The Geek Manifesto – the scene in the Russell Hotel

When I arrived at the Russell Hotel, a faded, yet still darkly elegant building, occupying almost the whole eastern side of Russell Square, Szandor and Minal were waiting. As I approached them I could see Minal laughing at something Szandor had just said. Minal looked as stunning as I’d remembered the day we’d met her in the café at LSE. Today she was wearing a knee length, fawn coloured suede skirt that revealed her smooth, light brown legs and a blue, gypsy-style blouse with discrete tassels at the waist and puffed sleeves that were pulled down slightly off her bare shoulders. Szandor wore khaki chinos, a red and white plaid shirt, open at the collar, and his red Converse high tops. He looked like a student at aNew Englandcollege.

‘Hey Buddy,’ Szandor called as I joined them on the steps beneath the Hotel’s imposing entrance, ‘You remember Minal, right?’

‘Hi there Alex. It’s nice to meet you again. First of all I just wanted to say that I’m sorry if I was acting a little strange last time we met. It’s not what I’m really like,’ she smiled sweetly.

‘Yeah, how about this Alex,’ Szandor leapt in before I had a chance to accept Minal’s apology, ‘Looks like our new friend here has a bit of a project going herself. Seems we’re not the only ones who like messing with people’s shit,’ he beamed approvingly.

‘Well I wouldn’t quite put it like that,’ Minal laughed, ‘It’s part of my PhD thesis. I’m studying identity in postmodernity. Oh well look, I’m not going to bore you with it, but part of my research involves trying to adopt different identities, kind of pretending to be different people really.’

‘Sounds interesting. So who are you today?’ I asked

‘Just me… for the moment.’

‘Not so fast, baby, I think we might be about to change that. You guys want to hear why we’re here today?’ Szandor nodded toward the hotel, a mischievous smile spreading across his face.

‘Sure,’ I replied.

‘Well okay. I’ve been filling Minal in a little on what we’ve been up to Alex, and so far I haven’t put her off. Today’s conference, which should be firing up right about now, is a group called MumsWeb. You heard of them?’ Minal and I looked at each other and shook our heads. ‘You got kids Minal?’

‘No.’

‘Right. So this is some big internet mom’s thing. Not sure why it grabbed my interest. Maybe I’m getting old, but I just liked the idea of a bunch of young mommas all talking about popping out kids. I don’t mean to sound weird or anything, but I just thought I’d like to hear about some stuff I don’t know shit about. That sound weird to you?’

‘A little,’ I nodded.

‘I get it. You want to get inside a woman’s head. Sure, I can see that,’ Minal replied.

‘Maybe not just their heads, huh?’ Szandor laughed. I looked to see how Minal took his comment, but she didn’t give much away by her expression. ‘So that’s kinda why we need you Minal,’ Szandor placed both his hands on Minal’s shoulders. She must have been a clear foot shorter than he was and she stared up at him with what looked like an earnest desire to play her part. I think she may also have blushed a little. ‘I didn’t think me and Alex would do too good just rolling on up to a conference full of ladies…’ he took his hands off Minal’s shoulders and shuffled us all away from the foot of the hotel steps, ‘…But I have a plan.’

‘This isn’t going to involve any kind of disguise is it, because without wanting to sound like a killjoy, I really don’t want to wear a dress,’ I said.

‘Man, why didn’t I think of that. Alex you have some crazy ideas! I’m gonna file that one away for another time if that’s okay buddy! No, here’s what we’re gonna do. You and me Alex, are a couple of regular dads who are thinking of starting up a male version of this MumsWeb idea, you know, advice for stay-at-home dads, feelings about how tough it is for a man raising a kid today, shit like that. Minal here is an internet chick who is our advisor and sort of chick passport to the conference – stops them from thinking we’re just a couple of creeps,’ Szandor waited for our response to his plan.

‘How did we meet?’ Minal asked.

‘Wherever you like. Some kids’ thing I guess, play-date or nursery, that kind of deal.’

‘How many kids do I have?’ I asked.

‘Nine. You’re a goddamn jackrabbit dude.  Oh yeah and listen, we’re both single dads okay? I figure that makes us less threatening and also totally available,’ he grinned.

Having sorted out the cover story, Szandor led us up the steps into the impressive foyer of theRussellHotel. It was dark inside and the space was overcrowded with ornate, expensive furniture, gold statues and other antique bric-a-brac. From what I knew of his background I couldn’t imagine Szandor had spent much time in upmarket hotels, yet he appeared wholly at ease. Once inside he paused, right in the centre of the lobby, to take in the surroundings, before virtually grabbing a passing bellboy and asking politely for directions to the conference. The bellboy directed Szandor to the young woman at the reception desk, who in turn sent us away through the hotel to the appointed conference suite. On the way Minal stopped us so that she could go to the loo.

