Twelvemonth had elapsed since the last arbitrary annual signifier of time’s passing. It was the first workday of the year. Preston was back at his desk. He stared at the opaque screen that separated his cubicle from his neighbour’s, whilst pretending to stare at the luminescent screen of his computer. This was how he had started the previous year, though the fact was hardly worthy of comment, given that mindless staring was the single most time-consuming element of his daily routine.
Preston considered what he had gained since the last perfunctory distribution of new office diaries. He was in line for a promotion. A new senior management role had been created, and then it had remained vacant for months. Initially he had tried to help identify and scrutinize candidates, until it became obvious that nobody who matched the spec would be crazy enough to actually apply for it. Preston had no serious rivals, though he wondered if they might delay indefinitely in the hope of a miracle discovery or else to hand the job out to someone’s retarded cousin by way of repaying a favour. The role was of a higher grade to that currently occupied by Preston, but it involved a significantly reduced degree of real responsibility. It required a lower level of skill and experience. Preston’s career had the Merlinesque quality of progressing from back to front along every dimension that mattered, except that of pay. Fewer hours, less travel and simpler expectations from less demanding bosses would be his reward for having the right CV in the right place at the right time. Preston’s diseased mind utterly rejected the notion of fate, but this did seem a natural and destined continuation of Preston’s aching, arching ballistic career trajectory. This would take him even more into those stellar ranks where retrograde motion could always be explained away as someone else’s fault, even when it was just the consequence of cosmic design.
He reminded himself the role was not his yet. But there had been other advancements. He had finally secured his senior-grade parking spot in the ‘new’ car park. To the naked eye, construction of the car park had been completed in March. It had taken the following nine months for the authorities to process the permits that signified the car park’s rectangular concrete expanse to be a safe and healthy place for daytime car storage. The longer winter nights had helped Preston to catch up on his sleep. He had even ventured to examine the gym, though he had no genuinely discernable intention to use it. And his bank balance was fatter than the portliest of St. Nick’s that had recently besieged him at billboards, street corners and department stores. Life was being good to Preston Dirges. He would have assented to this, if forced into a rational evaluation. So why did he feel so miserable?
Some time ago, the mathematical notion of chaos had vaulted into the public consciousness. It was one of those pseudo-scientific ideas that people liked to pretend they understood after pretending to read a book popularizing it. Preston understood chaos perfectly. Chaos dictated that it did not matter if the future state of a system could be forecast with perfect deterministic certainty. Theoretical perfection was undermined by practical limitation. All that mattered was that you could never measure the initial or current status precisely enough, and that even the minutest variance would guarantee a radically different unfolding of subsequent events. Chaos was endemic, of course. It could be used to prove that Preston would never actually succeed in performing his role; the best he could do would be to get lucky and take the credit, or be unlucky whilst successfully blaming somebody else. Most people were spared contemplating the truth of chaos by virtue of their ignorance and/or lack of comprehension. But Preston was meant to know what would happen, or at least to improve the usefulness of the guesses that were made all around his workplace. So Preston contemplated chaos, a futile act, as he himself recognized.
Not all aspects of life are chaotic, Preston conceded. However, he thought that predictability might only be a quirky by-product of how time was perceived. If you lived life slowly enough, then future outcomes might seem likely just because you never allowed sufficient time for a change to take place. Weather forecasting was the best-known example of how chaos denied any hope of accurate prediction. A butterfly bats its wings in Okinawa and two weeks later you get a monsoon in Rio. Or not. But if you sit with the sun on your face then the sun will probably still be shining a few seconds later. So if the travails of time were slowed to the point where a lifetime was completed during the batting of a butterfly wing, then predictability would reign for most people. Some would be unlucky enough to live in those mercurial times when they would feel that very first drop of rain, but the blinkbeat of most lives would be too short to involve change. And that explained a lot about Preston’s life.
“Preston Dirges speaking.”
“Hello. Who is that please?”
“Preston Dirges. How may I help you?”
“Oh. I’m sorry, I have the wrong number,” and the line went dead, which was a relief. Preston generally did not believe in working before lunch. Morning indolence helped him to cope with the after-effects of insomnia.
With so few telephone numbers, people should not make as many mistakes as they do, ruminated Preston. There were between 100 and 500 trillion synapses in Preston’s brain. If people could not dial the right four-figure extension number, then what hope was there for Preston to calculate what he was going to do in future, never mind anyone else? But then, Preston had been at the same desk a year before, and most of the days between. He consoled himself that there would come a day which would be the last day at his desk, the last in his parking spot, the last at this meaningless job. This consoled him, until he remembered his promotion would require him to move to a new desk on the 33rd floor, and that there was every possibility that his car park space would be reallocated as a result.
