Brett’s cigarette describes a perfect arc as he nonchalantly flicks it towards the flower-bed. Every move the man makes has an air of precision. Even if he’d not have been aiming for the sad little rose-garden, the sheer deliberateness of his movements convinced you that he had been. It was as though even the cigarette dimp was in league with him in his ongoing mission to prove to the world that he was a god amongst men. His cigarette ends weren’t the subject of the downright petty memos which had circulated the office in recent months…
We used to be able to smoke inside, you know. We were allowed our simple human right, and productivity wasn’t affected. Now, they watch us like hawks as we slope out of the office, down the stairs, through the car-park, across the road and into the Company gardens. We try to cram ourselves into the bus-shelter type construction. The wind is always blowing straight at us, as though the builders were specifically instructed to punish us smokers; make our lives as miserable as possible until we gave up.
In the office, they set their stop-watches. They go out and inspect the state of the gardens; they send us memos which complain that we are leaving too many dimps on the floor of the shelter. If we’d been allowed to continue to smoke in our office, then we’d have used ash-trays, like any other civilised human being, but treat us like animals? That’s how we’ll behave.
Except these new rules don’t seem to apply to Brett; I’ve smelled his office. I know that he still has a crafty cigarette in there. No, strike that, he probably openly smokes in there, and the boss probably sees him, gives a little appreciative nod and says: that’s Brett; rules don’t apply to Brett. Not for Brett the indignity of standing on a toilet seat, trying to strain your neck up to the air-vent in the roof to blow out your smoke. Not for Brett the prescription of nicotine gum to wean you off the habit. Not for Brett these constant bloody memos, human resources meetings and instructions to see a counsellor.
So why’s he out here then? Why, when he can perfectly well smoke in the comfort of his own ergonomically-pleasing director’s chair? He’s like that sometimes, I suppose; likes to show that he’s one of the people. Despite being of the same rank as me, he somehow makes you feel as though he’s doing you a favour by deigning to talk to you, breathe the same air as you. And I fall for it hook, line and sinker every time. I try to impress him; I know that I do. I try to convince him that I’ve as much right to the pay-check as he does. I can feel myself doing it now; I’ve straightened my back, puffed out my chest and have adopted that disinterested look which suits me so well when I try it in the mirror.
But then I catch a glimpse of myself in the tinted, reinforced glass of the shelter, and know that my attempts to frame myself as ‘the man’ have been doomed from the start. The wind, you see, has practically dismantled my hair-style. What was this morning a slick, metropolitan look has become a kind of hurricane-battered shanty town hanging on for dear life on the edges of my head. For some reason, Brett’s hair resembles a well-manicured golf course; even the sand bunkers of his bald patches seem to lend him a statesmanlike air.
Bloody hell, the man is consummate; all framework. His grey, professional appearance, his smooth, deliberate actions and even his dialogue have long since had everybody fooled. Look at him now, as he taps the bottom of his soft-pack and a cigarette obediently pops up, ready for him to take. The cigarette is practically begging to be burned at the altar for this slippery charlatan. If I’d have tried the same smooth bar-room trick, the whole batch of cigarettes would leap from the pack like lemmings, screaming god, no, don’t let me near his mouth!
His second cigarette lit, Brett finally looks at me and sighs. I have the sudden feeling that he actually feels uncomfortable, as though he’s struggling to say something. I look back at him, expectantly, but he fails to speak. Has the man been struck dumb? Is he finally falling apart, like I’ve seen so many do, working here? His eyes evade my cold, questioning stare and instead adopt a glazed-over expression, as though he is contemplating some majestic arresting view and not the wind-battered Company rose garden.
“How are things with you, Holton?” he finally asks, still staring straight ahead.
“Oh, you know,” I say, not wanting to commit to either side of the life’s shit/ life’s bearable debate until I’ve seen the hand that Brett wants to play.
“What do you think of the new computer systems?” he probes.
I take a long drag of my cigarette before answering. I’ve smoked it right down to the end and the heat nips at my fingers; I need one of those cigarette-holders.
“Don’t get me started,” I lie, patently pleading for the final push which will induce me to commence my diatribe against this framework of new fangled terms and conditions, rules and regulations, databases and systems which have conspired to make my life at the Company a misery.
“It’s not how it used to be, is it?” prompts Brett, looking shifty.
“Honestly, I thought computers were supposed to make life easier,” I begin, grinding the finished cigarette under my foot as though underlining my frustration. “And yet, here we are, working late after every job, entering pointless data on four different databases. The same information! Four times! It’s beyond me why they can’t just put it all into one content management system, instead of one for the accounts department, one for HR, one for sales and one for the bloody marketing department.”
