John Higgins is a 23-year-old Irish writer. His work has been featured in The Blue Nib, Honest Ulsterman, New Pop Lit & more. He lives in Galway. You can find his work on Twitter: @JohnhigginsW.
—Mmm, compliments to the chef, the boss said, as the waiter began to clear the dinner plates. The four others sitting at the circular table shuddered with embarrassment, all of them processing the cringe in their own way: tongue-biting, fist-clenching, toe-curling, etc. Even the waiter’s cool, unflappable demeanour was somewhat shaken, pausing while bent over the table, almost toppling the remains of the chicken-cream risotto in his hand, looking at Frank Conway and saying: —Sir? —A great meal, Conway said. He tipped a wink at whoever could bear to look at him. —I’ll— I’ll pass along the message, the waiter simpered, stacking the plates together and taking them all, leaving just the spilled detritus and splashes of red wine on the cream tablecloth. The jazz piping through the speakers, and the gentle hum of background conversation, didn’t do anything to allay the feeling of awkwardness that hung heavy over the other four employees of Houghton Oxford currently in attendance at the third, monthly staff meal.
JOE It had been a terrible idea, born of a cheaply cynical upper-management idea to cash in on what Deleuze referred to as the Society of Control. Once a month, Conway, the floor manager, uses an allotted dinner fund to ‘treat’ his employees to an evening of fun, all in the hopes of ensuring they got their value for money, wages-wise. I.e., ensuring that staff were preserved in the office environment long after the time for clocking-off, which in itself has gradually become an antiquated notion. They— the CEOs, the higher-ups— of course disguise this desire to keep the work-ball in a perennial state of rolling as a team-building exercise, designed to build morale and ensure the company works together as one, camaraderie-oiled machine. Of course, what the upper-management fail to realise is that, apart from sharing a carpet for 8 or 9 hours a day, employees tend to have little in common with each other, let alone the boss with whom they must obsessively watch their ‘p’s and q’s. This is what springs to mind as I watch our boss dab at his sauce-covered mouth with a stained napkin. None of us, of course, as regular working men and women, would dare to disturb the post-dining silence with a remark as banal as ‘compliments to the chef’; unless, of course, it was in the spirit of irony. Mr. Conway, however, seems to have no problem with this remark, judging from the wide, beaming grin he flashes as he delivers the command without any trace of self-effacement. Initially, I thought that, perhaps, he was mocking the status he had over not only the waiters but over us with a sort-of dig at the kind of haute/Moyenne bourgeoisie language used by popular, quasi-satirical perceptions of his own social stratum. But no, it was purely unself-aware, only succeeding to unconsciously show how upper-class he is, how unused to dining with the common proletariat like us he is. He balls the napkin up and tosses it into the middle of the table. —Who’s for dessert? he asks. No one speaks, no one moves. He waves to the waiter for a dessert menu. Chairs scrape against the hardwood flooring. Slowly, one-by-one, we all move away.
DARREN He’s a fucken idiot. His compliments to the chef shite. He’s actually fucken embarrassing to be around. I went red, y’know? Completely red. As the fucken tomato sauce on his face. That fucken red. If only that shitey pop music coming thru the speakers had of been louder, we wouldn’t of had to hear the fucker. I don’t even know why its embarrassing. It just is. You’re supposed to be a leader. You’re supposed to be someone we respect. And you go and say something stupid like that when you could of just kept your mouth shut. That’s a textbook example of bad leadership. There’s this technique people have. Usually salespeople. You get someone in to buy something. A car. A house. Whatever. You give your spiel. Or some of it at least. And you just go quiet. Let the buyer do the talking. See how far they’re willing to go. Let them talk and talk themselves in circles and they will, y’know. They’ll talk just to fill the fucken silence. He’s a fucken moron. I can’t wait ‘til he’s gone though it tears me up that he’ll only be sent up the chain not into a fucken retirement home where he belongs. It’s not even that he’s a bad guy in himself, y’know? He’s just fucken shite. A shite boss. A poor leader. And I just don’t wanna get his job only to have to answer to him in two promotions time. Everyone got up to leave after he offered dessert. S’pose everyone’s got somewhere else they wanna be. No one’s here by choice. Every cunt wants something. No matter what they say. Even me. I don’t mind saying it. I’ve not got notions about why I’m here. I couldn’t give a fuck about teambuilding or whatever shite they’ve been cooking up in HR. The softly softly approach doesn’t work. No matter how much they try to implement it. I mean, yeah. A big booze up at the end of the fiscal year or a Xmas party to try and get the ride in the copy room but all this nicety dinner shite? It doesn’t wash. Not with me anyway. I can see right through it. I’m here because I want Conway’s job. Why wouldn’t I? Nice big office overlooking the park? My own space? A raise? Able to wear headphones while working. Listen to some of those podcasts I’ve been dipping in and out of? Dead fucken right I want his job. And if it takes a few comped dinners, a few hours out of every month then fuck it. I ain’t that proud. This dinner shit’ll soon stop when I get to be manager though. I’ll divvy up the money and give it to them instead. They can just lie and say we went for dinner. What’s it Joe Rogan said? It’s better to be feared than loved. I don’t want this shit. Sitting round and pretending to give a fuck about Susan’s college stories or what article Joe read the other week. I mean I don’t pay too much heed anyway to them but it’ll be great to not even be in the same room as them.
