98. Dead Wood

“Don’t worry, Lucifer, you’ll get used to it.”
“I’m not getting used to it. I’ve worked in this office for weeks now and I’m no nearer to getting used to it.”
“I’m telling you, you’ll acclimatise. It might feel a little strange at first…”
“Strange? Getting used to this shit is like getting used to a chronic debilitating disease. Getting used to it is like getting used to… I don’t know… cock tumours or something.”
“Cock tumours? What are cock tumours? I didn’t know you could get tumours on your cock!”
Billy wriggled his hand nervously down the front of his work issue stay-pressed pants and fumbled carefully with his cock.
“Jesus…” I looked away. I had no desire to sit there watching a workmate massaging his cock in search of cancerous growths.
I stabbed some keys and blinked at the monitor.
I’d made a mistake. I’d taken my eye of the screen for one fucking second, suffered one momentary lapse of concentration, and I’d made a mistake.
The tab keys and delete keys on my keyboard are fucked, worn away, illegible.
It happened all the time. Not big mistakes, just stupid little errors that would be easy to spot if I wasn’t so fucking jaded.
I never felt fresh and ready for work, keen as mustard. I always felt tired and my stomach lurched whenever a new job flopped onto my desk with the wet slap of a heavy plastic wallet filled with some deluded fool’s idea of what might deliriously excite Joe Public when it drifted onto his doormat on a Tuesday morning.
Junk mail is never welcome. Ever. The jobs I work on are shit, the printed product is shit, the dinky little envelopes that leave the factory filled to the brim with impersonal personalisation are shit.
“Dear Keith Ringworm we are delighted to inform you that you have been chosen out of the billions of writhing nobodies on the planet to qualify for a grand prize of £50,000 (or an Elvis tea cosy)…”
A waste of trees, a waste of ink, a waste of fucking time.
Job after job, day after day, year after year, relentless piles of direct mail.
I couldn’t see an end.
“Do you think Amoxicillin will prevent cock tumours, Luci?”
I looked up.
Billy still had one hand rummaging around inside his pants while the other fumbled with scores of foil covered blister packs of pills inside his rucksack.
“Jesus Christ, Billy! Don’t let any fucker in this office catch you doing either of those things. Wanking and popping pills are not considered suitable occupations for an office worker.”
Billy gasped in panic as he realised what he was doing. He pulled his hand from out of his pants too quickly and caught his watch strap on something delicate. He let out a shrill whimper and crumpled to the floor in a glittering rainbow of anti-inflammatories, anti-depressants, anti-biotics.
I carried on punching the keyboard. “Good work, Billy. You’re the only bloke I know who can start out giving himself a preventative medical examination for cock tumours only to end up accidentally circumcising himself with a Sekonda. Well done.”
Billy scrambled on the floor, desperately shovelling prescription medication back into his rucksack before anyone noticed.
I saw that I’d made another mistake. I swore, jabbed delete.
Billy hauled himself painfully back into his seat, washed down a mouthful of various pills with cold decaffeinated tea sweetened with Canderel.
“I’m already circumcised.”
I looked up again.
“What? I really didn’t need to know that, Billy.”
“My mother thought it would be best if I was circumcised. You know, for hygiene. I didn’t need it doing for any medical reason, but my mother thought it would be more hygienic.”
“Hygienic? What’s wrong with just giving it a scrub with a flannel like everyone else does? Anyway, how old were you when she got you circumcised?”
“Twenty seven.”
“Fucking Hell. I don’t even want to know why your mum has an opinion about your dick when you’re that kind of age, never mind why you listened to her.”
“She’s a nurse. She gets me my medicines.”
“I see. So your mother plies you with medication that isn’t even prescribed to you, then she wants to look at your cock. That’s quite a relationship you’ve got going on with your mum, Billy.”
“It’s nothing weird! She’s a health professional!”
“Health professional my arse. Remember those pills you took the other month? They were so powerful we all thought you’d had a fucking stroke. You couldn’t talk and you slobbered on your keyboard and your left eye went all droopy. It was only the fact we found that packet of horse tranquilizers, or whatever they were, that we didn’t ship you off to Leeds General Infirmary fucking pronto. I still think we should have sent you anyway!”
We lapsed into silence, me struggling to focus on a job, him struggling to get eye drops in.
Billy was obviously uncomfortable with silences.
“What do you reckon the big meeting’s about, Luci?”
“Fuck knows. It won’t be good news though.”
“It might be.”
“It won’t be.”
There’s always meetings. All the little supervisors and managers are regularly summoned around a big desk behind closed doors to discuss new and improved ways of kicking our arses. One time it was a big reduction in overtime pay, another time it was a ban on mobile phones, yet another time they decided to dress us up as clones in itchy little uniforms. The Holy Grail was to find a way of sacking people without paying them a fortune in redundancy. They hadn’t found a way of doing it legally yet. It was the only thing that saved my sorry hide.
“But it might be good news, Luci. Maybe they’re gonna give us our overtime rate back!”
He wouldn’t give up!