“It’s different software; we can’t possibly integrate them all,” mutters Brett-as-King-Canute, trying to hold back the tide of my irritation.
“I know why they’ve brought in this new system too,” I say, wagging my finger. “It’s because it can interact with the software which the Americans are using. Of course, they wouldn’t change all of their data to correspond with ours, would they? No; despite the fact that we’re doing them a favour by letting them have access to our information, they have to push it one step further and get us to change everything we do, just so we fit in with them.”
“Hmmm,” says Brett, non-committally. He is fiddling nervously with his lapel and still won’t look at me.
“You said things aren’t what they used to be, and you’re right. Things used to be so simple when all we had to do was fill in our job-dockets by hand at the end of every job. Hell, you could even do it in your car before you drove home. Then, all you’d have to do is stick it in the post and forget all about it.”
“And your next job is on your doormat when you wake up,” he says, and I’m sure that I can detect a superior sneer in his voice.
“Don’t get me wrong, I can see the benefits of a paperless office; automatic invoicing, job-generation… the information framework at your fingertips.”
“But you preferred the old ways.”
“Yes I preferred the old ways. I feel as though I’m on constant trial now. There’s always system audits, new legislation… it’s as though they are trying to catch us out,” I say, surprised at my own honesty.
“Why would they be trying to catch us out?”
“Well… it’s easy to make mistakes on these new systems… hit the wrong key and you could change an entire job…allocate the wrong person…”
“Horton; are you telling me that you don’t like this new system; that you haven’t been completing all the forms properly? That you’ve made mistakes in entering the data?”
Why is Brett repeating everything I say? Suddenly I realise, too late, that the boss has put Brett up to this questioning session. He’s probably listening to my complaints via a transmitter which is hidden in Brett’s lapel or something. Brett is repeating what I say in order to double-check that all of the incriminating evidence has been captured by the boss. You can’t trust anyone around here.
I leave Brett at the bus-shelter and trudge back over the road and into the car park. I crouch behind one of the big four-wheel-drives and look back over at him. He appears, at first, to be hugging his trench-coat around him as protection against the buffeting wind and relentless rain, but I’m sure that his mouth is moving. Maybe he’s talking to the boss through his transmitter. I reach for my trouser pocket and pull out my receiver, hoping to intercept the signal, but I’m greeted by a series of low whoops and moans. Brett must be using a new encryption code. I long to dash the little crappy object onto the diesel-slicked concrete floor, but think better of it; my last pay-check barely covered the state-of-the-art satellite navigation system which, in a fit of pique, I threw out of the car window.
I should just let it pass. That’s what my counsellor always tells me; let things pass. Everyone spies on everyone here; we have files and files of information on each other which we drip-feed to the boss, hoping that next time, we won’t be the ones passed over for promotion. And I hate it. I absolutely loathe this atmosphere of distrust which it creates, but then, like everybody else, I store up the email proof of another’s wrongdoing. I am prepared to do somebody in to further my own career.
Wearily, I creak upright and head out of the car park and back into the office. I’m greeted by one of the new breed of employees around here, one of the marketers.
“Holton; done your SOP report yet? We need the figures for the POA projection,” she says with an inane grin on her rosy-cheeked face. She’s pretty, but her constant use of acronyms has rendered her untouchable in my eyes.
“I still have two databases to go; RUG- BI and SC- ILL,” I say. She’s got me at it now; the goddam acronyms. We never had any of them in the old days. Back then, System Convergence – International Liaison Level was the far simpler ‘talking to the Yanks’ and Remote Undertaker Generator – British Intelligence was the issue of your next job – so you didn’t even have to set foot in the office.
“They’re the ones we need. The Americans need the KILL ratios.”
Here, I’m afraid to say, the marketing woman wasn’t talking in code; kill ratios were exactly what they sounded like.
“Um… I can get them done quicker if I have some help?” I plead.
“I’m not here to type,” she says bitterly with that same moony smile slapped all over her face.
Well, what the bloody hell is she here for then? She’s one of this new breed of support staff which the Company is seemingly hell-bent on hiring; head-strong types. There was a time when operatives like me coming into the office would have been treated with due deference, as though we were celebrities or something. There was a certain respect then, for people who went out there, put their necks on the line and did the messy jobs which kept the Company running – kept them all in jobs. Now though, some of these girls behave as though their own jobs, working with computers and figures, data and projections, are the thing that keeps the company going. Hell, they look down on people like me as though I am simply a manual labourer or something.
