I am at war once more. A war in my head. Having destroyed the headquarters of SNCF, the French national railways, in a daring bazooka raid, I've now renewed hostilities against Chronicpost.
My ire was triggered this time by my sister's recent misadventure involving her suitcase when she and her family came to holiday in these parts. My nephew, his wife, three strapping boys and a lively nine-year-old arrived as an advance guard in their huge VW people-and-baggage carrier, so they had no issues with cases. Just a forgotten phone charger and three school books on departure, but that's par for the course.
My sister Jo and brother-in-law flew in to Toulouse airport on the Sunday, hiring a very modest VW saloon for the two-hour plus journey north to Martel. She phoned me from the airport with a cracked note of doom to announce that the bag she'd checked in hadn't appeared on the carousel. The idea of bringing a full suitcase for a four-day break seems absurd, but hey... Six years or so when they came to join us in Corsica for a late-summer holiday on that beautiful isle, the same thing happened. Lady Bracknell would have considered this second occurrence careless rather than an accident.
Jo got her bag the following day on Corsica, delivered by taxi to the house we were renting in a hillside village with a view of the distant sea. This time, however, as soon as we learnt the next day that the courier would (allegedly) be Chronicpost, my heart sunk. As you might surmise, I have altered the name of the organisation in question to inculpate the guilty, but you shouldn't have much trouble in figuring out the real name if, for example, you wear a chronometer or are familiar with the Greek word for 'time'. The company's strap line should be a cryptic 'Time waits for no one'.
Why do I hate them with such virulence? Let me count the ways. They're exorbitantly expensive – something that I could live with if I knew that they would deliver the goods. But that's far from guaranteed. They offer a tracking service that rarely works and even more rarely gives you any meaningful information about the location of your package. If you try to speak to someone on the phone, it's a costly, time-consuming, frustrating and usually fruitless business. For one thing, they tell regular and flagrant lies. Quite apart from the standard 'we'll deliver between x and y hours', they have been known to get as far as the top of our drive and leave a note in the box to the effect that they were unable to contact you, even though you were waiting just in case between x and y hours with phone at the ready.
On this occasion, there was a tantalising preliminary call. Probably an error. The phone rang once, I answered, nothing. I phoned back immediately – to hear a recorded message that referred me to the company's cheery website, there to insert a tracking number. Unfortunately, there was none to enter. The lost baggage reference, it transpired, was unique to British Airways and Aviapartner – just another outsourced outfit whose remit seems to be to keep the customer in the dark while shunting responsibility from pillar to post.
After the abortive phone call, things looked up ostensibly on the Tuesday. We received an e-mail from the Aviapartner intermediaries to say that the bag would be delivered the following day, the last full day of the family's stay, between the hours of eight and one o'clock. What's more, the e-mail came from a named individual, who even provided a phone number. My ever-optimistic wife blithely announced that she had a good feeling that my sister would get her bag back. Jo, bless her innocent cotton socks, derived comfort from her words. So much so that she insisted on coming over here for 8 o'clock, partly because she doesn't trust anyone, even her older brother, to do the necessary, and partly because she clearly genuinely believed that someone would turn up with her case at such a farcical hour.
And so, after breakfast on the back balcony in full view of our view, we waited. Fruitlessly. At least I don't have to take time off work and can get on with other things. In theory. When eight became nine became ten o'clock and still no bag, Jo urged me to make some calls to find out what was happening. If there's anything guaranteed to drive me to bedlam, it's the business of calling organisations that direct you to select an option, then move you very slowly down a queue of similarly frustrated callers until you stumble upon someone who may or may not understand let alone take any interest in your query. It's a good job that modern telephones are cordless, otherwise I'd have wound the flex around my neck and pulled tight long ago.
Given that there was no point in phoning Chronicpost's hotline without a tracking number, I tried Aviapartner. The number given at the foot of the hopeful e-mail wasn't recognised on each of three attempts. So I phoned the premium number at Toulouse airport, waited five minutes and gave up. Then I tried the Paris number I tracked down for Aviapartner: to be held in a queue on each of three occasions only to be told by the automated voice that 'all of our operatives are busy with other customers at the moment, please renew your call ultérieurement.' I'll bet the bastards were busy with other customers!
My sister's frequent questions I couldn't answer about what was happening and why didn't help my growing angst and despondency. I wanted to tell her, 'Forget it, Jo. It's Chinatown' – but she wouldn't have got the reference. It would only have compounded her perplexity.
Meanwhile in Brive, my therapeutic wife had a cancellation and got involved in the action as the one o'clock deadline approached. Perhaps it's her sunny disposition and relentless optimism that enabled her to get through to Aviapartner and find someone helpful. She learnt a key bit of information: that Chronicpost wouldn't get paid until they delivered the suitcase. A crumb of comfort as the delivery deadline passed. My sister and I ate the lunch that I'd prepared while waiting in vain, and afterwards I managed to persuade her to accept the inevitable and go and enjoy her final afternoon here with her family. By now, she had come round to the idea that in future it would make more sense to travel lighter and carry her bag into the cabin.
I hung around here all afternoon just in case, glad at least not to have to make more fruitless calls nor answer more questions about the way things are. Finally, I could get down to planning how to send in the drones and blow the entire Chronicpost organisation to kingdom come. The trouble is, they spread themselves wide and far, with depots everywhere, to mask their nerve centre and prevent such attacks. Just as Jake Gittes learns that you can't take down an evil self-seeking businessman like Noah Cross, so you can never, ever derive revenge or customer satisfaction with a company like Chronicpost.
By the end of the day, my neck felt like I had whiplash. The whole sorry experience had turned me into a tense, nervous wreck. Fortunately, I made a great choice in marrying my wife. Half an hour's deep-muscle massage and a night's sleep on a pillow retrieved from the clinic filled with spelt husks (or something equally crispy), and I rose from the dead the next morning. With my neck restored to its customary ramrod-stiff state, it no longer felt that I was dying slowly but surely from a brain tumour.
My sister and family are back in England. She sent me a text on Saturday evening to say that she had been reunited with her suitcase. Perhaps British couriers work. Hopefully Chronicpost weren't paid – by any of the other organisations in the equation. It all adds up anyway to a digital dystopia. 'Forget it, Mark. It's Chinatown.'