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Because it was Monday Andrew wore his stripy socks. All his other socks were grey or black, but he wore his stripy socks on Mondays because they helped lighten his mood and revitalize his spirit whenever he glimpsed at them. They were navy blue and beige, and he could see flashes of them now beneath the cuffs of his corduroy trousers as he strode through the council estate. Andrew didn’t especially like this part of town because it was what the news and documentaries called “deprived.” This meant they were poor, and Andrew had read in newspapers that you were more likely to be a victim of crime in poor areas. That wasn’t prejudice, he reminded himself; that was empirical fact. Also, some of the alleys and alcoves smelt like the hopeless looking men Andrew sometimes had to line up behind at the newsstand.
He preferred the drab, dated looking façade of the council flats though to the ones in the area of town where he worked. These buildings were sleek and ostentatiously shaped. Andrew found this irksome because there was no point in buildings being irregularly shaped when the simple cuboid had already proven itself more than effective over thousands of years. Curves were showy and superfluous and didn’t mean the work done inside was any more efficiently undertaken. For the last five years The Company had occupied one of these modern edifices, after Mr. Mason died and his son took over, borrowing money to “expand and diversify” into new industries. Andrew remembered pictures in the local paper, of Mr. Mason’s son—Stew, as he liked to be called—shaking hands with the mayor and politicians. Stew and The Company were popular in the town because they employed people and built showy buildings, and a lot of people—it seemed to Andrew—measured the worth of a town by the amount of showy buildings it had.
Andrew didn’t know exactly what The Company did anymore. His job as an administrator in the human resources department hadn’t changed much at all. Every day was the same for him, which he found satisfactory. He’d felt stressed when The Company moved buildings because he had to change his route to work and recalculate exactly what time he should set his alarm clock for, and how that affected what time he should go to bed and what programs he might miss because of it. He slept badly that first week.
He reached his desk on the basement floor and placed his bag under the desk next to the front right-hand leg, which he had deduced in that first week, and after much deliberation, was the most practical place to put it. While he waited for his computer to boot up, he reviewed his agenda for the day, checking the time allocations for each task, and confirming he’d taken into account all anticipated distractions (breaks, scheduled meetings, computer software checks/ installations). He logged on and—as always—completed one administrative task before reaching into the middle desk drawer for his jar of instant coffee and mug. He drank his coffee from this mug every day ever since he started at The Company. It had a picture of Tom Baker on it, who—in Andrew’s opinion—was the best actor to ever play The Doctor.
But the mug wasn’t in his middle drawer.
It wasn’t in the top or bottom ones either, or behind his computer monitor, or anywhere within the immediate vicinity of his desk. This was not an anticipated distraction. He went into the kitchenette to see if he’d left it on the draining board after giving it its daily four-thirty clean. (Many of his colleagues called it a kitchen but Andrew knew it was technically a kitchenette because of the lack of any partitions separating it from the rest of the office and the simplicity of the amenities. He had attached a laminated notice to the fridge that pointed this out, but noticed no difference in his colleagues’ erroneous rhetoric.)
It wasn’t there, so he returned to his desk and stared blankly at his computer monitor for a moment. A warm, sickly dread rose up from his abdomen, and he began to fidget with the frays on the cuffs of his wool jumper. He tried to alleviate this feeling by thinking practically: he could only have left his mug in either the kitchen or on his desk when he left yesterday. The most likely person to have moved it was one of the cleaners, most of whom Andrew found unapproachable either because they were young and wore gaudy trainers, or old and sullen-faced, like a recent tragedy had befallen them (Andrew assumed they lived on the council estates and were therefore troubled). There was one though who seemed civil; a small Indian, middle-aged woman who always smiled when they passed. He would go the cleaners’ common room, find her, and ask about his mug. This was annoying because it was now nine-fifteen and his schedule was already so off course as to be beyond retrieval. Also, before he went he’d need permission from Malcolm.
“Malcolm, I can’t find my mug. May I go and find it?” Andrew asked.
He didn’t know how old Malcolm was, but he couldn’t have been more than half of Andrew’s fifty-five years. Like many of the younger men in the office, his hair was heavily gelled into a meticulously intricate haphazard mess. His suit was so black and crisp it looked texture-less.