SUSAN It’s worse because of the shiteating grin spreading across his fac— ear to ear— round face like the Cheshire cat, so h— He’s so proud of himse— Like he’s told the funniest joke in the world. Jesus I actually can’t put up with much mor— Every mont--this place, all the t— It’s bad enough I have to walk in through those same doors every day — take the same elevator up to the same floor every d— ay the same bullshit ‘hello’ to Karen the receptioni— she never gets invited. Why? And the same smallt— awful weather, what d’you reckon of Karen’s new hairdo?, what d’you do— and sit down at the same des— same lun— clock out at the same— the same ‘bye’s. It’s already exhausting enough, why do I have to do it all again in a restaurant about as Italian as— as— as-- The wine is shit, too. Making things wors— even though I’m not a fan of wine anyway, but this stuff tastes like it came out of a box, not a bot— try a beer? Don’t mix drin— know how that turns out. Jesus I’d love a beer though. In an ice-cold glass or even a nice cold glass. . See, no one says fuck all her— Everyone’s too scared of shaking the apple so they don’t say anything that’s real and you can never feel comfortabl— ever feel like someone’s watching you, waiting for you to slip up. That’s the hunch of a fifteen year old girl— Like I’m back leaning on the schoolyard w— with those rich bitc— heads full of air. Conway says it— to the waiter c— compliments to the che— fucking hell— like it if the music was louder to drown him ou— toilet, I need to get to the toile— try and make this evening somewhat pleasurable.
MARTIN Oh yeah, he’s definitely gay. Even look at the way he sits. Legs spread and his elbows on the table like a Neanderthal. He just likes to pretend he’s not. Hmm? Oh I didn’t hear anything Conway said. I was too busy staring at Darren. Not staring. Not staring. Looking. No. Not looking. I just happened to see him. He was opposite me, after all. On my left. Opposite me on my left. OK. Beside me. But I was looking for the bathroom. Or a sign to the bathroom. These fancy restaurants never have signs for the bathroom and it always becomes a guessing game where you end up in a maze of dusty corridors or standing in the kitchen with three chefs and a flaming pan of fish staring at you. Why was I staring at Darren? I told you I wasn’t. He just happened to come into my eyeline and I looked at him. And then I was struck by the way he was sitting. Legs spread out. There was this crease in the crotch of his trousers. You know where the zipper bunches up? Yeah. Like that. And it looked like he had a hard-on. In public too. Disgusting stuff. So when Conway said whatever it was he said I was distracted because I was thinking that the rumours are definitely true. Oh, the rumours that he’s gay. Well it’s the kind of thing that no one would be surprised if it was true. No one actually thinks it or they’re very quick to preface any accusations that way but then they always say that they wouldn’t be surprised if it was true. No one would care either. I dunno why he doesn’t just come out and say it. Like Joe. He said it one day and everyone stopped speculating about it. Well he didn’t really just say it. One of the girls who worked here two years ago was trying to set everyone up with her sister whose husband had just left her. Ran off with a gymnast apparently but you didn’t hear it here. And she tried it on Joe. Yeah tried giving him her number and everything. As if Joe’d go texting some random girl he’d never met before out of the blue anyway. He’s not that type. He’s more reserved. And he just said it. Said his boyfriend probably wouldn’t be happy with it. Everyone thought he was joking. It’s hard to tell if he has a sense of humour or not. He’s funny like that. Funny funny. Even people on other floors say it. Accounts. HR. I don’t think anyone’s come through our floor without commenting on Darren in some way. I think everyone wants him to be gay. He’s too aggressive. Too shouty. Too in your face and all he talks about is the gym or fitness podcasts. That’s it. So I think everyone wants him to be gay just to take that away from him. Plus get a few drinks in him and he’ll start accusing people of being paedophiles. Just for a joke. No one takes it seriously but imagine having a civil conversation at the Christmas party about babysitting your nephew and you’re great with kids and everyone trusts you with them and you’ve even been mistaken for the boy’s father on the bus and congratulated for your almost superhuman level of patience answering all Leon’s questions and then this midget because he’s only 5 foot 12 just an inch taller than me comes around and claps you on the back and says man how will you babysit with that restraining order on you? From the last time you touched him, and then he claps you on the back again and says ah I’m just yanking your chain and goes off to stuff breadsticks in his nose or something. So yeah. I didn’t hear it. Everyone got up and walked off. It was just me and Conway left sitting there and I feel he doesn’t like me because he just sighed like he was stuck with me on his basketball team.
