I’m watching him.
He glides past, face forward. He clutches a coffee can, a chipped cup, a half empty pint of milk that looks like it’s well on the turn.
He stumbles a little, recovers, glides on.
His face is red and there is a slight sheen of booze sweat on his brow, damp stains at the armpits of his greying white shirt.
It is 2.30pm.
Lunch is but a distant memory and he is attacked by yawns and heavy eyelids, the brief respite of chips and full fat Coke turning from hammering heart and synthetic alertness into a soporific sugar slump of epic proportions.
The alcohol that has sat in his system all day, perhaps all year, yowls for company. The morning’s nausea is replaced by thirst.
A nice cold cider would take the edge off. Ooh, look, it’s sunny out. Beer garden weather. I might have a coke, but it’d be nicer with a J.D. in it, ha ha.
Office Phil is struggling.
I call him Office Phil, but he has picked up a new name in the office, one that I haven’t given him.
He’s just known as Weird.
‘I caught Weird watching me again.’
‘I saw Weird coming out of the ladies toilets again.’
‘Will someone give Weird a shake – his snoring is putting me off my work.’
‘Is it just me, or can I see a bra strap under Weird’s shirt?’
I’m watching him now, waiting for the signature Weird move.
Here he goes…
Facing forward, his eyes become wide and seem to swivel in his head like a chameleon’s.
Bloodshot and runny, his huge eyes check me out. They see the work I’m doing, what I’m drinking, what I’m wearing. They slither over everything, leaving a psychic snail trail wherever they go.
I instantly feel like I need a shower.
He passes a desk and his eyes grope the surface, contaminating everything – job tickets, stationary, a birthday card…
His hand shoots out, grabs the card, holds it up.
Eyes darting, he feeds on its contents, draining every last drop of heartfelt sentiment.
He puts the card down.
It is still a card, but it is now a dead card, cold and meaningless.
I’m willing to bet it’s the first birthday card he’s touched in years.
He glides on, careful footsteps, eyes darting.
He is a thing caught in a net and hauled to the surface, gasping and flapping, lantern eyes bulging and reeking of the deep, a creature not meant for the daylight.
The only light that attracts him is the blinking and flashing of a fruit machine in a dank pub corner, a friend to bleep to him through an otherwise lonely evening.
Weird lives with his mother.
Weird is rapidly approaching fifty.
Weird pretends to have an affinity with me, because he occasionally rides his bicycle to work. He tries and fails to create an air of bonhomie, as if we are a pair of wild gypsies of the road, exploring the world awheel in a carefree manner.
I ride a bike to work because I don’t like the faff and expense of owning a car, and because, well, I like riding bikes.
Weird rides a bike to work on the days when he knows he’s so far over the limit that at best he’d be pulled over into a grim lay-by and breathalised by the local constabulary resulting in loss of license and a hefty fine, at worst he’d hurtle straight into the side of a mini-bus full of special-needs kids on jamboree to Flamingo Land, killing all of them in a spectacular fireball whilst he miraculously remains unscathed, resulting in shameful tabloid headlines and a lengthy prison sentence where he’d be routinely used sexually by all and sundry in between bouts of mind splitting drunkeness from drinking the hooch he’d brew in his own toilet using bread crusts and mouldy fruit.
On the booze days he deems it wiser to drag his decrepit Halford’s mountain bike (circa 1988) from the shed and bump it up and down kerbstones along miles of paths to work, wobbling past tutting grandmas and struggling mothers with toddlers and pushchairs.
He’ll stagger in to work twenty minutes late, face blotchy, helmet askew on his melon head, scratching his pot belly through a sweat drenched Budweiser t-shirt, and tell anecdotes of the road, of crazy drivers and tricky junctions, pot holes and torturous hills.
I’ll nod politely, not wanting to discourage, then let him stumble to the toilets to vomit ferociously and douse himself with tap water, until he shuffles back to his desk, shuffles past his desk, to the canteen for bacon.
He’ll start work around ten, but then the difficult part begins.
I’m convinced Weird used to work in the office years ago, before he left with a flourish, only to return a while later applying for his old job again as if nothing had happened, indeed, as if he’d never actually worked here before.
He’d made such little impact on the office first time around that when he started again, in his old job, people actually treated him like a brand new employee, complete with orientation days, training and a whole fresh slew of second chances.
I grudgingly admire him for that.
The problem was, in the time that he’d gone he’d somehow completely forgotten what his old job had entailed, so when he came to knuckle down to work and get cracking, he simply couldn’t do it.
He could not do his job.
They tried to retrain him but to no avail.
He couldn’t do it.
Judith, his manager, just glossed over this fact, mainly because she can’t do her job either and I guess must have felt some sympathy for Weird.
This was three years ago.
Judith used to keep herself busy in the office making tea for everyone and keeping up spirits by being a nice person, all for the bargain price of sixty thousand a year, but now that Weird is here she has him make the tea for her, and it makes her feel more important now that she has someone else to do the meaningless and trivial tasks for her, even if it does mean she is effectively completely redundant.
So Weird sits at his desk, blinks at the screen, sighs, yawns, scratches, then gets busy.
He potters around, collecting the tea mugs in his department, then he brews up.
After that he tops up the Post-It notes, pens, paperclips, printer paper.
After that he disappears for an hour.
After that he fetches Blue Roll from the warehouse, then makes more tea, then hides in the toilet, then makes more tea, until lunch.
And after lunch…
Sometimes he makes coffee, just as he is doing now.
Other times, when he feels frisky, he finds a woman to talk to.