“Yes. Have you seen it? It’s a Doctor Who mug…”
“Doctor Who?” Malcolm interrupted. “Who was the one that wore the leather jacket? I liked that one.” Malcolm took another swig from a garishly colored can of sickly smelling energy drink. He drank a lot of these; the cause, Andrew suspected, of his jittery disposition.
“Christopher Eccleston,” Andrew said, “the ninth doctor after…”
“Yeah whatever,” Malcolm interrupted again. “Look; I’ve got a mug. It’s got Stewie Griffin on it dressed as Hitler! Lol, yeah? I got it in Amsterdam.”
Malcolm held his mug aloft, grinning.
“You on The Company fantasy footie league? Did you see the game last night? What’s Wenger fucking playing at, ‘eh? Bloody idiot. What a muppet.”
Malcolm often talked at Andrew like this, about unspecified sports events and BBC Three programs Andrew was gratefully oblivious of. Even when Andrew ostentatiously put his headphones on to listen to an Agatha Christie audiobook he could still hear Malcolm nattering away about nothing. He didn’t hate him, but he couldn’t respect him either. He mostly felt sorry for Malcolm because he strongly suspected he didn’t have many friends. Even the people in the office who did enjoy talking about football and new television fobbed Malcolm off when he tried to join in discussions. It was a mystery to everyone how he became a team leader, doubly so because of the unusual fervor around his promotion. Even Stew, looking unusually flustered, had ventured down to human resources prior to Malcolm’s appointment.
“So I’m going to look for my mug,” Andrew said.
“Do what you want mate.”
“Don’t you want to check that I’m up-to-date on my itinerary?”
“Don’t you want to check I’ve done enough work?”
Malcolm shrugged and then suddenly remembered himself.
“Well…yeah…in terms of course of action, for today I’mdelegating the authority to you to authorize yourself to look for your mug, yeah? I’m horizontalizing the…thing.”
Listening to Malcolm assert his managerial authority was akin to watching a man try and run with his trousers round his ankles.
“Okay. Thank you. I’ll make up the hours on flexi-time.”
But Malcolm had already become distracted by an internet video of a dog being sick, and was no longer listening.
There were a couple of them in there, sitting at the coffee table in their shabby black polo shirts and reading crumpled newspapers with glassy-eyed permanence—but not the small Indian one. From his vantage point peering through the glass of the common room door he could see a sink with some mugs on the draining board. He gathered himself before going in, waiting for someone to acknowledge his presence. Neither of the two looked up from their newspapers, which he took as permission to go and investigate the gaggle of mugs on the draining board. His wasn’t there, so he moved on to the cupboards.
“It’s a bring-your-own policy,” came a low, drawling voice from behind Andrew.
Flustered, he turned around.
“E-excuse me?” he managed, oblivious as to which of the two had spoken the words; they both continued to stare zombie-like at their papers.
“It’s a bring-your-own policy. It means you have to bring your own…from home,” said the older, jaundiced-looking one, still without looking up.
“I know. I did bring my own, nineteen years ago actually,” Andrew said.
“P’roly nicked by someone,” said the cleaner, again in that slow, knowing drawl, “by someone who didn’t bring their own. It’s an imperfect system. But we’re an imperfect species.”
“Have you seen it? It’s a Doctor Who…”
“Matt Smith?” the cleaner interrupted, sharply.
“No. Tom Baker.”
The cleaner’s voice was so low and labored, his head bowed so far forward and his reply so delayed Andrew thought he might have fallen asleep.
“I liked David Tennant,” he finally said.
“He was good in that BBC Macbeth.”
“Yes. He was,” Andrew said. “But have you seen my mug?”
“Try the post room. They’ve been harvestin’ mugs all over the building since The Company stopped those free ones. Crafty thievin’ buggers.”
“Okay,” said Andrew, turning to leave.
The cleaner suddenly looked directly up at Andrew, his eyes deep-set and rimmed with an unhealthy tea-stain coloring. “Tread carefully, mind,” he said, before adding, still with his eyes fixed ominously on Andrew, “Mike, you finished with The Independent?”
Without a word or look, the second cleaner slid a paper across to the first.
“Ta,” he said.
Andrew left the common room feeling tense and displaced. He wanted to return to the sanctuary of his desk; his routine, and the sterility of minute sheets and fixed schedules. But his mug was his mug. Without these anchors everything was a confusing and sickly swirl of unwelcome spontaneity. That was what TV land was for, not real life. He would go to the post room.
