chained it to the water cooler.

"What Conspiracy?" I asked delicately.

"You mean you don't KNOW?" he spat.

"I've been out of town the last few weeks," said a familiar voice from the back of the room. "Which "Conspiracy" was this?" It was the Editor, incognito. Bastard.

I nodded my head at the singlespeed guy. "Why don't you explain to them," I suggested. "You're the expert."

"It's the bike manufacturers," he spluttered, giving me a look I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. "They're pushing all these GEARS on us. We don't NEED all these gears. They make us LAZY. They're all in it together. I've said enough. I'm leaving." He swept out of the room and we heard a crash followed by an impressive gurgling. "Who changed my COMBINATION!?!" we heard him shriek, then he was gone.

"Yes, hmmm," I stroked my chin. "If anyone has an idea as good as that one, please write it down and put it in the round metal basket before you leave the room. That's my special 'idea holder'. If you could, crumple it up so all the other ideas fit. Now, I thought you might like some background information. Is there anything you'd like to know about moi?"

"You're not going to be using any more pretentious French on us, are you?" asked the tyre lever guy, still nursing his grievance.

"No."

"Who cuts your hair?"

"I do," I answered. "Anything else? Anyone else?"

"What are your credentials?" asked a man wearing a yellow jersey several sizes too small.

Having anticipated this, I passed around copies of my CV. Except for my name and email address, it was a complete fabrication, and even my email address was a hotmail account belonging to my cousin Irv; Microsoft had banned me from their network after my expose about Bill Gates, the dwarf, and the liver pate.

The focus group was suitably impressed. "I didn't know you'd singlehandedly founded NORBA," as one of them put it.

"I like to keep a low profile," I replied demurely. The Editor struggled to contain himself. "Thank you all for coming," I added hastily, thinking it best to end the meeting before anyone asked for refills. I'd be in enough trouble as it is for leaving a Tea IOU post-it on the CEO's desk.

"In the coming months it will be my job to keep you entertained on a biweekly basis. This is a responsibility I take very seriously. Please feel free to email me day or night, excepting bank holidays. I answer all my mail personally, though Scotland Yard lends a hand when necessary. And for a moderate to large fee I will come to your home and wash your bike and your dog. It depends on the size of the dog. Please book in advance."

I cleared my throat. "As for your Free Gifts, we've thoughtfully donated them to a charity which aids singlespeeders requiring care in the community. I'm sure you'll agree it's a worthy cause." Grumbling, they left, fanning out across the offices in search of souvenirs.

The Editor stopped me as I prepared to follow. "Rather an out-of-focus group," he remarked mildly. "Oh, and that dog washing thing?"

No. He wouldn't dare.

"I've got a Jack Russell," he said, favouring me with a toothy grin. "It's in your contract. See you this weekend."

madformountainbiking.com, December 2000