I slip a file into the bin at my feet, the sound gives me an enormous sense of accomplishment. Heads are down everywhere; these are my diligent colleagues. The Fat-Controller glides between the partitioned desks, making sure we meet target. I respond with my best smile to another pile of files being deposited in my in-tray.
At the desk next to me my colleague is working through files A to C, I seem to have D to H. I know how to handle the extra work quickly and effectively, that's what sets me apart. I'm not talking about being one of the fat middle managers, poking their noses into everyone’s business. They are part the problem.
I survey my colleagues: Baldy, Fake-Nails, Jackie-Burd, Diet-Plan, Sad Sack, Lanky-Dan, Speccy Short-Arse, and Long-Engagement. All of them obscured by monitor tops encrusted with sentimental tripe. They cling to their identity with such gestures, like prisoners scratching their name on their cell walls. Green haired gonks, football mugs, novelty calenders and promotional paper weights will not be seen on my desk.
I complete my work and lean back in my chair satisfied, extending my limbs, stretching and staring up at the ceiling tiles and strip lights. I decide to take the rest of the day off. The rubber thimble on my desk is packed full of paper-clips ready for launch. This is where I come into my own, without my morale-generator this place would shrivel up and cough its last. I open my drawer and size up a selection of elastic bands. Factors such as projectile weight, distance travelled, moving or stationary target and the victim's disposition all must be considered during the selection process. To help with this I have developed my own custom grading system using numbers and letters to denote elasticity, gauge and band temperament. My target is buried in their work and is unaware of the launch preparations. I select a 2F-D, coaxing it free from its tangled brethren, a matted clot of Tippex and a mass of pencil sharpenings. I notice a mouldy sandwich crust at the back of my drawer and write 'tidy drawer' on a post it note, before resuming my task.
Baldy sits two desks away. He's a worrier and a moaner, always droning on about how when you've got kids you can't afford to go out any more. He claims he was in a band once, and that they were doing really well, but then comes the 'but'. I jam one end of the elastic band in the desk drawer and loop the other around a marker pen. I position the payload and am surprised at how heavy it is. I drawback carefully taking aim. There is no gentle arc at such close range, it rockets almost straight at the unaware Baldy. The thimble collides with the the upper part of his left ear. I scream 'Fucking jackpot' leaping from my chair in delight. Baldy squeals, cradling his injured ear with his hand. 'What the fuck, I'm bleeding!' he says looking at the bloody imprint of his ear on his hand. 'Oh come on Baldy, fucking cheer up, for fuck's sake'. We are interrupted by the Fat-Controller coming over to check on the source of disruption
'What's going on here?'
'He fired something at me, look I'm bleeding'.
'Is this true?'
I can't take her question seriously when she's got cottage cheese on her blouse. I shrug, 'It was an accident, an office mishap'.
'It was deliberate, he's always doing crap like this' said Baldy from behind.
'Keep your hair on, Baldy, it was a stationery misfire, no harm done.'
Baldy recovered the stuffed thimble like a sad little retriever 'Stationery misfire nothing' he says handing it to the Controller.
'In my office.'
The office smells of new nylon carpets, two new office chairs covered in plastic are sitting in the corner, and stacks of boxes lean against a bashed filing cabinet. She clears a Tupperware box from her desktop, sweeping crumbs to the floor with her hand. On the desk she has a graduation photo of an young woman and a calendar with dalmatians on it.
She say things like she's 'disappointed'
Out the window, I see a slither of blue sky. A starling rattles into the window leaving a bird shaped smudge. She turns to see what caused the noise and I can see an orange line where her make-up stops on her neck.
She continues on about written warnings, letters and final chances. I notice a sign on the side of the filing cabinet: 'There's no 'I' in team'. But there's no 'U' either, I think.
She asks if I have anything I want to say. I think better of it on this occasion, she's small change in this institution and she doesn’t need it pointed out. I may be a little unorthodox but she needs to keep me on side.
I emerge from the office back into the glare of the main office. Jackie-Burd is chatting to someone on the phone, shielding her mouth by cupping her hand around the receiver. I pass her desk and stop to hang my arms over the partition. She appears not to notice me. 'Jackie' I whisper loudly. She continues talking. 'Jackie!' I lean further over the partition trying to get her attention 'I got a right bollocking off the controller' I say. She stops talking, covers the mouthpiece with her hand, turns her head slightly without making eye contact and says 'fuck off Raymond' before resuming her conversation.
I like Jackie-Burd, there's no bullshit with her. Not that she's my type, but we have a lot in common. I hear her talking about films or see the carrier bags from book shops and the doodles she was always doing without even thinking. She's a well spoken graduate, but not an up-her-own-arse type. Good looking in an understated way, she always wears badges on her cardigan and when she speaks to her friends the laughter seems to fill her up.