“I don’t care if it’s company policy. I’m not gonna sign a birthday card for someone just because we’ve got the same logo on our payslips, like The Company’s this profound common bond or something? It’s fucking dumb, man. This is my job. I didn’t sign up for a cult. I’m not doing it, Bruce.”
“It’s company policy.”
“It’s the principle,” Ryan said.
“All heads and deputies have to sign ‘em. And seeing as there’s only two of us down here you’re technically the latter. So sign.”
“Stew can shove his company policy up his ass width ways, I am not a number,” Ryan said.
Bruce, head of logistical delivery, was a large, heavy set man, with a head and neck the width of a Victorian factory chimney stack. He bore down menacingly on Ryan, whose neck—it should be noted—had all the girth of a lollypop stick.
“And I’m not one of your university dead poet professor wankers. This isn’t a politics seminar. This is the real world and I’m your boss and I’m telling you to sign this twat’s card, or I’ll cut off your nuts with a letter opener and post them to technical support.”
Ryan signed the card.
“Well, I hope Mary Tyler of accounts team 4B can now die happy knowing Ryan Gordon signed her birthday card. I hope she feels cherished and valued and loved and…”
“Shut it. So how can I help you Andrew, desk 32, human resources, basement floor?” Bruce asked, now plucking letters from a table and flicking them into pigeon holes with surprising dexterity. “If it’s about an Amazonpackage, we don’t deliver them anymore. You gotta come and get it yourself.”
“We got a bit overwhelmed,” added Ryan, gesturing to a table piled high with teetering towers of irregularly sized brown cardboard packages.
Andrew swallowed and tried to remember why he was there.
“It’s my mug,” he finally said.
“I suppose the cleaners sent you?” Bruce said. “Well, we haven’t been nicking mugs. It’s just a grudge ‘cause we refuse to haul their fuckin’ industrial bottles of bleach and vacuum bags to their poxy cupboard.”
Andrew thought this stance unreasonable seeing as how bleach and vacuum bags were indispensable, work-related items for the cleaners and should therefore—from the perspective of both fairness and reason—fall well within the post room’s remit of “internal mail.” But there was a more pressing matter at hand.
“So can I look in your kitchenette anyway?” Andrew asked, “For my mug I mean, just in case—it’s a Doctor Who one.”
“There’s a couple of Doctor Who ones in there I think,” Ryan said.
Andrew felt a quiver of hope in his chest. “Do either have Tom Baker on them?”
“Who? No. Just the logo, like they just say ‘Doctor Who’ on them. I’m more of a Battlestar Galactica fan myself.”
“Well whatever floats your boat I guess,” Andrew said, because that’s what he’d heard people say when they wanted to end a conversation. “Bye then.”
He turned to leave, slipping on one of the many forgotten LoveFilm CD wallets that littered the post room floor. His next destination was a few doors down the same corridor, to archives, with whom logistics shared their kitchenette.
“Hold y’ horses,” said Bruce, advancing on Andrew with a large stack of files. “Seeing as we’ve done a favor for you, you can do one for us.”
Andrew wanted to point out they hadn’t actually been of much help at all, but Bruce had begun talking again; he might as well have tried interrupting an earthquake.
“So the bottom ones are general mail for you guys in HR. Then there’s a few birthday cards that need to be signed by some people on your floor—a couple of get-well-soon ones, too. Then there’s the blue sticker accounts folder. They’re for head office. Then there’re more birthday cards for head office to sign—see Ryan, even Stew signs them. Then there’s the red sticker accounts folder, they’re for marketing and comms. Apparently, it’s really important you don’t get red and blue mixed up, yeah? Blue for head office, red for comms. Don’t know why but it comes from the top. If you take a sensible route it shouldn’t take too long.”
Ryan escorted Andrew to the door.
“By the way, it’s technically a kitchen,” said Ryan, now holding the door open for Andrew. “It has four walls. It’s just two are made of glass so it feels like a kitchenette. Also, there’s a hob.”
Andrew suddenly felt a heavy and unexplainable sadness on behalf of Ryan and decided he’d take down that notice on the HR fridge.
He checked amongst the school of mugs in the cupboards above the sink, then the ones below, then the drawers. Nothing. The archive team looked through the glass in unabashed bemusement at his fruitless search, whispering and giggling over large piles of string-bound cardboard folders.