JOE The bathroom is unisex, which means no urinals. A sexless series of mahogany boxes, no difference between this tiled room or an undertaker’s. I can still feel all the cheap sauce still on my fingers. It’s restaurants citing their stuff as cordon bleu dining, but using cheap packets of curry sauce, stroganoff sauce, risotto sauce, etc., that disinclines me from eating at these kind of establishments. Ever since college, I always favoured home-cooked meals. From chopping-board to fork, you know what you’re getting. It’s a lot more satisfying, having your food prepared by real people— i.e., the self or someone closely associated— instead of paying for a consortium/conglomerate to microwave yesterday’s scraps and serve it with a faux-Italian flourish. Because who is to say what food is fashionable? Fish eggs, for example, are seen as the pinnacle of fine-dining, while battered fish is regarded with a turned-up nose. Liver is either a luxury item or a symbol of poverty, depending arbitrarily on the incomes of the household purchasing it. Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony suggests that the ruling classes dictate, through manipulation of cultural norms, the general consensus. For example, Rocky convinced generations of people that hardwork and perseverance can help you amount to anything, despite the fact that the movie is set at a time of severe socio-economic inequality and hardship. I suggest the same is true of our attitudes towards food. We have been manipulated by movies, advertising, etc., into favouring cuisine delivered with a snooty stiffness, rather than slopped into a cone of newspaper. I zip up and go to the sink. I splash water over my hands and coax soap out of the dispenser. I can hear crying in one of the stalls, breaking through the rubbery sound of my soapy hands rubbing together. I stand with my hands under the dryer and I contemplate the nature of existence. How isolated we are. The loneliest minority is truly the individual. Who said that? It doesn’t matter. Even with the roar of the handdryer, I can hear the sniffing sobs, reverberating through my brain. Wouldn’t it be lovely, to stretch out a hand? To offer some companionship as we stagger for contact on this spinning rock? The handdryer stops. I go out for a smoke.
DARREN Conway prefers it if we drink wine too. Did I fucken mention that? He’s a cheeky cunt. Took me aside after the first staff dinner. When we were walking out to the Uber. Reckoned he’d rather if I drank wine next time. Stingy cunt. Cheaper to buy one bottle of red to suit himself rather than let the person themselves have what they want. Ridiculous. I gave up smoking. Used to smoke like a absolute trooper. Would be rolling one while smoking another one. Started when I did work experience in a garage. These lads were great. All in their thirties. A few years off that myself now. And they’d stand around when it wasn’t busy and smoke. There’s just something so peaceful about it. Sharing a joke and a fag and then heading back in to do your work. Real work. With the hands. Just you and a machine. But course you don’t get smoke breaks at Houghton Oxford. They don’t want one person getting a break while someone else has to work. So the only time you get to smoke is at lunch or the half hour break at half ten. Hardly any point ‘cause by the time you’ve had your coffee and sandwich the time is nearly done and I don’t get wifi to listen to podcasts once I leave the building. Plus I got back to gymming in a big way. I kind of lost interest in it at college ‘cause I was at other things and course you don’t notice the weight creeping up on you but I’d always been into the exercise. I’d boxed in secondary school. So it ran to fat quicker for me. The muscle I mean. ‘Cause I had it to begin with. So next thing I graduate and I start seeing a belly coming and it’s not going. I’m sitting at my desk. This was three years ago. I was on a different floor then. And I see this belly coming out. The shirt buttons aren’t ready to pop yet but they’re not fucken far off it. So I get home and I throw out all the packets of pretzels and the tins of beer. See when you’re not riding someone on the regular you’re not getting the necessary cardio or even sweating worth a shite and you start piling it all up and when you get outta college all the good ones have left the country or’re in relationships so you’re left with the nutcases and the spotty ones. So I head out to vape a little. I don’t go in for that raspberry shit. It’s a little womany for me but the coffee ones are alright or they have one that tastes of hemp but there isn’t enough THC in it. It’s a nice night