Lanky-Dan strolls across the office to the mail room. He reminds me of my older brother James, tall and confident, with an ease and wit that leaves everyone feeling good about themselves. James was the sensible one, he had the brains and he looked after all of us. He died of meningitis, three weeks before he was due to start university and got buried on a wet Tuesday afternoon in September. The pall bearers had to bend their knees to carry the coffin because I was too short to hold my end up. I don't share the dark features of my brothers. I have a large head crowned with woollen ginger hair, a broad flat nose, small close-set eyes and a wide mouth filled with small childlike teeth. Such was the deviation from the genetic template that my grandmother had often told me that I was a 'fairy child' and that she had found me in a biscuit tin left at the front door.
Fake-Nails walks across to the water cooler and fills a plastic bottle. She's chewing gum with her mouth open with her default expression of disinterest. Yet she’s dressed up as though she's going on a night out: hair extensions, false eyelashes and lap dancer heels. The slump has begun to settle on everyone and the keyboard taps gradually subside as they stop for afternoon break. One by one they wander into the kitchen to chat amidst the sound of running water and boiling kettles. I see Lanky-Dan and Jackie-Burd chatting through the kitchen doorway. Lanky-Dan is smiling and gesticulating his way through another anecdote. Everyone is laughing. I remember I have an egg sandwich in a Tupperware box under my desk that I kicked there the previous week. Awkwardly I retrieve it using a wooden ruler and hold it up to eye level; it looks slimy and alien through the misty plastic. Sealed safely inside it poses no problem, but I need the box back so I decide to dispose of it in Lanky-Dan's bin. He is still busy trying to impress people in the kitchen as I walk over to his desk and remove the lid. I recoil at its stench, thrusting the tub out to arms length. Covering my mouth, I slop its contents onto a cushion of crumpled paper lining the bin. I take a pile of papers from his out-tray, scrunching them first before dropping them on top to create a second masking layer. The tub remains tainted in green rancid slime and I use the sleeve of his jumper which hangs from the back of his chair to remove the foul residue.
I return to my desk. Diet-Plan is working nearby, she never takes a break. Her work is arranged in neat piles, then slotted into plastic inserts before being filed in a perfect row of folders. She's quiet, but snooty, always first to arrive and last to leave. Sad-Sack tries to emulate some of Diet-plan's diligent excesses, but being devoid of charm or ability, he will always be relegated to the third division in management's eyes. I trace a ringed stain on my desk with blue Biro and wonder if anybody in here dreams of being more than this.
Lanky-Dan leaves the kitchen and walks straight over to my desk.
He is smiling broadly and holding a letter.
'I'm in' he beams.
'Party on Friday, are you coming?'
The taxi drops me outside a townhouse in Hyndland, a narrow set of steps leads to a white door with a antique brass knocker. I ring the doorbell, but know one can hear above the noise. Eventually the door is answered by Lanky Dan's younger brother, who says nothing but leaves the door ajar for me to walk in. As I enter nobody looks my way. I see Jackie-Burd who is talking with two girls that I don't recognise. I walk over they start whispering, Jackie-Burd has her back to me but doesn't turn around when I speak.
'What time did you get here?' I ask
Her friends give me a quick scan then continue with their conversation. I repeat my question.
'Why are you interested, Raymond?' she says after a long pause
'I was just making conversation, you know, dialogue'
She doesn’t seem to have heard my reply and continues talking with her friends. I enter the kitchen and start looking for unattended alcohol. I find a bag with a bottle of vodka and a purse with £20. I crack open the seal, throw away the lid and put the bottle to my lips, it burns all the way down and it feels divine. A small group of admirers have formed when I turn round.
'Raymond, did you get some new clothes to come out tonight, because you're looking irresistible!' dragging out each syllable of irresistible, immediately followed by a snigger and a series of glances to each other.
'Maybe you've had your hair done. Are you a natural ginger? Perhaps we should check' as one of them lunges at the top of my trousers.
I stumble backwards into a man carrying four drinks which end up on his shoes. 'You fuckin idiot! Who the fuck are you, anyway?'
I turn to leave the kitchen when a plastic bottle collides with the back of my head and everyone erupts in laughter and applause. I step into the hall and see Lanky-Dan leading Jackie-Burd up the stairs by the hand. I watch them in silence, before stepping outside into the garden. I walk to the back of the garden, the cast light from inside the house is enough to light my way to the shed. It is unlocked and as I step inside the party seems very far away. I sit on a upturned garden urn and finish off the vodka, letting the empty bottle fall to the floor. My eyes adjust to the darkness. Garden tools hang on hooks, broken plant pots, filthy jam jars on sloping shelves, a petrol lawnmower, a bike with two flat tyres and damp cardboard boxes filled with children’s toys. A variety of bottles and tins sit beneath a wooden bench. Removing the lids I smell each one by one. A large plastic bottle grabs my attention, it looks pink in the half light of the shed, and it smells wonderful.
Leaving the shed, I stand looking back at the house. Every light is on, every room packed with party goers. I look at the garden pond, almost still, I can just make out the shapes of fish swimming slowly. Removing the cap from the bottle, I pour its contents into the pond which spreads in a film across the surface. I stand back and strike a match.
'Superstar' by Carpenters is playing inside the house and a couple is talking at an upstairs window as the pond blossoms into mesmerising orange.