He picked up his stack of errands and left. For the moment he was grateful for the delivery job Bruce had imposed on him because it made him feel temporarily useful and staved off the feeling of despondency and finality that ached in his chest. Other than the Indian cleaner—who could have been anywhere in the building, if she was there at all—he was out of leads. The idea of hopelessly checking every kitchen, kitchenette, and sink in the building was even less appealing than the inevitable sense of loss and defeat he’d feel if he were to return to his desk. All his fastidious planning, strict adherence to order, and routine felt futile in the face of a cruelly random universe. Chance and change had crept in regardless, stealing one of his dearest comforts. He wanted to go home, lock-out the world, and watch Inspector Morse VHSs forever.
He was on the building’s top floor now, unfamiliarly neat and stylish compared to the utilitarian simplicity of the building’s lower levels. There were potted plants and framed pictures, ice white walls, deep carpets, and meeting rooms with grand tables ringed with stylish black leather chairs and topped with dainty coffee cups and saucers. As he neared the double doors of Stew’s office, his despondency turned to nervousness; he had never been here before. He had never met Stew. He knocked and the door abruptly swung open.
“Oh, hello. Andrew isn’t it, from human resources?”
Ciaran, Stew’s PA, intimidated Andrew. It was not because he was domineering or aggressive but rather the opposite. He used the same flat, polite tone with everyone in The Company and knew every employee’s name and role. To Andrew it seemed automated; inhumanly omniscient. Despite Ciaran being a much younger man than Andrew, he was half a foot taller, far more suave, and so naturally self-assured it was impossible for him not to emit a natural ascendency.
“Are those for me or Stew?” Ciaran asked as if he was coaxing a response from a shy child.
“Some,” Andrew finally replied.
“Right. Well, just give me a minute and we’ll sort…”
Suddenly there was a bark from within the office. Andrew, through the gap between the door and Ciaran, could just about see a man—short, stout, mid-thirties but with early-onset baldness—looking out of a window.
“Ciaran!” Stew cried, his voice a clipped, high-born mix of juvenile petulance and life-long self-entitlement. “There’s a bunch o’ bloody kids loitering around my car. Get security.”
“Are you sure they’re not just…” Ciaran began.
“They’ve got scooters, Ciaran. And they’re eating ice cream. Bloody, bloody ice cream van; get them to move that along too. Makes the building look untidy.
“Okay Stew, but if he has a council permit—”
“Hey! They wouldn’t let Noddy park his little queermobile outside BuckinghamPalace would they?”
Andrew and Ciaran exchanged the briefest of puzzled glances, a fleeting leveller.
“Umm, no?” Ciaran offered.
“Exactly, it’s the same fucking thing, isn’t it? All we need’s a bouncy castle and we’ve got ourselves a family fucking open day. What are you doing over there for anyway?”
“Just some…” Ciaran looked down at the stack in Andrew’s hands, “birthday cards, by the looks of things.”
“And what exactly the fuck would I want with those?”
Stew’s voice, Andrew noticed, never dropped below that harsh bark.
“For the employees, Stew, remember? The board thought you should appear more invested in the lives…”
“Jesus Llewellyn Christ is that all it takes nowadays? I miss the eighties; the miners, the Angry Brigade; we were properly hated. Nowadays, all the peasants want is a piss up at Christmas and an inter-department kick about once a year and we can do what we want. Doesn’t matter how much of a cunt I am.
“They’re touching it Ciaran! They’re touching it with their ice cream shit fingers! Get over here Ciaran. I need you here now!”
“I’ll be back in a moment,” Ciaran said to Andrew, letting the door close behind him.
Andrew stood patiently in front of the closed door, until he suddenly became aware of a soft trundling sound emanating from one of the meeting rooms halfway down the hall.
And then there she was: the small Indian cleaner, emerging from the room and heading off down the corridor, her tatty trolley stacked with dusters and cleaning products incongruous against the chicness of the upper hall. Andrew’s heart leapt as he saw, in the lower section of the trolley, a large platoon of mugs. But Ciaran could re-emerge at any minute, and Andrew couldn’t disobey an instruction from the boss’s PA.
He stood, bouncing and fidgeting, like a schoolboy bursting for a piss in morning assembly. His hands sweated and he picked at the colored stickers on the bottom files with his clammy thumb. He had no idea how long Ciaran might be, or whether he’d forgotten about Andrew all together. Before he knew it though, he was walking down the corridor toward the cleaner.