actually. Cold. The kind of night I would of usually been tempted for a run. They don’t even have a fucken smoking area in this place. You have to stand out in the fucken carpark. The carpark is nearly empty. Most of the diners’ve left by now. That’s another bad part. You have to come to work dressed to go out. You don’t even get to come home and change. The Uber’s ordered before we even log our computers off. I don’t wanna have to wear my good shirt to work and then out. Uncomfortable, y’know? But I guess I’ve only to put up with it for a few more months. Six at the most. Then when I get Conway’s job the dinner shite stops. Jesus. This pain in the hole. Fuck me I can’t stand him. He’s just got this holier than you head on him. And he smokes these thin little white cigarettes with barely a pinch of tobacco in them. Barely any point smoking them for all you’re fucken getting off them. Take a deep breath. Only gotta deal with the cunt for six more months. Tops. ‘Well, Joe.’ ‘Hey, Darren.’ He lights up. Jesus, the fags stink too. ‘Some show Conway made, eh?’ ‘I don’t know. I wasn’t listening.’ He’s so fucken odd to talk to. No bit of craic outta him or nothing. Can’t stand these serious folk. ‘Reckon that waiters jaw was gonna hit the floor.’ ‘Don’t blame him. He’s not getting paid enough to deal with the likes of us coming in.’ ‘Conway’ll probably leave a decent tip. Make up for the embarrassment.’ ‘I couldn’t tell you.’ See what I mean? Nothing to say about nothing. ‘You going to Amaira’s birthday do next week?’ ‘Amaira from the second floor’ As if there’s any other one. ‘Yeh.’ ‘Nah.’ ‘Oh? Should be a laugh. She’s getting one hour’s free bar.’ ‘I’m not that interested in that. Rather be home.’ ‘Yet you’ll come to this shitshow?’ Never saw his face flush red as much. Cunt fucken looks like he’d just finished a marathon by the time he starts talking. ‘Don’t even get me started on this,’ he says. ‘Bad enough I’ve to step on the treadmill 8—5. Now I’ve to do it after hours too?’ See, I can’t stand this shit. This hypocrisy. You don’t have to come, but they go about with these faces on them like they’ve been conscripted. ‘Why’d you come then?’ ‘Same reason as you. Because I had to.’ I’m about to say something when the front door of the restaurant opens again.
SUSAN Hate unisex toilets. Not even the lack of safety but just the fact that any cunt can hear you shittin— get paranoid like always that someone’s looking over the top of the cubicle at m— everyone’s sitting out at the table like good little boys— where’s the rebellious spirit?— everyone in here is a pure shado— with the cubicle wall not even graffitied with cocks. Since leaving college there’s been a severe dearth of that so— rebellion I m— everyone’s afraid to say boo in case it gets them canned from— who gives a fuck? Lickarses is all— that’s the problem with— too concerned with looking good that they can barely function as real people—even know if they’ve ever given an opinion on— a real opinio— not like in college— I had this group of friends— sort of like mentors to each other and in doing so we improved our— showed each other the way the world opera— took each other’s worldview and made it into one cohesive worldview. And the chats we’d have going on until maybe six a.m. And one guy Maria was pumpin— God he was in love with the girl but she wasn’t as keen on —he’d get us sorted with pills and shi— take a load of md and just have a love buzz going on for ourselves and then we’d tell each other what we actually—the truth is import— any fucker can make up an opinion like those fuckers in there. Afraid to say anything in case word gets back to the big bad bos— so they act like shadows of themselves with no re— and one day they’ll be unable to extricate themselves from the lies and that’s when you lose your w— and that’s why the truth’s important, because only you have it. The door swings open. I should wa— I don’t want to make noise and have s— oh fuck it, what’s life without rebellion?— and what’s rebellion without defiance?— and wh— anyway. I’ve it in a little sandwich ba— got these clips that are tricky to mana— gel nails don’t hel—piss on the floor, you’d know it was unisex. Give the cistern a good drying with the red sleeve of my cardig— and I rack out a line on the gleaming porcel— and hold one nostril close— drive the other nostril over the line and hoover i— the hand dryer goes off— my nose is stingin— got to take special care to get all the little bits of coke in my nose hai— really need this to get through these thing— snorted some in the toilet at work to— oh they’re all at it, trust me. But Jesus it feels a lot better than that shitty red wine.