“Christ, are those eye drops rose-tinted or something? Those bastards take, they don’t give, Billy. You can forget them giving us any overtime money back, you can forget them giving us a long overdue pay rise and you can most definitely forget a thank you for all your hard work at Christmas. You wait. The news will be shitty.”
Billy shook his head, pulled a sad face.
“I feel sorry for you, Luci. I mean, how can you go through life being so negative? Everyone’s got to come here and do their job, get on with it, so why can’t you do your job with a smile instead of a scowl?”
I stabbed the keyboard harder, trying to get the job to do something that it clearly did not want to do.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve usually got a massive fucking hangover, Billy. Maybe that’s why I scowl.”
“Well maybe you shouldn’t drink quite so much then…”
My screen froze, keyboard and mouse became useless. I pushed away from the desk and grabbed hold of the partition that separated me from Billy.
“What? What did you just say? That I shouldn’t drink so much? That’s fucking rich coming from you! At least I’m honest about what I use to numb the grim tedium of everyday life, but you hide your poison in shiny foil packets and call it medicine! I’ll show you medicine…”
“Luci, your shouting!”
“Fuck it Billy, I don’t care! None of these fuckers can hear me! Just look at him!”
I pointed across the room at Soulless Boss.
“Look at him! That black-hearted bastard used to be ambitious, driven, a real go-getter! See him staring at that laptop? Know what’s on the screen? A flower. A picture of a flower! He’s been staring at that picture for nearly two hours! He’s fucked! Know what’s made him fucked? Medicine! He’s ripped off his tits on medicine! He’s staring at that flower but for all I know he’s got Jesus Christ and a choir of fucking angels singing to him!”
I waved an arm, taking in the rest of the office.
“Now look at the rest of these drones, Billy. Just you stand up and take a look at them. What do you see? Tell me what they are doing.”
Billy half stood up and looked around the room furtively. He sat back down with a shocked expression on his face.
“Most of them are asleep, Luci! Why are they all asleep?”
“Medicine, Billy. They’ve taken their medicine. Look at that weird little fuck downstairs, Burrows. Off on permanent sick with stress. What about Mallett, hiding in his office all day? Check out his desk. You’ll see a box of tissues. Why? Because he can burst out crying at the drop of a fucking hat and he doesn’t know why! And there’s a reason why every single bloke on the night shift goes home at six in the morning and starts drinking, and keeps drinking while their wife and kids get up for work and school, and they wave them off at the door with a tin of Kestrel Super Strength in their hand. That’s not normal behaviour, Billy. It’s fucking wrong.”
Billy looked shell shocked. I felt like a bit of a cunt for ranting at him.
I felt tired all of a sudden.
I needed a drink.
“Look, Billy, the bottom line is, this place is no Center of Excellence. The cream of the crop do not aspire to work in a Northern factory producing junk mail. Those guys are working for NASA, or finding out the breeding habits of octopi on the reefs around the Galapagos Islands, or discovering a miracle cure for cock tumours. It doesn’t take a genius to blanket bomb the nation with cheap pamphlets selling double glazing, Sky television deals and life insurance. The reason why everyone here is on industrial strength booze and tranquilizers is because they woke up one day and realised they were in a hole, a deep, shitty hole, and they couldn’t find a way out so they started to panic, and the easiest thing to stop the panic is to go back to sleep again, numb the pain, pop a pill, crack a beer. They all knew they were never going to do that dream job on the Galapagos Islands, or in space, or cure the sick. That kind of realisation comes as a shock, a disappointment. Sometimes the only cure for disappointment is to get all fucked up.”
I pressed the restart button on my computer.
It made a happy little pinging noise.
Billy looked up at me with fear in his eyes and a Vicks inhaler up his nose.
“Luci, is everyone like that? Everyone in the factory, I mean? Are they all on drugs and booze to shut out how they really feel?”
I shook my head.
“Not all of us, Billy boy. Some people actually love this shit. It’s all they’ve ever wanted. You’ve got to be a cold hearted fucker to thrive here though, with zero imagination. Someone like Jekyll.”
Jekyll was my new boss.
He was ten years younger than me, about four stone lighter and eight inches shorter.
You wouldn’t look twice at the little cunt if he passed you in the street, but that was his secret weapon. He slipped under the radar. He was fucking brilliant at his job, he had a photographic memory for every little detail that passed under his nose and he never, ever made a mistake.
Oh, and he was also a total fucking sociopath.
His capacity for cruelty knew no bounds. He genuinely seemed to relish humiliating his staff in front of others. He was notorious for being incredibly rude and arrogant with everyone, regardless of rank, and he suffered from a monstrous vanity. In his creepy world every woman who spoke to him was desperate to fuck him, every man was in awe of him.
Truly a wanker of the highest order.
Credit where credit is due, he’d managed to topple Soulless Boss from his perch. I had been glad to see that bastard get his comeuppance, but Jekyll made Soulless Boss look cute and cuddly in comparison.
