Each morning, when anyone walked into the studio, they were greeted with a chorus of welcomes, embraces and compliments on new haircuts. But not me. With me they just let the music play on out on that stereo. Then, when it finished, they struck up a conversation between themselves. I sat, plugged my headphones straight into the jack and fired up a little flamenco. I found that somehow soothing. The fury was right there to tap. I might light up a cigarette too. I knew they rolled eyes at each other behind me. They spoke low enough that it wouldn't carry over the music. So I lowered the volume to catch it all.
"He’s smoking again, it can’t be legal. Look at his weird little face, sucking on it feverishly. I actually cleared the ashtray last week. Came back an hour later it was full.”
"That stupid porkpie hat too, you ever get close enough to smell that thing? Got to be at least a louse colony in there.”
"I took one of his cushions. Just one, to see if he noticed.”
"Little bastard just sat on the desk. All the same to him. Been there since.”
“And his tail. Moving like that. It just seems unwholesome. But the smoke! Really, how is he allowed smoke?”
"Little red eyes, screwed up tight … tell me it’s not for drink…” Well, on it went.
At last I removed the headphones and went to get a cup of water. I slowly walked over to the cooler, poured myself out a cupful, and looked around the room drinking it. Meeting each of their eyes. None of theirs met mine. I stood for as long as the water lasted, then I retook my seat. Ache was over at me just as soon as I was there.
"I've emailed you the latest brief. It needs to be out by close of play today. If you have any difficulties, this is the number to ring. His name is Herman. He'll probably scramble around a little, talk a hell of a lot and try to come over as smarter than you. He probably is. But in the end he's clueless on this kind of thing. This one is down to you alone. We cannot afford to lose this account either. It's a prestige account, they demand high calibre service. If the client calls mention we have our three best men on it and throw in that it’s almost done.”
Most of the job was sham like that. Lying. Learning to lie as you go. Thinking on your feet for the correct lie. That was the gold medal. Finding ways to confuse and delay things. Baffling your clients. He shuffled back to his seat with that same broken, defeated walk. Maybe he had once danced and fucked and contributed some beauty to the world. Maybe there was a woman out there somewhere who was tolerating him based on the firebrand he once was. "Also, you may want to do something about your attire. That hat has begun to smell. Whatever about the rest. We have high standards in this place. We don’t demand that you wear clothes but if you do, at least keep them sanitary. We need to make an impression. Smarten it up."
Ache was the guy that hired me. I called him Ache. I believe his name was Nigel. But to look at him you would think everything ached him. And it was all caused by the wide world, all of the people in it and all the heroic sacrifices he had made. No one could ever fathom the load he bore. It was all in his eyes. As I approached he had a look on his face like I was just going to be another of his myriad problems. So I christened him then and there.
My job was to help him take what the designers had made and turn it into a website. It's not a hard job. You just take what you've done before as a template, the code, and amend it so it all works with new colours and pictures. But it has to work on all computers, on all screens. It has to work when the client’s maiden aunt turns on her creaking old machine and blows the dust off the cabinet she hides it in. It has to work when his son opens it up on his phone. You can bet your life someone somewhere along the line will try the thing out on a calculator and you'll have the client screaming down the phone very last thing on a Friday that it doesn't work on calculators.
I fired up another cigarette. That was for their benefit. I didn’t especially crave one. Only that no law says a monkey can't smoke in an office. No law says you can't light up a cigar and just leave it burn. And if a monkey should happen to come along and enjoy it, savour it, there isn't a court that could bring a conviction. They read up on it when I joined. I work those angles. The brief was pretty typical. The client was a phone company. What they wanted was something that had never been attempted before on a computer screen. But the marketing girl who suggested it was sure she had seen it someplace. It was ludicrous. It was an ordering system based around a cartoon animation within an email. She must have seen it in a dream. It was like being asked to invent a motorcycle that runs on positive thinking. They had gotten their own designers to mock it up and then hand it over to me to do what they considered the simple part, making it all work. It could have taken a team of dedicated programmers a week to break that one. I was not even given the luxury of a day. Ache settled back into his chair, pretending to be interested in something on his screen.
Meanwhile my stomach boiled and flipped inside of me. I was experiencing all kinds of pain. My head, for the whiskey. Mt guts, for everything else. Mainly it was the seafood from the night before, finally ripening into sizzling knots. It was washing around inside there, the ghosts of all those little sea creatures taking their horrifying revenge. It was those oysters. That or the winkles. Or the clams. My hands trembled white and I heaved out deep, desperate breaths trying to keep it all under control. But for all these people knew I looked like that all of the time. That’s how a Capuchin monkey might even look in rude health. I looked at the clock on the screen. There were still four hours to get through until lunch. How the hell was I going to make it? I thought about all the people I had heard of who were fired in the first week. They got Dan on the very first day. But you can't expect to operate an editing suite fuelled only on last night’s gin and it go unnoticed. Then I got canned the first day giving out leaflets one time I was hard up. I abandoned my bag over a fence to get away from a chasing pack of dogs. Dogs, hating monkeys the way they do. This is the cardinal sin in the leaflet distribution business. So this time I hushed down, tipped my hat a touch forward for shade, and tried to look attentive.