MARTIN This wine’s kinda gone to my head. I’m like that. Even in college I never could drink much and I always ended up passed out after a glass or two of beer though not from drunkenness I’d just get really really really tired and would have to go up to bed for a nap but I’d always get too sleepy to make the final few steps and so I’d fall asleep on the stairs but my housemates were really nice they’d always go out and let me sleep it off and then when they’d come home they’d wake me up by slamming the door shut after I’d slept for a few more hours it’d be maybe three or four a.m. which is really late for me anyway because mum used to like me to be asleep by eight or nine before I turned eighteen and they’d started letting me stay up until ten and so my housemates knew I’d have trouble orientating myself at such a late hour or early I suppose it depends on your perception of the subjection and so they’d splash a glass of water over my face to wake me up properly and that’s kinda my history with alcohol. It’s just me and Mr. Conway left at the table. He tells me to call him Frank but I don’t want to overstep any boundaries because it starts like that you know with them telling you to call you their first name but then it gets changed like the guy who came to our house not long after dad left and he’d tell me to call him Jimmy but then when I started calling him Jimmy after a while he told me not to call him that that to me he was Mr. Cohen and that if I saw him in school I wasn’t supposed to say anything to him or he’d get me expelled. He asks me do I want dessert but I don’t. Sweet things don’t mix well with me so late at night and I have nightmares and then if I don’t sleep well I’m cranky as all hell. I tell him this. He says I don’t look so good and I tell him I’m fine because I am fine but he’s the boss and so he tells me to go and get a breath of fresh air and I’m used to this I know it’s when adults just want you out of their hair but they can’t think of a proper excuse or chore to get you occupied with so they just tell you to go play outside. I get up. The tiled floor is lit with all these white spotlights and I can’t help myself stepping on them as I cross the floor and head out to the little reception area and it’s quite snug there’s a bookshelf and a piano with the lid bolted shut it looks like and two leather couches and a wicker chair with a sign −not for sitting− that’s handwritten. Through the glass I see Darren and Joe standing out and smoking and I know with Joe there Darren won’t do anything to me and maybe this is a chance to actually get a word to him and see is there any common ground between us? I see him with earphones all the time and I like music too especially Burt Bacharach though I don’t like the stuff he did with Elvis Costello but each to their own I guess. I take a nice deep breath and head out into the cold parking lot.
JOE In his book on Jacques Lacan, the philosopher— well, I would argue ‘social critic’, but that’s the subject of a monograph of its own— Slavoj Žižek uses the analogy of his father threatening him with punishment to visit his grandmother’s house. He argues that, in today’s society— a Society of Control rather than that of Discipline— the father would simply ask the son: ‘would you like to visit your grandmother?’, thus giving the child both the illusion of choice, as well as the implied notion that refusing will only cause bitter disappointment in the heart of the father. The same is true of the modern workplace. We are no longer told to do our job, we are no longer suffering under the classic hard-ass bosses, we no longer have to protect our rights with unionising. Because we are cajoled and wheedled into working. We are bought with coffees, pizza parties, staff dinners, etc., into performing even more productively than we would if we were slaves. Because rebellion is no longer an option. We have been subsumed by the bosom of modern capitalism. They have, to summarise, got smart. They have realised that they no longer need the stick, they just need to offer the horse an unlimited supply of carrots. The whips have been put away; out come the bowling nights. That’s what gets to me most, when little shits like Darren come out with their narrow-minded disapproval. Why would I go to Amaira’s birthday? I don’t even think I’ve ever spoken to her. I’ve been invited, I know, because I got the Facebook invitation the other day. But why would I go? Why am I even Facebook friends with her? But that isn’t the problem. That’s not the question I’m trying to sort through. I’m wondering, as Darren stares at me with that piggy, pink face, why am I the odd one? When did turning up, doing your shift, and going home to non-work-related activities become the actions of a social pariah? I tell him: —No, I won’t be attending. He comes back with: —Why not? It’ll be good fun. She’s having a free bar. To be honest, the only times I enjoy drinking are at night, relaxing with a good book and enjoying the off-brand Polish lager from under the corner shop’s counter. I tell him this: —I’d rather stay home. —Yet you’ll come running to this thing. He nods over my shoulder, at the stone wall of the restaurant. Between the trees, I can see the orange glint of streetlights. I honestly don’t understand why people can’t just leave me be. I don’t even want to be here, but I was essentially forced to, just to keep my job. It’s almost Kafkaesque, coming and socialising just to keep your job. —Don’t start with that nonsense, I reply. —I’m on this 8—5 treadmill five days a week. The management has our contact details so we can work from home at a moment’s notice. We don’t even base our hours on how much work we get done, we have to stay in between these arbitrary hours just to fulfil the illusion that we are making money. And for what? So I can do it all again, on my own time. Just because we’re not paying for the meal doesn’t mean we’re gaining from this. I know, I’m sacrificing articulation for vitriol, but it just comes bubbling up to the surface, all the things you can’t say to the ruling classes of Houghton Oxford. —Calm the fuck down, will you? he says, holding his hands up. His vapestick-thingey makes him look stupid. I stub my cigarette out in the mounted ashtray jutting out of the ground and light another one. These cigarettes are my favourite. They’re what Proust would smoke. And the vape is what Marcel Marceau would smoke. —I’m perfectly calm, I reply. My teeth are clenching. I have to prise them apart to balance the cigarette between my lips. —I just want to be left alone. Isn’t that OK? —Fine, I’ll leave you, Jesus. He mutters a little, making to walk off, then realises he has nowhere to walk to. Just an empty car park. —Why’d you bother coming then? he asks, looking up again. —Same reason as you. Because I was made to. He opens his mouth, with the black, recorder-like tip of the vape tapping against his bottom teeth, when the door swings open.