He had it in for me. Mistakes offended him, and in his eyes I was one big mistake. He’d been turning the screw on me for weeks, letting me know that he was the boss at every opportunity, trying to grind me down to the point where I snapped. Nothing would have given him greater pleasure than to see me just fold, go on sick with depression or stress.
I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
Twenty two years of getting trodden on toughens you up. Not always in a good way, but you find strength where others might crack.
I could take it.
The door opened and Jekyll glided in.
Billy scurried to yank the Vicks from out of his snout and look busy.
I kept prodding the keyboard, shoving the mouse.
Jekyll was smirking. I didn’t like that.
“Gentlemen, I’ve just come from the board meeting. I have some good news…”
Billy’s jaw dropped, then his face lit up. He shot me a look.
I didn’t react.
“It seems that the factory is thriving! While other print works are going into administration we are going from strength to strength.”
I still didn’t react.
“But we can’t afford to relax. We still have room for improvement…”
Jekyll was staring right at me. This was the crunch.
“We are introducing a new system. Any mistakes, no matter how small, will result in a ticket. You get three tickets and we all have a little meeting to find out what’s going wrong, and how you can be helped.”
Me and Jekyll were in a staring contest now.
“The company line is that this is being introduced to help you boys, to find out where training is needed, but I think I can let you in on the real meaning of this. You see, there’s a lot of lads out there in the trade who are looking for work. Good lads, with experience. We get dozens of C.V.s a day. Dozens. This got the bosses thinking. If we can get rid of the people we don’t need, the dead wood, then we can get some of these experienced lads in on a cheap rate. They’ve looked into it. This ticket system is fail safe. You get too many tickets and we start writing warnings. Three warnings, and you’re sacked. Simple!”
Jekyll grinned at me. I’d seen a grin like that before, on the faces of kids who liked setting fire to cats or kicking dogs to death. It was the grin of seeing someone in a bad situation, relishing the misfortune of others.
I knew that I was fucked.
He did too.
They’d found the Holy Grail.
While me and Jekyll stared each other out, Billy was quietly going to pieces. He blubbered and gibbered, babbled about how much he needed that job and how nobody was perfect and mistakes were going to happen.
Then he grabbed his bag and ran for the door.
He’d gone.
Jekyll watched him go, amused and puzzled by his reaction.
“Why’s that pussy getting worked up? He’s got nothing to worry about. The only people who need to worry are those that make mistakes, the dead wood.”
He was staring at me again.
I felt my heart thump a bit harder. I forced myself not to grip my pen too tightly.
“The reason why he reacted like that, Jekyll, is because you’ve just told him that if he makes the slightest mistake he’s going to get the fucking boot! Billy’s a bit of a fragile character, threats like that get to him!”
“That wasn’t a threat, Lucifer. You’d know about it if I was threatening you, believe me. Like I said, Billy need not be worried, he’s not dead wood.”
He smirked at me.
The pen snapped in my hand.
I smiled at Jekyll.
I could hear the blood rushing in my head. It sounded like the sea.
“Just supposing I were to kick off right now, Jekyll. I mean, really kick off. Do you think there’s anything you could do?”
Jekyll blinked, stepped backwards.
“Theoretically, I could twist your fucking head of like a bottle cap, you know. Your neck isn’t much thicker than my wrist. I reckon if I got a good hold on you I could twist it clean off. Now, how might you stop me doing that?”
Thump thump thump, the blood was really pounding now. It felt pretty good, to be honest.
Wait to get sacked, or blaze of glory.
Heads or tails.
Jekyll glanced around.
“Well. Lucifer, first thing I’d do is smash that monitor into your face. Then I’d throw as many things as I could at you to buy some time.”
“These new monitors don’t have much weight behind them, Jekyll. A couple of keyboards and a desk tidy are not going to slow me down a significant amount. And besides, take look around the office. Do you really think any of these lot could help you, even if they wanted to?”
“No, I suppose not.”
Jekyll stepped closer.
But it doesn’t matter, does it Luci? Because we both know you’re going to do precisely fuck all, aren’t you?”
And that blood sounded louder in my head, and little bits of shattered yellow plastic crunched together in my fist, slippery in the sudden sweat, and I chose the fastest point to clear the desk and get a grip, brushing aside computer and screen and tea mug and telephone, moving quick with the weight of my body bearing down on that thin neck, being careful not to let him gouge at my eyes with anything like a pen or his fingernails which I noticed were quite long, and the thump thump thump of my heart in my chest changed gear, and I felt a strange elation, a feeling of ‘fuck it, just do it’ flooding my system, and I could actually feel the sensation of gristle and muscle and cartilage and larynx collapsing beneath my fist, cracking and clicking and snapping like the ruined remains of the pen…
“No, you’re not going to do anything.”
Jekyll smiled his shitty smile and walked away.
“This place can get rid of all the dead wood it likes, but all that will happen is that it will collapse. Dead wood is what’s holding this place together. Dead wood is all it can get. Without dead wood, this place would be fucked.”
Jekyll chose to ignore me.
He left me alone at the desk in the corner, left me to make mistakes, one at a time, until I earned my first cozy chat with the management.
I stabbed the delete key until it broke.

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