Desks stretch on and on. Straight lines, perfect angles, each identical to the next, almost disappearing into the gloom of the far wall. Nothing’s messy, nothing’s out of place, everything is exactly where it should be.
The floor is cold despite the thick blue-grey carpet, the kind found in every office everywhere. The harsh fluorescent lights hang in perfect rows from the ceiling, one to each desk. The air is stale; a pale imitation of sunlight bleeds through the frosted windows.
There are no distractions – no idle looking-around, no daydreaming, no navel gazing, nothing. Everyone’s focused, working steadily. If anyone’s bored, they’re hiding it well. Deals are thrashed out, favors are begged, scores are settled, clients are soothed – all with calm efficiency.
The lights flicker: blink, blink, bright, hold. And then repeat. He shifts his weight in his chair, stares at the computer, sighs and looks away, looks back, then types in a sequence of numbers. He waits, arms crossed over his chest, hits enter, looks away again.
The click-clack-tap of everyone else doing exactly the same thing sounds through the office. Underneath, the low hum of an air conditioner droning on, of a clock – stark black numbers against a too-bright white backdrop – ticking hard and sharp.
He breathes deep of the sterile air, looks at the computer again and punches in another sequence of numbers. Waits. Hits enter once more. The clock keeps ticking, lights keep flickering.
Noon arrives. Heads bob up above the partitions between desks, phone calls are brought to an end, papers are shuffled and put away in drawers and filing cabinets. Jackets are put on and chairs are rolled back and everyone looks happy.
He lifts his briefcase from the floor and balances it on his knees, turns the combination dials back and forth. The clasps open with a snap and he folds today’s newspaper and tucks it inside. He sets down his briefcase and puts on his jacket.
People mill about, some making small talk, some making personal calls, some making up for lost time by catching up on work. He retreats from his desk and makes for the exit. He returns to his desk to retrieve his briefcase, then leaves.
He looks left to the elevators at the end of the corridor, looks right toward the common room his office shares with the neighboring one. The fluorescents in the ceiling buzz noisily as he knuckles his eyes. He makes up his mind.
Walking into the common room, the chipboard door drags along the carpet as he closes it behind him. Dirty cups fill the tiny sink. A stained off-white kettle sits on the bench, and the smell of sour milk wafts from the fridge.
He boils the kettle and makes a cup of black instant coffee. He looks at the stained teaspoons in the drawer and doesn’t add sugar, sips his drink and grimaces. A sign on the wall asks that he respect his fellow employees and make a contribution to the staff kitty. He takes another sip of his drink, grimaces again.
Giving up on his coffee, he pours it down the sink and leaves his dirty cup with all the others. He takes off his jacket and lowers himself into a couch. Its springs stretch and complain, dust puffs from the cushions and the whole thing sags in the middle.
He opens his briefcase and rummages around inside, takes out the folded newspaper, a pen, a brown paper bag, a bottle of water, his mobile phone, an MP3 player, and a pair of oversized headphones.
He arranges everything carefully: opens the newspaper to the sports section; takes a long sip of water; chooses something to listen to; removes his wrapped lunch from the brown paper bag. No one else enters the room. No one bothers him. He slips on the headphones and plays some music.
He eats slowly with the newspaper open before him. His eyes flick over the articles; he slowly grows bored; he drops the newspaper and looks around. You don’t have to be mad to work here, a sign tells him, but it helps. The music keeps streaming into his ears. He finishes his lunch.
Placing his leftovers back in the brown paper bag, he looks at the sink once more. He stands up and moves to make another coffee. Changing his mind, he sits back down. He considers doing the crossword, but decides that he can’t be bothered. He folds the newspaper in half. Puts everything away.
He leaves the common room and walks back to the office, briefcase in one hand, bag of lunch scraps in the other. He stops at his desk, places his briefcase on the floor beside him and tosses his rubbish in the bin. He removes the headphones, and stares around numbly.
Every other desk is empty. There’s no air conditioner hum, no flickering lights, no feverish deal-making, no click-clack-tap of fingers on keys. The clock keeps ticking. He looks around and whistles low. He tries to turn his computer on. Nothing happens.
He stands and walks to the reception desk. Picks up the phone and hears nothing. Tries the light switch. Nothing. He walks back to his desk and takes his mobile phone from his briefcase. The battery gives out as he flips it open.
Walking to the window, he tries to peer through the frosted glass. A faint red glow bleeds through. Garbled sounds of people yelling and sirens ringing float from the street, distant and faint. He strains to hear them properly. A deep rumble comes from somewhere and the floor begins to shake.
(Originally published in Inscribe, January 2011)