‘Have you told her about what we’ve been doing?’ I asked, as we waited.

‘Our little project? Not really. I figure we’ll check her out first. Then maybe we can clue her in. Be kind of useful to have a girl in the crew huh?’

‘Why do you think she’s here? Did she say anything? Why do you think she’d just turn up to meet two strangers and go to a random conference?’

‘Maybe she just likes you, dude,’ Szandor suggested.

‘So what do you think about this whole TV collapse thing?’ I asked.

‘Told you before, Bro, I don’t really watch TV.’

‘Yeah but you must have heard what’s been going on. The whole city without television?’

‘Yeah?’ Szandor replied absently

‘Seriously? You didn’t know? The whole ofLondonis without TV and you had no idea?’

‘Ah TV’s a waste of time anyway, dude,’ Szandor dismissed the news with a shrug, peering round the corridor where Minal had disappeared.

‘Well anyway, it’s quite a big deal, trust me.’

‘If you say so,’ Szandor was facing away from me, still looking for Minal.

‘And odd as it may seem, I’ve got myself involved with the whole thing. I don’t know exactly what’s going on, apart from the fact that there’s no TV, but I think there’s some really weird shit happening that’s about to become even bigger news,’ Szandor turned back to face me, but remained silent. I took this to be a sign he was at least listening so I continued. ‘Okay, so my job is sorting out stuff for the bit of the government that deals with TV regulation, licensing TV channels, regulating the broadcasters, and for the last year, managing the switch from analogue to digital, stuff like that. And this guy I’ve been working with, guy called Logan, he’s just told me, I think, that the city’s TV network has been shut down by some coalition of techie freaks who want to bring about some internet revolution. So far, I think I might be the only one who knows this.’

Szandor nodded as though this all made perfect sense.

‘That sounds pretty interesting. You think thisLoganguy is bat-shit?’

‘Up until yesterday I would have said no, but now? Frankly, I have no idea. All sounds a bit farfetched I know, but something weird is going on, no question.’

Whilst Szandor nodded thoughtfully, Minal emerged from the loo and stood looking from me to Szandor.

‘Okay, friends,’ Szandor whispered, ‘Here’s the plan. Minal, I guess we should tell you a bit more about what me and Alex here have been up to, but we might save that till a bit later if that’s cool with you,’ he looked at Minal and smiled, but didn’t wait for a response before continuing, ‘And today I think we’re going to take it easy and just see where things go. I just kinda want to know what these moms all got to talk about. Everyone cool with that?’

Both Minal and I nodded and Szandor led us away down the hotel corridor to the conference room.

The MumsWeb conference wasn’t due to begin for another half an hour, but the large room was packed with somewhere around two to three hundred women, mostly in their late twenties to late thirties, holding Styrofoam cups and mini croissants and chatting with a furiously polite vigour. Only those nearest the doors noticed myself and Szandor as we entered with Minal, and turned to stare, prompting a momentary pause in the flow of conversation. I followed Szandor’s lead and smiled as warmly and in what I hoped to be as non-masculine a way as I could. He approached the registration table and spoke to the two smartly dressed women who sat behind it. Within moments he’d explained the story about the fictional website and introduced Minal and myself. The women had looked a little suspicious at first, but soon fell prey to Szandor’s charm, and we were in.

‘Okay kids, I’m off to go meet some moms. You two behave yourselves,’ Szandor said as soon as we’d reached the long table of coffee and cakes, and he slipped away through the crowd. I stood awkwardly with Minal for a minute or two before she also excused herself. And then I was on my own – one of only two men in a room full of several hundred women.

Since first meeting Szandor and immersing myself in his bizarre world of random encounters and borrowed identities, I’d started to feel more comfortable in unfamiliar social situations, but this seemed like a step too far. It was not paranoia that made me think everyone was staring at me, they absolutely were; every one of them was clearly wondering what on earth I was doing there. I tried several times to draw on my newfound confidence, but as I began to rehearse each opening line in my head I realised I just sounded like a pervert. From the snatches of conversation I overheard it seemed that the crowd was seething with a combustible mix of unregulated oestrogen and pent up feminist ire, which I didn’t feel was going to respond particularly sympathetically to a dubious male. So I stood and sipped bad coffee and returned endless glares from suspicious, post-natal mothers with my most benign grin until my face felt like it had itself been through a brutal and protracted forceps delivery.