I need another cigarette. I’ve only been back in the office a matter of seconds, and already I want to be back out there with the wind and rain biting at my face. I resist the admittedly tempting urge and reach for a nicotine gum instead. I’m going to have a Desperate Dan jaw-line one of these days, the amount of these little tablets I munch on. My counsellor joked that I looked like a cow chewing on the cud. My counsellor! How about that for encouragement to carry on smoking if even your own shrink says you look stupid when you attempt the alternative to a cigarette?
But chew on the cud I do. I take all of my anger out on that piece of stinking gum, relishing the sourness of the taste, the gluey clag which builds up in the corners of my mouth. If they won’t let me smoke in here, then they’ll have to face the clearly revolting vision of my face twisting and contorting itself around the gum. I only wish that I could type as quickly as I can chew.
When I type, it takes ninety-seven percent of my concentration to make sure that one hundred percent of my chubby pointing finger is not pressing down on the wrong key, or, say twenty-five percent of its bulk has not strayed onto an ‘s’ for example when I’m trying to press an ‘a’ or a ‘d’. My keyboard is sticky, too, with the remnants of the thirty three percent of all suppers I’ve had to take while catching up on my paperwork in my own time, and because of the fact that I hit the keys with a force that they’ve not been manufactured to endure. A million one-inch punches have scrubbed the white ink from the ‘n’ key altogether now, and the exclamation mark has been downgraded to a full-stop. With this in mind, I can concentrate with about, say, ten percent of my full mental powers when I’m entering all of the information about my last kill onto the SC- ILL databases. I’m at it now; staring blankly at the keys, wondering from what forest of letters the ‘j’ will finally emerge. Maybe that’s why I must have hit the ‘h’ key. Maybe that’s why I suddenly saw my own file appear on screen in front of me.
Frantically, I smash down the escape button, but all I manage to do is turn on the Caps Lock. Escape… escape… escape. I keep pressing the button and nothing happens. Why can you never escape with escape? What is it there for otherwise; to offer you the hope of a way out and then to deny it? Is it there to mock you? I could get in a lot of trouble for accessing my own records here. Right now, alarm signals are probably going off in the manager’s office. Brett is probably laughing to himself about how he’s made me so paranoid that I’ve done the unthinkable and looked at my own file just to check whether anyone’s after me…
A wave of tiredness hits me. Suddenly I don’t care any more. I don’t care what will happen to me if I look at this file. It’s me for God’s sake. Am I not even allowed to look at myself? And so look at myself is what I do. And look. And look. At first I am shocked by the picture which they’ve stored on file. It’s one of me stooping on the front step, reaching gingerly for the morning newspaper. You can see a roll of my fat peeking out from a gap in the towelling dressing-gown which I’m wearing. My hair is not so much a shanty town but a stone-age village which has, in the past, been engulfed by a rampaging muddy river. My head is the excavation site. It’s a shocking photograph. Why have they chosen this particular one? We’re always told that the pictures they use are the ones which are most representative of the allocated person. We usually get them when they are at their weakest, you see, when the framework shows through.
I delve deeper into the records. What else do they have on me? Of course, they have all the usual; the stuff which we have on everybody. There’s bank account details, health records, insurance claims, marital status, address, where I holiday, where I buy my cigarettes, how much I drink; the standard stuff which makes up a man’s life. I’m surprised to see that they found out about my foot fetish porn habit, however. I thought that I’d covered that up pretty well… And that police caution I received when I was in my teens. I thought the slate had been wiped clean, but yet here it is, ‘Drunk and Disorderly’ for all to see. There’s also a record of every conversation I have had with my counsellor; it’s all there – my jealousy of Brett, my distrust of everyone, the fact that I can’t type. Is this why the marketing girls view me with such contempt? Have they all seen my file and laughed at my secret hopes and desires?
I always knew that I wouldn’t reach a ripe old age, but that’s part of the reason I wanted to work here so much. It promised adventure; live fast, die hard. It promised so much… Now all I want to know is how they’ll do it. They’ve long ago taken my spirit; what retirement present have I got in store for me? Somehow, I always knew that it would be nicotine that got me. I just never realised that it wouldn’t be cigarettes. It’s the gum, you see, the gum. They got me to go see that counsellor and he prescribed the gum to help wean me off the habit. Little did I know that they were laced with poison. Well, I always knew that I wouldn’t be presented with a carriage clock here. The gum’ll have to do.