DARREN Its Susan. She looks like she’s seen a ghost or something. And she has these red eyes like she’s been crying. I’m half expecting her to tell us that Conway’s dead. Heart attack or something. Fat fucker has it coming. No offence to him but if you’re gonna insist on a starter, main and dessert then you shouldn’t react with surprise if your ticker decides to kick it. No. She’s fine she says, after I ask her. Takes some cigarettes out of her purse. See a bit of plastic poking out. She must carry her makeup around in a sandwich bag. Smart girl. She could do with touching herself up a bit now actually. Her lipstick is all over her front teeth. ‘Can you believe that shit?’ she says. She jerks a thumb at the door. ‘What of it?’ I know her game. She’s one of these women with notions. Wants the job for herself. ‘Such selfimportant shit, isn’t it?’ ‘I didn’t hear nothing.’ ‘Myself and Darren were just discussing it, Susan,’ Joe says. Prick. Dropping me right in it. She asks Joe for a light. She leans right into his cupped hand and lights her fag. ‘Oh? What d’you reckon of it?’ ‘If he wants to play-act at bourgeoise,’ Joe goes on, ‘then that’s his prerogative’. See, I know her game. She wants Conway’s job and’ll do anything for it. Whether its dropping to her knees afterhours or snitching on her fellow employees. Shes’ just looking for ammunition, the cunt, but I’m not gonna give it to her. Sour faced auld bitch. ‘I dunno,’ she shrugs after Joe gives her his spiel. ‘I just thought it was funny.’ See, she’s a fisherwoman. That’s where my problem with her comes in. All she wants to talk is work work work. Fishing for info, y’see? That’s why I don’t say nothing to people. They just use it against you. ‘I guess,’ Joe says, and goes off on another monologue about whatever. ‘You going to Amaria’s birthday?’ I ask. Just to get them to stop talking. Joe’s voice is even whinier than Susan’s and it cuts through my head when he goes off on his rants like he is now. ‘Hmm? Oh, nah, not really my scene.’ ‘But this is?’ I hope she actually gets this joke now instead of just going off home crying. ‘Not really but not as if I’ve much of a choice.’ ‘Paula didn’t come,’ I say. ‘And Eric. Eric never comes.’ ‘Yeah and there’s probably,’ fucken Joe again, ‘a file on them in Conway’s office calling them non-teamplayers.’ ‘Yeah, fuck that noise,’ Susan says. ‘You could always make excuses?’ I say. ‘And have Conway hound me with questions?’ Joe says. ‘Yeah, I tried to get outta the staff picnic in August by alluding to my period and he just kept kept kept asking questions. Can I try one of them?’ Joe hands her one of his cigarettes. The slim, white tube suits her similarly-coloured hands, but they look stupid when Joe holds them. ‘I just want the big office,’ I say. In the interests of full disclosure. I can feel them about to turn this line of questioning round on me. ‘Yeah, we know,’ Susan says. Joe snorts smoke through his nose. He walks off, in a coughing fit, then returns. ‘At least I wont make you lot come out on staff get-togethers all the time.’ ‘Perish the thought.’ Honestly, I don’t like the way they’re making eyes every time they say something. Little sideways looks and smiles curling up on their lips. ‘Yeah, well, when I get that job there’ll be severe changes. I’ll be getting the Vaseline out and lubing this floor up for a fucken.’ I know Joe wants me to add: I bet you’d like that, or something similar. I can see it in his eyes. He wants a nice, easily-packaged complaint to fucken bring to HR and get rid of the competition. I won’t give it to him. ‘Umm, OK,’ Susan says. Susan’s trying to hide it under this mask of coolness. Indifference. But I’ve let them know it. Their jobs’ll soon be on the line if they don’t cop the fuck on to themselves.
