Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Sunday Scribblings: Instructions

[After I'd written the first paragraph of this, I wasn't sure what to do next. Then I remembered something I'd read about a few months ago, and I had my inspiration. I trust that a love or even knowledge of football is not necessary to enjoy this story; can't say I have much of either myself... PM]

Thank you for calling our customer support line. Please listen to the following options and press the appropriate number on your telephone keypad. For service status information, press 1. To learn about our latest products, press 2. For technical support, press 3. For non-technical enquiries, press 4. To learn your future, press 5.


Sorry, we detected no response. For service status information, press...

Yes, yes, I heard all that. I’d been about to press button 3 in an attempt to find out why my broadband had yet again declined to work for no reason I could discern, but that last option – what I thought I’d heard, anyway – had stopped me in my tracks.

I let the menu play through again. There was no mistaking it: To learn your future, press 5.

I’m not a believer in fortune telling or the like; but there must be a natural human reflex for such things, because I heard the tone before I’d even realized I had pressed the 5 key. The raised bump on the button made my finger sore for a brief moment.

What was I expecting to hear? I don’t know. The winning lottery numbers would have been nice, but hardly likely. I suppose I’d imagined that I would be told either something so specific that I would have no choice but to believe it; or (more probably) a platitude so general that it could apply to anyone. What I didn’t expect was a football result.

Congratulations! You are among the first to be offered the chance to try out our new sports predictor service. We have calculated that Pinebury Town will defeat Highbridge Rovers 3-2 in the first round of the NPM Cup a week on Thursday. We invite you to place a bet on this outcome to test our prediction. If you wish to use this service again, just call the same number and choose option 5.

With that, the line went dead.

I wasn’t about to place a bet on the strength of a tip from a computerized voice, even on some side I’d never heard of that was probably lucky to have as many people in the crowd as there were on the pitch. The whole incident promptly slipped my mind.

Until, that is, the following Friday, when I was leafing through the sports pages and came across a story that read: ‘In a surprise victory, Pinebury Town scored 3-2 against Highbridge Rovers in last night’s NPM Cup match. The 12-1 outsiders...’

12-1! I could have made a tidy sum with those odds. Still, it was obviously just a fluke. Sure, it was very lucky of them to guess the result, but even that was probably more likely than one would expect. Still, I was intrigued enough to call again.

The first four options were the same as before, but the fifth had changed to: For our sports predictor service... I wondered briefly how they knew I’d picked that option before; then I thought, well they’re a computer company, they probably recognize my number or something. I wasn’t too happy at the prospect of my number being logged, but before I could continue on that train of thought, there was a message playing in my ear:

So you’re back. Good result, eh? We hope you spent your winnings wisely. And if, for some bizarre reason, you decided not to follow our advice and take a gamble, we hope you’ll reconsider this time. The second round of the NPM Cup takes place in a few weeks, and we predict that Pinebury Town will once again win their match, this time four goals to nil. Why not try it out? What have you got to lose?

Quite a lot, actually, I thought to myself. But who said I had to risk what I couldn’t afford? I could just place a small bet – a pound, say – just to see what happened. I wouldn’t win much, but that wouldn’t matter, because I’d just be testing the water. Yes, that would be fine...

So I placed my bet – just one pound, no more – and collected my winnings the day after the game, when Pinebury had won with the precise result that the line had suggested. Perhaps there was something to this after all. I called again.

Ah, good to have you with us again. We trust you are now convinced. And we have a scoop for you that could turn into a genuine money-spinner. Pinebury Town have been doing rather well of late – well enough that people are starting to take notice. Expectations will be high in the quarter finals of the cup. But here’s what we know: they’re going to lose, scoring one goal to the opposing team’s three. Bet you no one will see that coming – except you, of course...

Hmm... I thought it was worth a look at the odds, at least. And the line was right: the experts agreed that Pinebury were on course to win, and there would be a major upset if the team lost. Worth a flutter? Yes, I thought so – at a different bookmaker’s, of course; wouldn’t want them to get suspicious if I ‘guessed’ the right result of two matches in a row. And guess correctly I did, much to my delight – if not to Pinebury Town and their fans.

There were two rounds left in the NPM Cup, and it will not surprise you to learn that the ‘sports predictor service’ was correct for both of them, and I made a decent amount as a result. Now I wanted to know what was coming next, seeing as the tournament was over. I dialled the number and pressed 5.

Well done for staying with us throughout the NPM Cup. We hope you are now assured of the value of our service and want to continue using it. No more freebies, however: we request a one-off fee of £1000. Yes, it’s rather steep, but think how quickly you can make it back, and more besides. To continue, please have your credit card ready and press 1.

It was all very well them saying I would make it all back, but a thousand quid is still a lot of money, and what if there was a catch? I procrastinated for a few minutes, then the voice spoke again.

Alternatively, to discover the secret of life, press 2.

My finger hovered over the keypad, unable to decide what to do.


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