“Excuse me,” he said, a little hurriedly.
The cleaner turned slowly around, smiling dreamily at Andrew.
“Yes my dear, what can I do for you? Have you had a little accident in the library again?”
She spoke, to Andrew’s surprise, in a thick, motherly Scottish accent. He wondered if his surprise made him racist.
Wait: “Library? Accident?”
Then a folder slipped from his grasp and onto the floor. As he stooped to pick it up, he spilled the contents of several others. As he swept up the papers his sweat and haphazard carelessness dislodged the colored stickers on two of the files. He stuck them back on unthinkingly, jamming papers into whatever file or envelope would fit them.
“Can I have a look at your mugs?” Andrew said.
“Ah, yes. The abandoned ones; I call it my orphanage. Which one would you like my dear?”
“It’s a Doctor Who one; it’s got Tom Baker on it,” Andrew said.
“Roger Moore was my favorite.”
“Well, hurry up my flower. Quick, before the bell rings for class.”
Andrew, confused, but too giddy at the prospect of recovering his lost treasure to dwell on the cleaner’s cryptic oddness, inspected the gaggle of mugs. The majority depicted the insignias of what he assumed to be various footballs clubs, others told jokes so asinine and clichéd that Andrew forgot them even as he read. None were his. Disappointment swelled within him and then burst into fear as he saw, from his position kneeling by the cleaner’s trolley, the door of Stew’s office swing open.
“What’re you doing all the way over there?” Ciaran asked, looking mildly puzzled, but maintaining that same leveled tone that betrayed nothing.
Andrew had gotten to his feet, clasping the files to his chest like a nervous young law student.
“I–I was just looking…”
Ciaran looked from Andrew’s face to the disheveled files to the Scottish cleaner, who was now dusting the skirting board and humming a whimsy tune to herself.
“Matilda—she’s from the hospice,” Ciaran said, detaching three files from Andrew’s grip and flicking through them nonchalantly. “She’s convinced this is a primary school and we’re all school children. It’s some scheme The Company signed up to: they get out and about, earn some money, and The Company gets some good press. Cynical motive perhaps, but I think it’s mutually beneficial, don’t you?”
“I—I suppose so. Different horses for different courses,” Andrew said, because that’s what he’d heard people say when they didn’t know either way.
“So is it there? Your mug?” Ciaran asked. “I know it’s unfashionable with you die-hards but I’m a David Tennant man. Got to stay true to yourself after all.”
Andrew’s gaze lingered on the cleaner for a second; as far as he could remember he’d never told Ciaran about his quest.
“No,” he said. “I mean yes. I mean no it’s not there and yes you’ve got to stay true.”
“Well, check the canteen. That’s where the unwanted ones go,” Ciaran said, sliding two files back into the crevice between Andrew’s forearm and chest.
“It’s not unwanted; it’s just lost,” Andrew said sharply, then regretted it almost immediately.
Ciaran showed no reaction. “I think these ones are for me,” he said, prizing three envelopes from Andrew’s grip. “It’s a shame; we used to have a lost property box for that sort of thing, but it got…misplaced. Anyway, good luck Andrew.”
With that, Ciaran began walking briskly back towards Stew’s office.
Andrew stood rooted to the spot, until the door of the office shut behind Ciaran. He exhaled deeply, a sudden and dizzying fatigue washing through him. Through the stress and the madness of the day he’d barely acknowledged the coffee withdrawal headache that now pulsed in his cranium, or for that matter, the hunger in his belly. He thought of the tuna mayo sandwiches in the HR kitchenette fridge; he would eat, he decided, and reclaim at least a semblance of a banal routine long since lost.
He checked the remaining files. Just the red-stickered accounts were left; Communications and Marketing, Bruce had said. That’s if he remembered correctly, which he wasn’t in the least bit sure he had. Ciaran, though, had already taken the blue one intended for head office, and Andrew doubted he would have mixed them up.
Marketing was Andrew’s least favorite department in the building. Instead of the straightforward grey-walled plainness of the lower floors—or the clinical elegance of the upper—communications and marketing looked like a student common room. The walls were adorned with famous movie posters and billboard advertisements. Instead of neat lines of desks, there were quirky sofas and beanbags, even a pool table in the kitchen. They’d argued that a typical office environment stifled creativity, but this hardly sufficed as a justification because, as far as anyone could tell, all they did was write and send off formulaic press releases.
