Last week I decided not to speak for three days. I had a suspicion that it wouldn’t make any difference, that I had become invisible or at least translucent. I wanted to test whether this was true.
I ran into my neighbour on the way out. I nodded, not breaking my stride.
‘Pissing City.’ He’d seen the game and wanted to emote. I sent my eyebrows up and down in a way that I hoped would connect last night’s missed penalty with every one of its predecessors. With that I was past and into the car. Bluetooth, podcast, away.
Coffee on the way in, not a problem, I’d been ordering the same thing for ever. Take away skinny latte already rung up. I was out with the contactless and waiting with the herd for my name, thirty seconds tops. Instagram did the job in the lift, eyes on the screen and keep up a steady scroll, take a sip and back to it. Doors open, turn left and I was queuing to swipe.
‘System’s not secure, anyone could tailgate, I’ve reported it but they don’t do anything, they say they will…’ this from Steve Chapple behind me, middle management wannabee. I turned but Steve was not speaking to me, he wasn’t actually speaking to anyone in the little gaggle that had formed at the gate. I watched him trail off as his indignation evaporated; no-one gave a shit what he thought.
Open plan office, factory farming style; my pod isolated from its identical neighbours with partitions. When I sat down the world contracted into the confines of this box. I opened my lap top and fired it up. I took a post-it and wrote the word “Tosser” on it five times before balling it up, flipping it into the bin and getting to work.
Karen said “Hi” as she came past; she spoke quietly, for my ears only. I threw up an arm but kept my eyes fixed on the screen. I’m not sure I could describe Karen’s face but I’d made a study of her back, the curve of her neck and the scrunchie that confined her pony tail. I worked out she had nine of these and operated a loose rotation that could be predicted but not with complete certainty. I watched her walk away, the thick tress of hair crossing and re-crossing her spine in a sinuous travelling wave. I tried not to blink until she was out of sight.
Three meetings during the day, no danger there. I sat at the back and let the busy PowerPoint and comfy rhetoric lap away at my attention. I alternated between a thousand yard stare and doodling in my notebook, serpents slithering their way across the page. No-one noticed.
Sticky moment in the toilets, I was washing my hands when Steve Chapple came in; twice in one day, what were the chances? I waited for his mouth to form the first syllable before I hit the Airblade, losing myself in the screaming fury until my hands had turned into parchment and Steve had disappeared into the only working stall. I bought a smartprice sandwich for lunch at ASDA, adding a meal for one for later. I used the self-checkout.
Friday was retirement day. Careers condensed into fifteen minutes of limp applause and unwanted gifts. I stood near the door as the pre-lunch ritual played out, bad puns from the boss and golf vouchers. I stuffed my hands into my pockets as Joe Toole was invited to take the stand, a man notable only for the comedic potential of his name. I hoped he would use the time to right some wrongs, to take down the scum who’d been taking the piss all these years. He didn’t.
‘I started here on August 3rd 1976, of course in those days things were very different…’ Five minutes in we had reached 1981 and the faces around me were morphing from polite condescension into genuine distraction. A few phones were out, held low like gunslingers, outliers were drifting away and I joined them; I knew the centre would not hold.
The OpsCom provided the coda to the week, like double mathematics on a Friday afternoon. Were our key performance indicators performing? Were they still key? Who could be blamed if they weren’t? I timed my arrival just as things were being brought to order, a blank door to a windowless room, the slider at eye level positioned at “occupied.” Darren 2 was coming the other way and we met at the threshold. My boss had a namesake somewhere out there who had bagged the top slot. Darren’s email address and, by implication his life, had been relegated to second place. It was eating him up inside.
‘You’ll have to deliver this, the CEO wants to see me.’ Darren 2 was carrying a single sheet of paper. I could see it was covered in figures ordered into neat columns, bulleted points made up the last third, the most salient picked out in yellow highlighter. He placed the sheet against my chest and held it there, I saw the longing in his eyes as they flicked towards the lift and back again. I did not take the paper immediately as Darren 2 had intended. I let the moment stretch out, I could feel the heat of Darren’s palm, the pressure lessen as uncertainty took hold.
‘Take it for Christ’s sake…please.’
I reached up slowly and took the sheet at its corner, delicately between thumb and index finger. I heard Darren 2 start to breathe again, expelling the air that he hadn’t realised he’d been holding in. There was blood on his collar and a rash had broken out on his neck around the site of a shaving cut, I watched as he ran a fat finger between shirt and skin, feeding the inflammation. He turned away and set off for the lift, I couldn’t be certain but I thought he was actually skipping.
Twenty people inside arranged in a horseshoe, I took the place reserved for Darren, his name scribbled in wipe-off marker on a triangular place holder, minus the 2. The Head of Ops was new in post and the worst kind of democrat, everyone was getting their say. Reports were given and noted, I wasn’t listening, I wasn’t on my own.
‘You’re standing in for Darren?’ Head of Ops was looking at me, trying to be inclusive, I nodded, it was only polite. I stretched out the silence until way beyond comfortable, heads began to turn and I knew I had the room’s attention. I took the paper in front of me and screwed it up, fashioning it into a tight ball that I thought would roll pretty well. I sent it down the table and watched it skitter between the water glasses, coming to rest against what was left of the biscuits, the plain ones that nobody wanted. Walking out I knew I was alive, I could sense the blood that nourished me, feel my flesh and bones and nerves. I brought my hand down hard on the table just to make sure, upturning a glass and sending it crashing to the floor. I felt real pain and I knew it was good.
I woke up with a hangover, the sort that only complete single-mindedness could achieve. I matched my Blackberry password on the third try, three strikes and you’re out. Darren 2 wanted to see me at nine on Monday, the subject was in upper case and I felt the shout ricochet between my temples. The CEO also requested my company, first thing, I imagined Darren 2’s face when he discovered he didn’t even get the first bollocking. Karen’s message was about two thirds in:
“I heard you went postal in the Ops, that sooooo needed to happen. Would I be safe if I suggested coffee?” No emoji, that was great, I fucking hated emojis. The last was from Cally, received at 03:45, we were to meet at The Stag at three, she wanted to talk.
I had a tenner already in my hand when I walked into The Stag. I passed Cally the money and pointed to the Gents. When I got back she was already well down a double G&T, her weapon of choice.
‘It’s not working,’ no preamble for Cally. Eye contact was a non-starter so I picked up my beer mat and placed it on its edge, turning it through ninety degrees between light taps. ‘Aren’t you going to say anything? You know I used to think you were such a good listener, but now…’ She finished her drink and took the hardly melted ice cube into her mouth rattling it around her teeth, a habit which had gone from quirky to plain strange in my estimation. I tried to capture all my feelings for, and about Cally in a single gesture. It came out as the sort of shrug that might have been induced by electroconvulsive therapy. Cally stood up and walked away, pocketing my change in an extravagant gesture I wasn’t supposed to miss.
I returned to the bar catching the server’s eye and tapping the pump for a refill. I picked up a discarded newspaper from the counter and returned to my seat with a fresh drink. Taking out a biro, I turned to the Sudoku on the funnies page and set to it. Nearing the end I discovered I had two fours in the last block to be completed. I span the pen around my finger and caught it again, a little party trick I had perfected when I was supposed to be in lectures, before placing a third four in the final square to complete the puzzle. I started to laugh then and when I began I found I could not stop.
Author Notes: A story by RichardT writing as Alex T. Ingham