Sorry, a woman to talk at.
He talks at them while his eyes slither over their bodies, drinking them in, storing the information away in some murky corner of his mind for later dubious usage.
He tries to smile when they actually say something back to him, but all that happens is his top lip curls away from his stained teeth and his eyes glare emptily.
He’s the only person at work who’s had formal warnings simply for looking at people. It’s even more tragic that he takes these warnings in a ‘fair cop’ kind of way. He knows full well what he’s up to and how creeped out women are in his presence.
And now Monday is here, but Weird isn’t.
I hear Judith muttering darkly to Dimples in the kitchenette.
“He rang in this morning, asking for the day off. I said no, but he said please, so I said yes. He said he had an upset tummy.”
An upset tummy? I suppose twenty four cans of Export lager and a diet of kebabs and Vindaloo will upset even the strongest tummy.
Judith relents, gives him the day off.
but then he rings in on the Tuesday and asks for another day off.
Judith asks if he still has an upset tummy, but strangely Weird says no, he just says he’d quite like a day off because the weather is nice.
Judith takes a hard line. She says no, she wants him to come in to work.
Weird says ok.
Weird takes the day off anyway.
Judith phones him later to find out where he is and gets his answer phone.
Judith is not happy.
It’s the last we see of Weird for a week.
He goes AWOL.
Judith is fetching tea, going to the warehouse for Blue Roll, washing up dirty cups.
Judith is most displeased.
She leaves many, many messages on Weird’s answer phone. Some are quite stern, some are concerned, some are pleading.
Now she involves the shambolic mess that passes for Human Resources at The Factory and they stumble into action.
Letters are sent and are unanswered.
More letters are sent, this time by recorded mail, and they remain unanswered.
Three weeks pass.
Judith is thoroughly sick of making tea and fetching Blue Roll, tasks she now considers beneath her imaginary skillset.u
Judith decides on drastic action.
She decides to visit Weird’s House.
The next day, Judith is back in the kitchenette, drying cups with wads of Blue Roll.
Dimples waddles over, smelling gossip.
Hiya Judith, want me to dry up? Oh, by the way, how did it go at Weird… I mean Phil’s house?”
Judith turns red. “I went round with Cardboard Supervisor. They said it might not be wise, a woman going round his house on her own. They were worried about what might happen.”
Wow. Concerns were raised in case an employee might rape or murder his own boss on a welfare visit.
I keep earwigging.
Judith sighs. “It was a hot day yesterday, remember? Well, we turn up at his house and we can hear music. We knock on his door. No answer. We keep knocking. The music really was very loud, so Cardboard Supervisor takes a look through the front window. He can see through to the back of the house and the patio doors were open. Suddenly he sees Phil. He comes dancing in from the back garden. He’s only wearing a pair of Speedos and a cowboy hat! He’s got dark glasses on and he’s grown a full beard. He goes dancing into the kitchen, grinding around and waggling his hips and bottom. It was rather horrible, to be honest.”
“What music was playing?” Dimples looks fascinated.
Judith has a think. “Honky Tonk Woman, I think. Well, he dances in and lights a cigarette and fetches a beer from the fridge! He’s about to go dancing out into the back garden again when Cardboard Supervisor bangs on the window. Phil drops his beer with a scream and it explodes, sending beer everywhere. Cardboard Supervisor shouts for him to answer the door. We stand there for a while, at the door, and the music is turned down. Phil eventually comes to the door. He’s still in those bloody daft trunks and cowboy hat. He didn’t even bother to grab a towel! He’s covered in beer and suntan cream. He’s got a golden tan, by the way. He goes a lovely colour, the lucky sod. I just burn. Anyway, I say to him, ‘Phil,’ I say, ‘Phil, what’s going on? You’ve not been to work for three weeks and no-one has heard from you! We were worried! Why haven’t you been at work?’ And you know what he says?”
Dimples shakes her head, hanging on Judith’s every word.
“He says, ‘Bit stressed.’ Can you believe it? He’s got the easiest job in the office, he lives with his mother and he tans like David bloody Dickinson in a car fire and he’s saying he’s stressed! We asked if he’s been to the doctors and he says no. We ask what his mum thinks about this and he says he goes out every morning like he’s off to work, but when his mum goes out he returns home and gets out in the back garden on a bloody sun lounger!!”
His mum. They ask what his mum thinks. He’s forty seven and his employers are asking his mum’s opinion of this shit show.
Dimples says, “Well, are we going to advertise his position then? It’s a breach of contract, and he’s not got a doctor’s note. I mean… it’s not like he really knows what he’s doing. It’s the opportunity to get shut of him that you’ve been waiting for!”
Judith turns red. Smiles weakly…
The next Monday Weird stumbles into the office, late. He’s got a hipster beard, a deep tan and a sweat stained Hawaiian shirt on. He reeks of beer fear with an undertone of Ambre Solaire.
He sees me, says, “Hell on those roads this morning. Some right nutters about.”
I just stare at him.
He looks over my shoulder. “Looks like we’re running low on Blue Roll. Lucky I came in today.”
I say, “You’re lucky to still have a job, mate.”
He pulls himself up to his full five feet seven inches, swaying slightly. “Not at all. Judith pleaded for me to come back. She said we’re struggling without me.”
I look over at Judith. She’s watching us talking. She blushes, looks busy.
I say, “Better get the kettle on, Phil.”
He nods, turns a bit green under his tan. “Aye, I suppose. I just need to nip to the loo.”
He staggers away to retch his guts up.
I go back to work.