There was only one of them there when Andrew arrived; a sullen looking youth reading a magazine, sprawled like a bloated Roman across a lime green sofa.
“I’ve got the accounts for you,” Andrew said.
“Oh goody,” said the youth without looking up, his words soaked in sarcasm. “Is it really that time of the month again?”
Andrew wasn’t sure how he was supposed to respond.
“Put them down there. I’ll scan them in a minute and send them off. Everyone else is at lunch.”
Andrew placed the folder on the coffee table alongside a pile of glossy magazines with swearwords in the titles. He’d turned to leave when the youth piped up again.
“Do you know I went to Durham?” he snapped.
“No, I didn’t know that,” said Andrew, wondering how he would have known that.
“Three years studying. I don’t even get paid. This is an unpaid internship—slave labor, basically. We’re not even in London and I’m still getting shafted.”
Andrew didn’t care for the youth’s supercilious tone, but felt obliged to respond.
“That’s not really on is it?” he thought he should say.
“It’s bare-naked capitalism is what it is, mate. It’s the way everything is now; everything’s weighted in their favor no matter how talented you are.”
Andrew wanted an out, but couldn’t find one.
“One day I’ll pay them back, really fuck shit up for them, sabotage from the inside. What’d you reckon mate, throw a spanner in the works of the machine?”
“You’ve got to stay true to yourself,” Andrew said blankly.
The youth, wide-eyed and nodding vigorously, pointed at Andrew.
“Fuck yeah man!”
“Maybe after lunch though,” Andrew said.
“Yeah man, after lunch. See ya. That’s some right-on shit though.”
“By the way, have you seen a Doctor Who mug? With Tom Baker on it?” asked Andrew, almost intuitively now.
“Mugs are old school mate; we only get take-away coffees in here. So, we’d notice a mug sitting around.” He returned to his magazine, then looked up once more looking quizzical.
“Doctor Who? Is that, like, ironic?”
“No,” Andrew said. “Bye.”
Still nodding, the youth returned to his magazine. Andrew left.
He ate his lunch where he always ate his lunch, at a table in the rest area immediately outside the entrance to his office. Tuna mayo was his favorite filling—discounting banana and honey, which Andrew deemed too decadent for work—which is why he had it on Mondays. It was pleasant thinking about these technicalities amid the chaos of the day. It also took his mind off the dwindling chances of ever finding his mug, the loss of which he had decided to numb himself towards the best he could.
He finished his lunch, sat for a moment in the interest of smooth digestion, then headed to the canteen. As he walked down corridors and stairs he became increasingly conscious of something unfolding, people running, and conversations conducted in raised, urgent voices. In the building’s lobby to which the canteen was attached a young girl in jeans and plaid shirt stopped Andrew. She was holding a notepad and a Dictaphone.
“Hi, I’m from the Evening Post, can I have a word with you please, about these leaks?”
Andrew remained silent for a moment, mainly because he didn’t know what she was talking about but also because of what the presence of a journalist might mean, and how it could be linked to the general intensifying atmosphere of agitation that was playing out around him.
“Leaks?” he said.
“Yeah, the dodgy accounts. Someone leaked them from this building, sent them to every journalist on your contacts list. I was hoping to get here before the nationals got hold of it, but from what I’ve seen so far I reckon I’m a bit late. That’s the fucking internet for you. So you can’t help?”
Andrew, bewildered, remained silent.
“Dodgy accounts?” he repeated, dumbly.
“Are you one of the ones from the hospice?” she asked hurriedly, a touch of concern in her voice. “They’ve been cooking the books, sending false ones to the press and shareholders and keeping the real ones to themselves. They messed up, sent the real ones out, complete with notes, names. Everything. It’s massive. The FRC are already at the accounting firm. The NFA are here, so’s the FSA. Basically your company’s just fucked itself with the blunt end of an ironing board, so you might as well tell me everything you know.”
Andrew continued to gape at her, until she began to look irritated.
“Fuck’s sake,” she spat and strode off.
Andrew went into the canteen to find it deserted of staff. The only people present was a small group of employees staring in frozen-faced wonderment at a TV news channel, like stunned witnesses to the aftermath of a bomb blast.
He went outside to find the entrance thronged with employees, milling or standing around in groups, chatting, absorbing the news. Some, pre-empting the worst, already carried their possessions in cardboard boxes, others had bought ice-creams from the van that still stood, absurdly jovial, among the congregation of broadcast and police vehicles that ringed the scene.