The work was piling up on Preston’s desktop computer, an inevitable by-product of his move. Preston often observed that managers trusted their underlings to do the most just when they had the least reason to be loyal. Deadlines had to be met, for fear that once breached there would be nobody to complete the task. When normally other people could be allowed to wallow in their non-responsiveness, it became important to regularly ‘chase’ people to do their job – a chase which posed as much threat as a toothless old cheetah menacing a gazelle with its gums. Most mind-numbingly of all, handover notes had to be written. Preston had always been asked to write handover notes, and had never received any. There was a rift in the universe where an incumbent’s lazy musings about what they do are always lost to the successor.
The pile-up of work had been exacerbated in that needful way that only seems needful to a business so wrapped up in good management that it barely remembers what its business is. There had been no money, or no willingness to spend money on implementing a system that would have spared Preston the task of sending out, once a quarter, several hundred near-identical emails all with near-identical Excel spreadsheet attachments. Within the wiggle space of this near-commonality, there was room for an awful lot of thankless toil. Preston worked for a technology business, and as in all such businesses, the solution to an easily automated problem was to recruit a person to perform menial tasks. The appointment of a dogsbody had been promised even at Preston’s first interview. Preston had made a mental allowance of six months before he expected genuine approval for recruitment; he was only very modestly disappointed when the approval took slightly over twice as long to materialize. But now that Preston had asked to be transferred, recruitment of underlings had to be put on hold. It would be unseemly for Preston to recruit somebody. His successor would instead get to hand-pick his or her team. Preston had been in this situation before, of handing over promised heads to an unknown successor. One again, the asymmetric space-time rift between predecessor and successor ensured that what goes around never did come around. Preston had never started a new job with an opportunity to bring in new people, though he had sometimes began work just days after his new underlings had got their collective feet in the door.
Preston’s diseased mind finally engaged the attention of the rest of Preston.
Diseased Mind: I’m tired. Why don’t you sleep better?
Preston: It’s the weather, I think. Too much pressure bearing down on me.
Diseased Mind: Blaming it on the weather – is that the best you can do? Why don’t you get some proper exercise for a change? Then you might sleep properly.
Preston: I would exercise, if I wasn’t so damn tired all the time.
Diseased Mind: I think my memory is going. I was about to say something and now I can’t think what it was. It’s like I’m dissolving away steadily.
Preston: I’ll have some water (takes a sip) – that might refresh you a little.
Diseased Mind: We’re falling apart, man. I can feel my synapses eroding every day. There was a time when I felt clever – no, I mean there was a time when I was clever.
Preston: Intellect isn’t an advantage in the workplace.
Diseased Mind: That’s true, but I don’t want you to hand yourself over to the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers either.
Preston: It would simplify things. For a start, we wouldn’t need to pretend to fit in any more. It would just come naturally.
Diseased Mind: I’m going back to sleep. Wake me up when it’s time to pick out lunch.
As part of the erratic turning of life’s great hamster wheel, Preston’s transfer for the uncontested vacancy had been held-up indefinitely. Preston’s sinecure was to be so senior that the powers-that-be balked at just giving him the job. Preston would need to assure everybody of his psychological stability and raw potential through a gruelling external assessment. Clearly this assessment had only become mandatory after the appointment of the powers-that-be, by which time the need for improved quality control must have been painfully obvious. It being Christmas, and then New Year, the scheduling of the assessment kept being postponed because of leave-taking by the people needed to sit around drinking coffee in a room adjacent to the room where Preston would fill out his exam paper. The shortfall of coffee-drinking overseers in the vicinity had even necessitated the procurement of an overseas firm to perform Preston’s assessment. Preston wondered if they were secretly hoping he would be jet-lagged on arrival, and hence perform no better than the typical example of the powers-that-be, thus achieving a kind of reverse normalization that would help to avoid any real spur to change. Uninspired by his copying and pasting from email to email, and from spreadsheet to spreadsheet, Preston took the time to research providers of psychological profiling in nearby nations, and also to muse possible travel arrangements. He calculated the cost of the appraisal exercise would be roughly equal to the system the business could not afford, but which, if they could afford it, would have automated all those near-identical emails and spreadsheets. Preston’s diseased mind metaphorically flipped over in its sleep, murmuring something about how testing Preston was an economically prudent investment for a business that had been unable to find any alternatives for this particular vacancy. After all, if Preston was not up to the task, then clearly nobody else should even attempt it.
Time must be going very slowly indeed, thought Preston. For all the chaos, everything really important was predictable; so would be his choice of lunchtime sandwich.