Preston Dirges sloped into the shapeless beige office building, basked in the piercing rays of the morning sun. His mood absorbed that light, chewed it and spat it out a denuded grey. Preston considered himself a master of changing the spectrum of any electromagnetic radiation unlucky enough to blindly encounter him. At will, he could choose to radiate a freezing blue, a lascivious red, a glorious gold or a fetching harlequin bouquet. But most of all he wanted to be grey. Grey discouraged attention. Preston’s only regret was that, try as he had, absolute invisibility was beyond him. If he could have removed the last scant evidence of his existence from the eye of any onlooker, he would have, at least for the duration of his so-called working hours.
There was the usual criss-cross bustle of people in the office foyer. Preston had lost his security pass three weeks ago. He had resolved soon afterwards to take it as an opportunity to thoroughly punish his employer. Knowing that securing a replacement would certainly consume a full couple of days, plus a more than nominal penalty to his payslip, he concluded it was better to simply push through the security barriers like a dozen other people did every day. A new pass would take a month to be issued. It would be at least two more months before anyone suspected that Preston had lied about applying for his. By simply not bothering, Preston considered this a moral victory over the irrelevance of the two perspex sliding doors that everyone had long since learned served only one purpose: to impede access to a multitude of genuine workers. New recruits, suppliers, contractors – all were ostensibly prohibited from reaching the very location where a similiarly inhuman machinery also compelled them to go. Circumstances had trained Preston’s genuine, conscientious colleagues to maintain order by subverting it. They could be relied upon to acquiesce to tailgating, or would even hand their passes over with a smile, lending their identity to Preston for a brief moment. They did this though only a tiny minority would betray a glimmer of recognition when Preston caught their eye. Preston thought it likely that those who did know him would be less likely to accede to his entry.
The night before, Preston had been drunk. He was not drunk now, which he considered a pity. Work would be much more fun if drunk. It was with regret that Preston acquiesced to the norm, wasting his precious leisure time languishing in liquor when it might be better spent achieving something substantial. Aiming to accomplish in his off hours would at least afford Preston some compensation for the time he was forced to waste when on. Preston felt he had once been from somewhere, but he was certain he was nowhere now. He had forgotten where he was from. It might have been Little Rock, or Auckland, or Buenos Aires. It was somewhere like that. Somewhere real. Somewhere that real people lived. In places like that, people drink for pleasure, and they even did things when not drinking. Now Preston drank for want of an alternative way to expend and diminish time. Preston lived somewhere to work there, which means he forfeited living anywhere.
Whilst in the elevator, Preston’s engulfing grey mist was split asunder by a person of seemingly Chinese extraction. The Chinaman knew what Preston looked like. Preston had been hiding in the corner, behind an especially large woman dressed all in black, but the Chinaman had not colluded in the usual pretense to have overlooked Preston’s presence. Preston momentarily considered that he should ask the Chinaman’s opinion of where Preston had come from, just as Preston was in turn thinking his Eastern colleague must be from China or from one of those other countries where the ethnically Chinese remained ethnically Chinese, which might presumably be anywhere on the planet. Maybe there was some trace of an accent, something in Preston’s face or manners that might betray to this cosmopolitan Oriental a subtle clue, a long-forgotten memoir of where Preston belonged. Preston knew the Chinaman was talking, but was unconcerned. After a while, he relented, and started to listen to the words pouring from the Chinaman’s mouth like a hot sticky custard of tommyrot.
Chinaman: “… and add to your pack some detailed numbers on revenue projections which we will dial up in order to convince the ExComm to green light after they deep dive into the data.”
At least, that is what it sounded like. It was hard to be sure without paying more attention. Preston had competitors for his attention. Preston Dirge’s diseased mind had long stopped screaming in order to be noticed. There was no longer sufficient competition for its lovingly malignant abstraction of an embrace. Preston’s diseased mind metaphorically tapped on his shoulder, which was sufficient to instigate an internal dialogue far more satisfying than anything that might come from talking with the Chinaman.
Preston Dirge’s Diseased Mind: Ignore the Chinaman. The ExComm aren’t going to ask you anything. They aren’t going to ask you because their meeting will overrun and your presentation will be postponed to the following meeting. Again.
Preston: You’re right.
Diseased Mind: You don’t even want them to approve the project. If they do, that means more work for you.
Preston: No argument here.
Diseased Mind: Man, you’re like a zombie. You need to snap out of this shit and wake up. Perhaps you should take up a hobby.
Diseased Mind: Okay. You got me on that one.