Andrew was suddenly aware of his bearing witness to the destruction of his own world, from within his own world. He saw his schedules, his routine, his order, his desk, his chair, his tuna mayo sandwiches—his mug—disappearing into a black hole. Nineteen years of solid steadiness disintegrating from the inside out. And he had done it: in looking for a single lost comfort, he was compliant in the end of everything, in the end of so much of himself. And yet here he was, impossibly intact, living through his own death like he’d been nothing more than a ghost all along; witnessing it, but not of it.
As he wandered among his colleagues, he saw Ciaran, leaning against a wall smoking, standing slightly apart from anyone else. Andrew went to him instinctively.
“Kind of feels like the last day of school doesn’t it?” Ciaran said.
“Ciaran, the news, the reporter…she…the blue folder. Did I do this?” he stammered.
“No. Well, maybe, you were the delivery boy, kind of.”
“The boy in marketing…”
“It wasn’t him. I don’t know who it was. I left it to chance.”
Ciaran took a long drag on his cigarette. It was odd to Andrew to see something seemingly so clean and clinical, participating in something inherently toxic.
“Remember your little juggling act on the top floor? Most of what you gave to comms was payslips and memos. You didn’t realize you’d mixed them up so badly because you were too wound up looking for your Star Trek…”
“…your Doctor Who mug. I put the real accounts on Matilda’s trolley, sent them off into the world, left it to fate. I had no idea who if anyone would pick them up. I had no idea this would happen, or this quickly; it’s been—what?—an hour? That’s the bloody internet for you.”
“So no one knows…”
“I guess you could work it out,” continued Ciaran, still with that detached nonchalance. “Needle in a haystack stuff though. To be honest it was bound to happen sometime. When we started, we delivered everything personally, by hand, we’d have never trusted regular employees with that sort of dynamite, even when someone did find out we just paid him off with a promotion.”
A thought suddenly struck Andrew, “Malcolm?”
“Yeah, I think that was his name. Luckily for us he was a bit of an eejit.”
Andrew couldn’t help smiling to himself.
“But you’re the boss’s PA,” Andrew said. “You’re at the top…”
“I’m a glorified butler for a short-assed, chinless twat. Just because you’re on the top floor doesn’t mean you’ve made it.”
Right on cue a disheveled, red-faced Stew was led out of the entrance by two policemen, kicking, writhing, and screaming in anger at the top of his lungs. He saw Ciaran and shouted his name, first in irate anger then, when Ciaran continued to ignore him, pitiful pleading.
“Oh, hello officer,” said Ciaran, taking one last drag and then throwing his cigarette away, allowing a policeman to slip a set of handcuffs over his wrists. “Bye, then. Maybe we’ll meet in a courtroom.”
“But what’ll you do?” asked Andrew, barely aware of his arms being pulled behind him and the cold lick of metal on his own wrists.
“Don’t know, something else, something wholesome; maybe whittling,” Ciaran replied, smiling at him.
Andrew was led away and placed in the back of a police car, where he waited for a moment in silence, detached now from the hubbub of that final day. He stared down at his stripy socks, noticing for the first time how much like black the blue looked, and how anemic the beige.
Before long, two policemen climbed into the front seats.
“Look what I found,” said the one on the passenger side, resting a large cardboard box on his lap.
“I thought it was only marked files we were seizing,” the other said.
“Yeah, but, I mean, there’s no harm in taking a few things. It’s like a party bag, isn’t it?”
“Not really,” said the passenger side cop. “There’s this mug; Doctor Who. My kid’s doolally for that shit, and this one’s got his favorite doctor on.”
“Nah, this guy, whoever he is.”
He held up Andrew’s mug. And Andrew smiled and saw nothing but a relic; nothing but a mug.
John Miskelly continues to exist in Bristol. Bristol is home to popular online movie database IMDb as well as numerous middle-aged acid burnouts. Recently, he moved into a new flat and now sleeps on a double bed in a room with a real window in it, so things are looking up. He is currently working his sixth administrative temp job in two years. John writes an irregular blog at http://www.protagonistcomplex.blogspot.com/ but spends most of his free time watching Netflix with an ever deepening sense of shame and guilt. Things were not supposed to turn out like this. He is twenty-seven years old.