I looked around the conference suite for Szandor but couldn’t see him. I watched Minal eagerly joining in one conversation after another, gradually being consumed by the crowd. At last people began moving toward their seats and the conference looked like it was about to begin. I sat down near the back of the room and was relieved when Minal appeared from nowhere and slipped into the seat next to mine.

‘Hey there,’ Minal said chirpily, ‘Friendly bunch these new mums huh?’

‘Not had much of a chance to chat really,’ I replied.

‘Only really got one topic of conversation though. Well, a wide variety I suppose but pretty much all centred round the theme of babies – when they go to sleep, when they wake up, what they eat, what colour their poo is, that sort of thing.’

‘Shame I missed it,’ I lowered my voice now as a smartly dressed woman appeared at the front the room and began tapping a microphone. She was in her thirties, very attractive and wearing a slate grey cashmere top and slim fitting, designer denim jeans, I think trying to strike a balance between career woman and cool mum.

‘All except this one woman though who rather cornered me,’ Minal whispered, ‘She had quite a story, I think they’re starting now, but I’ll tell you later. It’ll make you cry.’

I listened for the next half an hour as the vision of the MumsWeb community was outlined. There were a lot of jokes about nappies and breastfeeding, which were mostly over my head but then I guess I wasn’t really the target audience. At one point there was an interesting discussion about the current television crisis, which seemed to divide the audience. The majority simply complained about the difficulty of trying to cope without the omnipresent kids TV channels to fall back on when they needed something to occupy demanding children. Others though took a more progressive view that despite minor adjustments to their daily routines, this was a momentous and positive change. Kids spent too much time in front of the TV they argued, and now they’d all be forced to think of more educational and exciting things to do. Some of the more radical mums had already vowed not to return to their old ways when the TV service returned. I’m not sure that they would have been quite so sanguine if I’d joined in the discussion to float the possibility that it might be some time before that happened.

At one point during the welcome speech, the woman in the cashmere sweater made a reference to the exciting news that a male version of the website was being planned and that they were already hoping to replicate their successful formula for the benefit of all new fathers. This got a mixed reaction from the audience, but the speaker was clearly giving it her blessing and acknowledged a grinning Szandor sitting in the front row. He’d obviously not had the same kind of problems mingling with the crowd that I’d experienced.

The second speaker was an expert on breastfeeding, which I’d naively assumed, as much as I’d ever thought about it, was a pretty straightforward procedure. Apparently that was not the case, and for the next forty minutes I listened to stories of cracked nipples, involuntary leaking, biting and other horrors. I’m not sure the information was that useful to me, but I was strangely fascinated.

At the next break Minal and I went in search of Szandor but once again he’d disappeared. I didn’t think he would simply have left without us, but he was definitely nowhere in the room. Not least because I was now curious to hear the next speaker, and certainly in no rush to return to the chaos at work, I was happy to stay for a while and see if he resurfaced. Meanwhile Minal told me her story.

‘So most of the mums just wanted to tell me about how badly their babies were sleeping or whatever, but then for some reason this one woman began to offload her whole relationship crisis on me,’ Minal began excitedly.

‘You have a kind face,’ I suggested.

‘She was a full time mum, her husband had some high powered job, investment banking or something, never around, never does nappies or bath time, traditional old school father. One minute she’s slagging him off, the next she’s justifying his behaviour, saying how hard his job is and how he only works all those long hours to support them – typical Freudian rationalization, totally conflicted. But then she tells this amazing story about how the baby got her name. So, mum is laid up in the hospital after a long and complicated labour, pretty much unconscious for two days, meanwhile, dad goes out and gets the kid’s birth registered, and this is the crazy part, not with the name they’d already agreed on. He registers a name that he’d previously suggested and that she’d said she absolutely hated. She wakes up a couple of days later and she’s got a baby with a name she hates. How fucked up is that?’ Minal shook her head in amazement.

‘What was the name?’

‘She didn’t say. And after all that I just couldn’t bring myself to ask. The poor woman was virtually in tears as she told me.’

‘Minal’s a nice name, where’s it from?’

‘It’s Indian, my parents were fromIndia. It means precious stone, which I was okay with, until I found out it’s also a popular Native American name and to them it means fruit. I liked that even better.’

‘So you see yourself more as a fruit than a precious stone, interesting.’

‘I hadn’t thought of it like that, but maybe. I just like the idea of calling a kid “fruit”.’

Over Minal’s shoulder I saw Szandor walk back into the conference room through a door to the side of the stage. He stopped once he’d closed the door and looked around. I stretched myself up on my toes and raised my hand to catch his attention, and he wandered over to us. He made his way through the throng of women, stopping to join in several conversations on the way. The groups of young mothers he spoke to stopped talking as he spoke to them, and fluttered around him like schoolgirls each time he joined in their discussion; I could see his hand occasionally lighting on a shoulder, or cushioning the small of a back of one or other of the women as he smiled and laughed with them. Before he reached us, I noticed the door he’d come through open again and the smartly dressed woman who’d given the opening address walk through, pausing to smooth down her expensive cashmere sweater.

