Today is a tidy desk day. Tomorrow won’t be. Today the few papers on it are aligned perpendicular to the edge facing my incipient gut. My desk tidy is very carefully sorted, no stray elastic bands entangled in the paper clips. The cheap surface is unringed by any stray spillage. My mug is absent without tea-leaves. A deadline - who cares which one - is near. It’s today in fact. I haven’t met it, and I won’t. It’s my project and I can’t manage it. But that’s not important. It’s not an industry client; the glorious cream is coming from the udders of the most bountiful of cash cows; thanks GB. That’s not the best though; I’ve outsourced everything – to appropriate local government departments; I expect they’ve done this in their turn. God help us if anyone ever catches on. Still, old Prudence won’t ever be on the ‘phone to a ducting expert, will he? I daydream for a while imagining the conversation, him doing that funny thing with his mouth, while the blind eye makes him look madder than ever.
Which flight of fancy makes the ‘phone ring. I let it. Exactly ten times.
HR commissioned a study from some Yank company: ‘Timed Emotion’. They reckoned that intra-company communications should be stripped to a minimum. Their 10 point plan included the removal of all salutations. Number 10 on the list was ‘the excision of any other superfluous language extraneous to the communicative purpose of the telephonic exchange.’ The study cost a cruel million; for the taxpayer at least. At least it was dollars. No point in telling you how we got the government to pay for it, I don’t understand it myself. Not my department.
‘Caulfield, CEO. 10 minutes’ one of those PA-Sloaney bitch voices says.
I smirk at the thought of this kind of rapid promotion, but realise that in the context of my position and its status, the ambiguity of this statement disappears and it resolves into the summons that it is.
The lift to the executive floor has an attendant. Imagine. What a job! Pressing one of 23 buttons- or maybe several. Wow! The perfect job, for someone. Maybe not for Vic.
Vic is a Gulf War veteran, he has medals on his outfit, a quasi-not-quite commissionaire’s uniform. He takes his revenge on the ascending Gods by releasing foully emetic farts as the door closes. Naturally, the company being veddy, veddy British no-one ever mentions it. Although Ms Chakrabati from HR did pass out once, but she was pregnant at the time.
Teary-eyed I exit the lift and go over to the helmet-haired woman on the desk. The executive floor has its own reception area. Her mouth lifts up at one corner when I say:
‘Caulfield, Implementation. CEO.’
It makes my day when she says:
‘No you’re not.’
Helmethair waves airily at the biggest door off the reception area. There is no name on the door. I knock. The Sloaney-bitch Voice opens the door; I do a double take. She looks like Mrs Doubtfire, maybe she is. Naturally I am not immediately admitted to any kind of inner sanctum. She motions me to sit and wait. Mrs D waddles over to her desk, which shares the name with mine and not much else. Pulling out a plastic pack of cotton wool she tears off a lump with her teeth and stuffs it in her ear. Then she fills the other. My own teeth are still on edge as she practically drags me to the castle-sized door, opens it rapidly and shoves me in.
I stop in my tracks, hit the buffers. The door closes behind me with a meaty ‘PHUNNPHH!, like Sidney Greenstreet saying ‘five’ in German. Don’t recognise that line? Not surprising, it’s one of mine. In my office behind my balsa-wood door, I write film-scripts for long dead actors. It’s more fun than working. This line comes from “Lindy Hop”. Charles Lindbergh – yes Jimmy Stewart again, attempts to rescue Hitler at the end of WWII, Bogey as an Intercontinental Op saves the day by plugging Adolf and Eva and polishes off Goering (Greenstreet) for good measure. It’s the final scene: it goes like this
Intercontinental Op: You’re so dumb fat man! Do you even know how many beans make 5?
(Bogey shoots him)
Not historically accurate? They’re imaginary films, for fuck’s sake!
I digress, and I’ve left the CEO in freeze-frame. Thank God the sound’s off too. Timu Pynchon is Finnish-American and he has pretty much kept his promise not to change the very British character of the company. I have heard the rumours about him though. When I come through the door ‘Maamme’ is blasting from speakers I can’t see. It’s the Finnish national anthem, it plays at 0900 am every day, now. The CEO is frozen in the attitude of a conductor, he appears deeply moved by the music, judging by the erection poking out of his boxer-shorts’ fly. I restart the movie.
‘Caulfield, Implementation.’ I shout, just as the music stops.
Pynchon reaches into a drawer in a desk the size of my office and holds up an A4 sized piece of card in landscape orientation.
‘Pynchon, CEO.’ It says.
I remain silent.
The CEO looks perplexed, seems to shuffle cards, chooses one looks at it then shows it to me:
‘Thanks.’ I reply. He finds another card.
‘Joking.’ I read. I don’t laugh. He holds up two cards, ‘almost garrulous’, I think.
‘Transfer,’ and ‘Archives’ march across the glossy cardboard.
He waves the cards towards the door. I shuffle out, sick at heart, destined for the underworld of the Archives in the fundament of the building.
Helmethair gives me the mother of all superior smiles as the lift bell goes the moment I reach the door. Vic looks as glum as ever at his post beside the lift-button panel. In the corner is a cardboard box marked Hobnobs. There are no biscuits in it. Instead, I can see the files I hide all my scripts in, my world’s ‘Best Second-Rater’ mug and my desk tidy. Straight to the basement, do not pass go it is then. Suddenly I’m struck by the thought I don’t actually care that much. As far as I know only two people work in the Archives; no-one knows their real names. I speculate idly on what they might be. Looking at Vic’s lugubrious face I feel I should be searching my pockets for an obol to save him looking in my mouth before we hit the bottom. The door opens and my box and I are out of the lift before realising Vic’s gurning may have been his efforts to control his flatulence. Whether this is a gesture of valediction to the doomed or not, I couldn’t say.
I look around, half expecting impossibly vaulted ceilings and the cobwebs of a 40’s Universal Lon Chaney Junior flick. But it’s dully painted concrete; all straight lines and flat ceilings. Not even the hideous acoustic tiles of my former office. It does have an eeriness quite its own, though. It’s not the quiet; for there is none. The ambient noise consists of the dynamo-hum of the building’s power system and some machinery at what looks a hundred yards away. This noise is not absorbed by the rows and rows of six drawer grey steel filing cabinets between me and the machine. I can see a flywheel, pistons and what can only be boiler cylinders. Incredibly the machine is making the same noise as the old ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’ song:
That’s it. I decide, I really am mad.
‘No you’re not’ says a guy wearing one of those lab-coats in brown. The kind that says no-way are you a technician; the kind that’s one-step up from overalls. He looks a hundred and eleven years old, wrinkled as an elephant’s foreskin and skin almost as grey. He sticks out a hand that looks like carelessly bundled twigs:
‘Cerberus.’ He says. And I notice his hunchback and how big the brown lab-coat is on him, falling down to his ankles. Maybe he is a hundred and eleven and has shrunk the way old people do. Anyway he goes on:
‘Not really, just my little joke.’
But he doesn’t give me an alternative to call him by.