SUSAN Just want a quiet smoke—enjoy it without being bothered for once because that’s all that happens her— everyone bother— sitting having a coffee at break and there’s some prick bothering you— unjamming the printer and there’s some cunt standing over you— unjamming the printer, is it? they commen—now again— just want a quiet smok— everyone bothering me. Heart’s hammering in my che—spasms rippling through my tor— similar to that classical music in the restaur— against my ribca—grab a quiet smoke and ride out the high, is that too much to ask? Darren’s talking rin— getting his promoti— on about what he’ll do— over and over, the same conversation eating into itsel— fucking Joe is on about Marxist theor— you know, like I don’t also rea—dickhead thinks we’re all clueles— swear that he doesn’t share the same bit of carpet as us and he’s standing there smoking these Jean Luc Godard cigarettes and looking like Jean Luc Picar—don’t they know we can just smoke in silence. Why can’t they do that?— why does there have to be comment all the time— every puff there’s a new conversation. Darren on about Amaira’s birthd— and he’s getting on my t— I shut him up by telling him how Conway kept asking me to go on the staff picnic and I mentioned my time of the mo— no, doesn’t stop him b— usually gets people flustered enough to at least slow them dow— not a hope here. Joe said something about Paula and Eric not c— or Darre— not sur— everything goes sideways as there’s a sudden lurching in my stomac— hopefully it goes awa— yeah, these cigs taste fucking rank. Joe says that Paula and Eric aren’t teamplayers—sure he’d say t— he’s got a boner for that office more than even Darren do— oh you’d swear it mat—toss a coin for it, whoever wins gets the shitty promotio—not like they’re gonna further the cause of humanity by gett— it’s just for the mone— hope they don’t actually give a fuck about the company because the company sure doesn’t give a fuck about them. But of course it’s just people trying to find their what’s the word raison d’etr— especially when they’re in doing shit with no sign of e— so they lose sight and justify it to the— make out that they want to do it and end up being fooled into taking this shite job seriously. It won’t happen to me anywa— you bet I’m not losing sight of my master’s degree once I’ve saved up some mo— not getting stuck sorting people into teamplayers like Joe here. Darren is busy telling us about the changes he’s gonna mak—ever hear himself?— I’d love some cunt to say something to hi— make him stick his Napoleon complex up his hole for himsel— fucking prick. He tells us about arsefucking with Va— seems he knows an awful lot about i—I just shrug and act nonplus— silent all across the car—peaceful and tranquil, the perfect conditions to stand and smoke in peace. He goes off about Conwa— you think I don’t know his game?— trying to get us to badmouth Conway to Darre— nah, not playing this game anymo— rallying us together against Conway so he can run back and tell tales and get his little promotion.
Conway’s ‘compliments to the chef’ nonsen— see through it— acting dumb when he’s really a shrewd operato— rats like Darren weeding out the as Joe said nonteamplayers. What if you don’t get the job? I say to Darren. Darren laugh— sort of like a bark. Course I’ll get the job he says I’m the best worker on the floor. aye y’are yeah I tell him He doesn’t like tha— that’s another problem with this environme— not like in college where you could debate and share ideas. Here?— no chanc— especially given the ‘my way or the highway’ mentality they all ascribe to— it’s my way or the highway here. Course he’s gonna be the best worker on the floo— raiding the credit for other’s jobs like that whole Sandford thing?— mine— that pitch to those Welsh fuckers?— min— everyone licks Darren and Joe’s arse and no one gives me a bitta fucking credi—twats.
MARTIN I can’t do it. Not from fear although I can’t say with 100% clarity that this isn’t motivated some way by fear but then I suppose isn’t everything motivated by fear even getting up and going to work is motivated by the fear of being fired and falling in love is motivated by the fear of being alone but this isn’t all from fear I promise. It feels awkward to be honest. How do I go about going out there to them and saying hey guys I know I don’t smoke but I fancied coming out and taking the night air with you? They wouldn’t buy it oh God no not one bit. Especially that Joe. He’s a smart guy once he helped me email all my computer files to myself in one go instead of sending them file by file as I’d been doing before because I prefer to work at home so I leave the majority of my work until I get home and I can open up a tin of Pepsi and work as my chow mein cooks in the microwave. Darren isn’t as smart. He’s got this stupid piggy face that’s always pink like he’s been out running. Walks around with his chest out and his arms swinging at his sides. He got pissed at the Christmas party that Conway had for us that was actually really fun they had a deejay and he played my favourite song ‘This Love’ by Maroon Five yeah it’s my favourite song in the whole world because it just takes me back to when I was about seven or eight or so when it first came out and it was being played on the radio all the time and this was before dad upped and left and he’d drive me to McDonald’s on the weekend when Mum had her migraines and this song would come on in the radio and it makes me just think of driving in that Jeep in the summer and makes me think of the smell of Big Macs with no bun. He keeps making fun of people and then when you tell him to stop he does the mental equivalent of saying why what are you going to do? which is to tell you that it’s just a joke and not