The Chinaman was still talking. It was a long elevator ride for Preston. Like most people of ambition, the Chinaman thought there was something intrinsically interesting in whatever he did, and nothing of interest to anyone else except to the extent that it was likely to further the Chinaman’s ambition. It had finally reached a time where Preston would have to acknowledge the Chinaman’s request or else be categorized as odd. Or maybe categorized as odder, if the Chinaman was merely inscrutable and not just oblivious to Preston’s disengagement.
Preston: No problem. I’ll add the extra numbers to the pack.
That is what he told the Chinaman. “Like hell you will,” thought Preston’s diseased mind.
After coffee, emails and some mindless surfing of the web, Preston found himself unable to further suspend the commencement of actual work. Some external consultants were due to arrive in about ten minutes, and Preston had not found anywhere for them to sit. This could cascade into a crisis of even more work if not resolved with alacrity. Preston had sent some emails two weeks ago. These had concluded that the person in charge of desks had no desks at his disposal, despite the ample rebuttal afforded by looking around, and that the meeting rooms on the 28th floor were owned by parties of continuous meeting habits and hence unwilling to accommodate others. Last week the emails reached the further conclusion that the meeting rooms on the 29th floor, the floor where Preston spent most of his working hours, were all owned by the alien reptiles that controlled the 29th floor. They were hence off limits per the strictures of Happy Joy Joy One United Team Policy Wisdom Offering number 72, though it took much longer to find out the content of this previously undiscovered rule.
Preston was not of the alien reptile tribe. Preston was of the amphibian swampdwellers of the 28th floor, as much as he was of anything. But the 28th floor was too crowded, and Preston too peripheral, for him to be based in close proximity to his brethren. He had been sent to an outpost in alien reptile territory. In trying to secure a room, Preston concluded the alien reptiles barred all earthly creatures from their meeting rooms, in case these mortals knew what they were talking about and shamed the aliens’ ignorance, though as in all such cases, this was not how their justification was worded. Instead, the relevant rule with no name, until named by Preston as Happy Joy Joy One United Team Policy Wisdom Offering number 72 for ease of reference, was understood to be: “within the unity of the one team there are many tribes and for their happy cohabitation all earthly tribes should limit their exertions to those activities that are blessed by the aliens, or else which are undetectable to their refined reptile senses.” In other words, never do anything unless the aliens first calculate it is to their unworldly advantage or irrelevant. In the event of doubt, just never do anything. This necessarily was interpreted to mean that external consultants were not allowed to use desks, meeting rooms or set foot on the 29th floor, even if their aim was to speak with, learn from, engage and gather the knowledge of that floor, though it could be agreed that for some of these tasks a fleeting visit would soon exhaust all potential.
Ten minutes was an underestimate, of course. Preston would have ten minutes to find desks if the consultants arrived on time and had the uncanny sense to come directly to him. Chances were the consultants would not call Preston, instead opting to bust through the security gates and make for Preston’s boss’ boss on the 28th floor. Consultants generally could be relied upon to entertain the false hope that spending time in the company of budgetholders will lead budgetholders to spend more money on them. As a consequence, such consultants swim towards the budgetholders like sperm swims towards the egg, frenziedly and in a mindless hope they will be first to bury their heads into the ovum’s magnificent munificence. Little do they realize that they, most of the time, serve as much purpose as masturbation, but with less of the associated guilty pleasure.
Preston’s calculations were correct. There was still no call from the consultants at the allotted hour. Meanwhile, Preston had resorted to asking for help from someone young and junior. She might have been called Mel or Belle or Molly or some other name that Preston cared not to consign to memory. Mel/Belle/Mol, being young and junior, and proven to be helpful in the past, demonstrated a naive faith in the idea workers should uncritically do the bidding of other workers who do not directly influence their pay. She found two desks, one right next to her, the other opposite her desk-nest on the 24th floor. Both workspaces were evidently long unused; covered in empty boxes, discarded debris from long-forgotten activities, large hole punchers and other unloved miscellany of stationery of too infrequent use to be worth stealing or even locking away in someone’s greedy drawer. Job done, thanks to Mel/Belle/Mol, though it was best not to be too thankful and perhaps encourage her to think about why she had been helpful. Now Preston could refocus his energies on what he was really paid to do: keeping people on their toes by complaining they were underperforming, but only when the people still cared enough to listen. Complaining to people past caring was obviously pointless, so Preston never did that, unless forced to by the complaints of a superior too scared to complain directly to the source of their frustrations. This time, Preston would call the consultant’s boss’ boss, stating some vague unhappiness that his underlings had not yet arrived. Preston did so from his mobile, whilst walking back to the stairwell. He chose a route designed to ensure he was not seen by the consultants who patiently and impotently sat on the leather sofa outside the office of his own boss’ boss.