I decided to dial through to the magical voice at the end of the telephone line. Herman seemed to work about a four hour day, during the hours that he pleased. He had been some kind of computer prodigy; he was now in his fifties. I wondered why they had him working from home. The number rang on a while. Finally it clicked to life.
"I told you fuckers never to call me again. I warned you. Which one is this? Calling me from the great valley of the assholes. The great sucking valley. Which asshole is it? I said already I wouldn’t help you fuckers. Not if you were on fire, not if it rained hot oil down upon your whole sorry shitheap. Well, which one?”
I hung up.
I looked around a minute to see if anyone else might have heard, but they were all deep into their screens.
A moment later the phone rang. Ache answered it. He listened and nodded, he talked a while, then he set the receiver back down and walked over to me.
“That was Herman. He’s demanding an apology. He said you called up and abused him on the phone just now.” I looked a moment into Ache’s eyes. I could see that he understood the situation exactly. But he stood over my desk with his hands deep into his pockets and his jaw set like some kind of primate and he waited on me to call this maniac back and apologise. Somewhere out there was a guy getting paid to sit and watch over sheep on a sun dappled hillside. There was probably another one earning his crust tending to bees under the gentle shade of an apple tree. And there I was. I dialled on through.
When the receiver lifted I could hear a horse race being run on television in the background.
“It seems like the same unthinking asshole is calling me back from the land of the drones. Didn’t I explain already that I wasn’t going to help?” Ache stood by and watched my face closely. “You’re just another one of them aren’t you? Faceless, parasitic, unexceptional.”
I hung up once more. I seemed to lack whatever ancient and mystical knowledge was needed to navigate this madness. That being the case, the only thing left to do was laugh. Ache paused a moment and then returned to his desk to call this misunderstood genius back, trying to breach some kind of a peace. I watched him frown, sweat, argue and plead. This went on some time. Finally he finished the call and wandered back over to me.
“We can’t have you messing this one up again. We’re going to hire in a specialist. I hoped we wouldn’t have to, but you’re simply not up to it. We’ll have to find something simpler that you can manage. In the meantime, though, you can get started. See how much progress you can make.”
Not long after he had left the phone on my desk began ringing. A little time passed. I eventually picked up.
“You think you’re going to last the week? The day? You poor, sorry fucker. They hate you, they hate web designers in there. They need you, but they resent you. Oh man! Sweet mercy, do they hate you! You represent to them the finish of their lumbering, antiquated jobs. They’re print designers. They’ll try to break you as they did me. Using all the resources at their disposal.”
“Is that right?”
”Hasn’t it started yet?”
“You know, back where I grew up there was a little shop. Nobody used it. Cereal boxes from years before yellowed in the window. Flies made homes of the jars and there were probably mice. Somehow the business got by. Every few months I would apply for work there. The old man who ran the place would get up out of his chair, come to the counter, hear me out and just chuckle. The idea of a monkey working a shop till. He would send me on my way and go back to his pipe.”
“You’re in the wrong line of work son.”
”You’re telling me.”
”That’s right. You should’ve been an old man.” He hung it up.
The morning ticked on. I had a cup of coffee. My stomach trembled. It gurgled. Then I had another one. Then I helped myself to some biscuits. I walked over to the reception desk and began reading some of the complimentary newspapers. I spent some time in the men's bathroom. Then I left to get a sandwich from the shop downstairs around 11, to bring back to my desk. It was an egg and asparagus sandwich. I thought to myself; no sandwich can possibly taste as bad as that one promises. But it did. It went in the bin after a single bite. I tidied up my desk a little then. There was a little clutter. And I couldn't work in clutter. An artist cannot work in clutter. I made myself another coffee.
After some more of this, Ache called me into one of the glass offices. He pressed his palms onto the desk and jerked his head like a kind of game bird. He had come over red faced. He took his seat opposite me.
"This is a tight office." He said. "There are people who have worked this office coming to fifteen years. We run a tight ship. So when I see someone letting it go slack I call it. I may not always like to play the bad guy. But in your case it's no trouble at all.” It rang like he had rehearsed all of it in his head a dozen times. “This is an official warning buster. This is an official verbal warning. You have two more of these, then it's the door. That it's only your third day speaks volumes for you. Have you anything to say in your defence?"
"You haven't yet told me what the warning is for. How am I expected to focus on self-improvement?"
"Don't get any ideas. Two of these warnings can come at once, like buses in the night. So bring it up to scratch." I got up to leave. "Just a minute. You see that guy out there on the desk beside you?"
"I see him."
"That’s Daniels. He started here two months back. He's already made creative director. He's busting his back-end to try and bring in clients every day. He leaves at 9 every night. Often later. I get in here at 8am and he beats me to it every morning. He opens and closes the place. So why should we have a guy like this in here and a freeloader like you taking up a good desk beside him?"
I already felt fired. It hung in the air.
"It might have something to do with the pitiful wage. That you're already on a meagre budget and you've been through all the other idiots willing to slave through it and bear this insanity for a handful of magic beans." I sat back and awaited that second warning.
But it never arrived.
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