to be so soft all the time. Anyway he’s a stupid bloody ape pardon my language. He has this horrible laugh whenever he makes a joke because he never laughs at anyone else’s jokes only his own like the time when he asked me what I’d studied in college one of the first days I started work and I told him Environmental Science but I try not to brag about it and that joke is an absolute killer when I graduated everyone all my aunts and uncles found this hilarious and even my girlfriend’s parents found it funny though that didn’t work out which was a shame and I told it to Darren and he just looks at me with a stoney face and says to me yeah that’s probably a good idea and fuck me I hated him from that minute onwards. There’s these couches down under the window and the Venetians are drawn so I go and sit in the corner and watch them through the slits in the blinds and the car park is completely deserted. So deserted in fact that it’s like the set of a movie and I’m half expecting either Joe to kill Darren because Darren’s clearly a self-hating homophobe and Joe is on some kind of Crusade to rid the world of those who do not accept themselves or Darren to kill Joe because Joe is a daily reminder of what Darren is. I dunno. I saw them jabbering and I’d just love to go out and say something to him but you know what he’ll do he’ll just come out with his masculine bullshit like the time he said he was gonna take Ron the IT guy out and kick the shit out of him because he changed Darren’s passwords or something like that and it’s just the opposite of what real civilised conversation and debate should be and I’ve just no interest in that kind of thing so I’m just gonna sit here and close my tired eyes and think about something nice for a chance that’s what Mum used to tell me to do whenever I’d have nightmares and I’d love to just go out there. Go out and tell that cunt exactly what I think of him and that he can take his gyms and his buttonshirts and his pink piggy face and he can stuff them because he’s nothing but a sad little homophobe fairy.
JOE Susan is an unfortunate by-product of her time. By attempting to emulate the hegemonic status of the employed male as an aggressive g0-getter, she has run the risk of being seen as excessively mouthy. That’s what’s happening now. The evening began terribly, ran on true to form, and has now culminated in us all standing out in the cold, in a carpark, arguing about the holy grail that is ‘credit’. It’s yet another curious idiosyncrasy of the modern workplace that ‘credit’ seems to be ultimate goal. Of course, this is just another ploy by the ruling classes, the arbiters of our social codes, to fragment us and prevent us from uniting in any sort of rebellion. It’s pathetic really. And I actually emailed the Sandford accounts when everyone else had forgotten, so I think my last-minute saving grace renders the staccato discussion between them pretty much void. Darren’s getting riled up now. He’s one of those men who really don’t like to be cornered by women, as he’s aware of the rules forbidding him from hitting them. If it were Martin, for example, who’s been pacing up and down by the window— when not curled up on the lobby couches— Darren would have pulled his only real card, that of physical intimidation. A puffed-out chest, tiptoes, some slight steps forward to force his opponent to give away ground: obvious psychological techniques designed to cow the weak-minded. It won’t work on Susan, however, unless Darren wants to severely jeopardise his prophesised promotion. Susan, of course, is trying to provoke Darren into either saying something that can be used to diminish his status in the eyes of Conway, or to outright get him fired, and thus lessen the competition. I wouldn’t mind seeing Darren taking out of the running myself. If I were given Conway’s position, then I would certainly make a stand to the ruling bosses, and would try to implement a fairer wage, more holidays, and an end to these ridiculous social affairs, designed only to root out and subdivide the ‘teamplayers’ and ‘rogues’, such as myself. And on that topic: Paula and Eric are not in danger of being fired, as they’ve been working for Houghton Oxford for almost two decades. They doubtlessly have good pension plans, low-to-no-mortgages acquired in the heyday of the baby boomers, and little incentive to keep working anyway, other than out of pure routine. It’s very easy for Darren to use Paula and Eric as pawns in his little ad hominem arguments, but it doesn’t wash with me. Susan tells him that his future isn’t as secure as he’d like to think, and Darren begins to speak, but she keeps going, and then she starts with: −And another thing. The restaurant doors burst open and Martin comes careening out. He looks straight at Darren, wags his finger, and says: −Hey. You.
CONWAY Why the fuck did I say that? Honestly? I didn’t even expect them to laugh. And they’ve all gone. Out to smoke and talk about me. My face is still red. I had to hold up a dessert menu. Just to hide behind it. Emily will be annoyed. Another €300 wasted. Paula and Eric didn’t even come this time. At least they stick around and make effort to talk. ‘Compliments to the chef’? Urgh. Even Martin left, and he’s still ordering off the kids’ menu. I was on autopilot. Just looking to fill the silence. €300 treating them, and they barely even make conversation anymore. First chance they get, they’re off. Sit there looking glum, like I’ve forced them to come out. And Emily. She’ll give me hell. My little ‘friend-finding’ exercise, she calls it. God, I can practically hear the disdain in her voice already. Last time I do it. Swear. Said that the last time. Out having a great joke about me, no doubt. They’ll be sorry when I’m gone.