‘Hey friends, you all been having fun?’ he asked, clapping me on the back.

‘I haven’t really felt quite at home at this one, if I’m honest, although I have learnt plenty about breastfeeding, so it’s not been a wasted morning,’ I replied.

‘And how has our new recruit got on?’ he turned to Minal.

‘I’ve found it all very useful for my research. Thanks for inviting me, although I still don’t really know what you two are doing here,’ Minal asked.

‘Yeah, I guess we can fill you in now huh? What do you think, Alex, you think she’s cool to hear the whole deal?’

‘Sure.’

‘Well okay then, how about we blow this place and go get us some decent coffee? Do you guys need to get back to work or anything?’

‘I’m a student,’ Minal replied ‘And anyway, this has been work for me, which I can tell you more about over coffee.’

‘Alex, sounded like there was some serious shit going on with your work, you good for a coffee break?’

‘Actually I think I should probably head back.’

‘What do you do Alex,’ Minal asked.

‘Well it’s really dull, most of the time, civil servant in TV licensing, but just now I’m kind of caught up in the whole “oops, where the fuck’s all the TV gone” fiasco.’

‘Yeah, how about that? You know I was almost thinking of switching my PhD to looking at the effects of this whole thing on society. Crazy stuff. And so what have you got to do with it exactly?’

‘Well I did think it might actually have been my fault at one point, but I’ve been assured it wasn’t. Turns out, and this is obviously just between us right,’ I paused, ‘…Turns out, that it may not be just a technical fault.’

‘That sounds intriguing,’ Minal replied, ‘So what? It’s some kind of conspiracy…’ Minal was cut off by Szandor.

‘So when you gonna be done with work?’ Szandor asked.

‘We could meet this evening? Six o clock?’

‘Fine with me,’ Minal agreed, ‘I guess I should get back to school and write some of this morning’s work up. You’ll tell us more about the TV thing then okay?’

I nodded.

‘Okay then crew, six o’clock, Hampstead Heath,’ Szandor decided.

‘Why Hampstead Heath?’ I asked.

‘Never been there. I heard some guy talking about it the other day and it sounded nice. There’s a hill or something there, right?’

‘Parliament Hill, yeah.’

‘Okay then six o’clock, top of Parliament Hill,’ Szandor began walking away.

‘So what did you get up to this morning,’ I asked as we shuffled through the crowds back toward the exit.

‘Actually I had a pretty good morning,’ Szandor lowered his voice a little before continuing, ‘I don’t want to give too much away, what with a lady present and all, but I got me a little action, if you know what I mean.’

I did. I’d watched the MumsWeb founder as she’d followed Szandor out from wherever they’d sloped off to, and whilst I found it almost impossible to believe that he could have met her, seduced her and be ready to leave all within the space of forty five minutes, her flushed expression and the self-conscious adjustment of her clothing seemed to corroborate his story.

‘Wow,’ Minal responded first, stopping him as we returned to the hotel lobby, ‘That was fast work.’

I couldn’t tell if she was impressed or merely surprised.

‘Hey sometime you just make a connection right?’ he looked at us both and shrugged, a wide, mischievous grin on his face. ‘And I got to tell you man, she was wild. She told me she had this husband who was this great guy, who looked after the kids and supported her career and cooked all this great food and everything, but how she just wasn’t getting any action any more. Guess I was just in the right place at the right time is all.’

‘Somehow if I’d been in the right place I’m not sure the same thing would have happened,’ I suggested.

‘Well, anyway dude, maybe you got a lucky escape. I think she may have torn a chunk of flesh right out of my shoulder,’ Szandor shifted uncomfortably and pulled the collar of his shirt to one side, craning his neck to look for damage, ‘At one point I thought she was going to pull an alligator fuck-house on me.’

‘A what?’ Minal asked, laughing.

‘Now maybe I’ve just said too much as it is, so I think it’s time I shut up huh? Come on, let’s get the fuck outta Dodge,’ Szandor swept through the hotel lobby and down the steps back into Russell Square.

Minal and I followed on behind. ‘Look it up on Urban Dictionary later,’ I suggested.

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  1. […] HomeAbout Callum JacobsThings I’ve writtenA City WaitsHouse of Dreams Chapts 1-3The Geek Manifesto – Chapters 1-3The Geek Manifesto – the scene in the Russell Hotel […]

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