The Story of the Briefcase: How I Very Nearly Became an Accountant

emtpy_tube_stationI stood at the worryingly quiet tube station with my borrowed briefcase, and a perplexed expression on my face. What on earth was doing here? And what was I going to do now?

Aristotle says to start the story in media res – in the middle of things. That’s fair enough advice, but perhaps it might help if I explained a little about the background that led up to my baffled presence on the London underground.

Let’s start with my family.

My parents are probably the most unworldly people I have met in my entire life. I had a total of two conversations about my future with them over the course of my education.

The first interjection was when I was fifteen and approaching the end of year 10. Most of my colleagues at school were headed for the mines or an apprenticeship, and it occurred to my mother to enquire, as though struck with a sudden realisation, whether I was planning to continue on? I said that I was, and reassured, we went back to whatever the conversation had been.

The second interjection was sometime between the end of my HSC and the close of university applications. I had applied for a variety of engineering courses. My mother told me that they weren’t prepared to pay for me to live away from home to study engineering, and really I should do a BA. As a well brought up, polite young man, I acquiesced.

Rodin Thinker
Should I become a kitchen porter?
After all, doesn’t it make a lot more sense, really, to study Philosophy and Classical Civilisation rather than something useless like electrical engineering?

So when I wound up in London, I had no real skills to speak of. I was quite surprised to discover that that there wasn’t as much money in the philosophy and classics games as I had supposed.

Anyway, I got a job as a kitchen porter in Scarborough – a seaside resort in the north of England, and I guess that worked out OK because it was because I was visiting a friend I made there that I met my now wife Anne in Scotland.

Which is why I was in London in the first place.

While I was there, I continued working as a kitchen porter, but I was tired of being wet and standing up all the time. So I got a job as a care worker, and at least it was dry, but still involved a lot of standing up. So I did a touch typing course, and then started work as an office temp.

Now that was progress – I was dry, and I got to sit down all day, and to work sensible hours as well – no more cycling through the snow to put my care work clients to bed! Here was metropolitan sophistication! How amazingly adult I felt wearing office clothes, catching the tube with my copy of the Evening Standard under my arm!

However, after a little while, I began to suspect that there might be even greater degrees of metropolitan sophistication and success available. So I started applying for graduate jobs.

I must have applied for thirty, and was very delighted when I got an offer to interview at KPMG! Now I was really on the way!

I discussed it with Anne, and we considered that it would make sense for me to try to look the part. So Helen, her very successful friend, who did something glamorous and well paid in the city, lent me her briefcase. And into that briefcase I carefully placed the shiny brochure that those nice people at KPMG had sent me, and I was set to go.

However, when the day dawned, there was a problem.

Hammersmith Tube Station
Hammersmith Tube. With trains – unlike the day in question.
Tube strike.

And in those pre-internet days (believe it or not) it was quite hard to find out exactly what lines were running and so on.  So I left early, just to be on the safe side.

Which is what I was doing at the Tube station. And it was why the tube was so oddly quiet – everyone with any sense had stayed at home.

However, I was confident that a tube would come sooner or later, all I had to do was to be patient, and, above all, not to panic.

So I thought that this might be a good opportunity to peruse the papers that KPMG had sent me. To be fully briefed, as it were.

And, of course, to work out exactly where in London I needed to go.

The offer letter, with all the details, was, of course, safely stashed in my handy briefcase-of-grownup-ness.

I flicked open one catch and it opened with a satisfying “snap!” But the other one… not so much.

It was locked.

Well, this was a dilemma. I stood there on the unusually quiet platform, locked briefcase in hand, baffled expression on my face, and tried to figure out what to do.

It was around then that the tube appeared, so I got on. I knew where one of the various KPMG sites in the city was, so I figured I’d just head for that and ask around. What could possible go wrong?

Fortunately, I won’t say providentially for reasons which will become apparent, an acquaintance from church was also on the tube. I had a vague idea (like, apparently, most of my ideas) that she was an accountant (or something.) But who did she work for?

I told her my tale of woe, and, amazingly, she said that she in fact worked for KPMG, and suggested an address I could make for where she thought the graduate interviews were.

Bolstered by this sign from above, I made my way there, just, I thought, in the nick of time.

A woman a little older than I came bustling out from behind reception.

“Pate?” she snapped. “Why are you late?”

Which I thought was a little unfair.

“I’m not late,” I protested, rather weakly. “Also: Tube strike.”

She sniffed, slightly angrily I remember thinking. And I followed her into the interview room.

She then asked me various questions, none of which I can remember, but I thought it was going quite well.

Right up until the bit of the conversation which I can remember – which I remember as clearly as if she was asking me right now.

“There’s quite a lot of hard thinking work involved in accountancy. There are exams you’d have to sit. Do you think you have what it takes?”

UoN Library
University of Newcastle, NSW
I suggested that, as the proud owner of a degree in philosophy and classical civilisation from a provincial university on the other side of the world that no-one had ever heard of, I thought I would be admirably suited to it.

“After all,” I said, and the words are still ringing in my ears, “it’s mainly memorisation isn’t it?”

Apparently not.

“Have you read the brochure we sent you?” She asked, very reasonably.

I had to admit (because I couldn’t possibly lie to the nice lady) that I had not done so. However, and I thought this a triumph of discretion at the time, I managed not to mention that I had them with me – inaccessibly in a locked briefcase. Nice and safe.

However, my deceit was not destined to last long.

“Do you have the brochure with you?”


“Where is it? Let me see.”

At which point I had to admit that, not only had I very little idea of exactly what accountants did, and that I was too lazy and incompetent to read the beautifully glossy brochure that they had thoughtfully sent me, but that I was also stupid enough to lock it in my briefcase, to which I had lost the combination.

I did suggest that managing to find the interview without access to the letter of invitation was evidence of considerable resourcefulness and initiative.

She, I suspect, felt otherwise.

The interview didn’t last long after that, and even I could tell that it hadn’t gone well, and that I was doomed to continue office temping for the foreseeable future.

My regret? Well there are a few to choose from. Perhaps the most important one revolves around not memorising the combination of that stupid briefcase. Everything else, I suspect, relates to that, apparently minor, oversight.

Thank you.

(A story I told at Tenx9 Melbourne  14/6/17)

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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