The Grocer

When we set up the equality, inclusion and diversity programme, internally known as EID, pronounced /eɪd/, we thought a guy like Ted – let’s call him Ted – was perfect. The kind of guy who comes to the office in his rimless square-lensed glasses, boxy hundred-pound suits and scruffy square-toe shoes. The kind who dons a translucent short sleeve to a business meeting. He wasn’t gonna make a fuss, we thought, he wasn’t gonna blow the whistle on a front.

The year before, we’d got tangled up in a newspaper investigation which, according to subsequent media headlines, exposed our “recruitment malpractices”. We’d kind of fallen into a trap. We had been sent fake resumes with names of different ethnic backgrounds randomly swapped, Gregs becoming Jamals, Samanthas Sunitas and vice versa, and the whole furore was based on statistical odds set up against Jamals and Sunitas. Then others started digging and rumours swirled of a “monochrome” workplace, of an environment hostile to minorities, of an “always-be-closing” executive taskforce. And so EID was founded, and now we needed someone to turn the tide in a publicity war.

We sensed what was up when the managing director invited us to his corner office, the only one on the floor, glass-walled, shielded by a door of thick wood. Upon entrance, our nostrils were hit by its smell, or in fact its characteristic lack of smell, sucked away by regular hoovering of the broadloom wool carpet and maintained by the regular absence of the occupant. 

“We need a person to kickstart this EID thing, we’ll put him – inverted commas – in charge of it,” the MD said, once all of us had gathered and closed the door behind us. The MD, his vision split between us and his screens, his blue poplin shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows, had been sitting in his chair, half-turned towards us, its back adorned by a pinstripe suit jacket. On his left, at a distance from us, there was a framed photo of his little girl, wreathed in smiles. “Someone quiet, unassuming, and reserved. You know the type. On the spectrum, if you must. No offence to anyone,” he added, exerting a modest chuckle.

No one replied. It wasn’t uncommon for visitors to be stunned by the office’s visual power, communicated through its unused expanse, like the long arms of a solitary giant spread widely. Spacious? It could have packed our entire team inside. Instead, it housed an oblong conference table in the middle, and none of us were offered a seat. An empty whiteboard stood nearby and shelving units lined up as borders, filled with a sprawling vinyl collection, Red Garland’s Piano and A Kind of Blue designated separately as markers of taste, alongside some Yo-Yo Ma. Not that music was ever heard from his office. Representation was the whole point.

The MD returned fully to his screens, and we understood that that had been the end of the discussion. On our exit, a few of us shared private concerns, but there was nothing else to be done other than carry out the execution of the order. The MD was admired and perceived as one of our own: he, too, had stepped on our rung of the ladder and spent decades at this company to rise through its ranks, and no amount of power structures, age or generational gap could have negated our closeness in culture, in background, in appearance – what have you. So we did what we were told.

Nobody remembers how we found Ted. We put an ad up and launched a big press campaign highlighting the massive efforts we had been making to improve diversity. Maybe he applied himself, though somehow that’s doubtful, or maybe somebody referred him, though no one claims to have been his acquaintance, or maybe he was among those accidentally reached by copy-paste recruiter messages, though no records of that survived. Regardless, we realised we were onto a goldmine straight away.

One morning, seemingly out of the blue a new face rocked up early – swarthy-skinned, somewhat unkempt, with greasy straight hair and blackhead-laden snub nose – and took one of the plush front seats in the conference room. Small in stature, he had to strain his neck muscles, constantly looking up at the speaker, yet he never budged to relax and doze off, like the rest of us. The MD huddled us up for his standard pep talk, about the importance of our work, and how it took a rare combination of traits to do it, like a degree of nerve, like undauntedness before challenges, like uncanny problem-solving skills, and so on. His dark hair was neatly combed back and tucked behind the ears, accentuating a hard part on the top. Which is to say, he looked nothing like Ted and everything like us, except, perhaps, for streaks of grey in the sides. Every time a sentence reached a full stop, his forehead folded itself into three prominent and parallel creases, like logomarks of waves. His chin had been lowered throughout, and rarely his searching eyes rose from what must have been his prepared speech, to peer at the audience. None of us took it too seriously, we’d heard it before; besides, it was difficult to, with his face, engulfed in the lights, shining white like a bust.

But Ted was radiating. There he was, the new kid on the block, who for some inexplicable reason carried paper napkins with him and was now scribbling on them and grinning at every fake compliment. Like a complete oddball. “Look at the new guy, so keen!” we whispered to each other. The day was off to a good start.

The funniest thing was, the speech applied to him the least: an addendum to a schema, the bottom of the corporate pyramid. No one even cared to explain to him what it was that we did; as far as he was concerned, it was all strategy, and markets, and efficiency, and maximising return on investment. His own job, despite the nominal leadership title, was realistically marginal.

Later that night, we were all scheduled for new joiners drinks; the company, out of corporate guilt or otherwise, decided to splurge that year and took us to a fancy rooftop bar. Fairy lights were stretched across the perimeter and breezy evening skies enveloped the crowd in commotion, people flitting from group to group. By this point, no one was surprised to see Ted perching by himself at one of the high round tables, his short legs dangling beneath, his sapless mouth sipping on a glass of water, his trembling ears soaking in the merry clamour of the crowd, his flummoxed eyes watching others’ fun go on. 

Whenever someone brave decided to play nice and approach Ted for a conversation, it went nowhere and the naive nitwit returned knowing less about Ted than before. Different reports were heard, each one irreconcilable with the other. “He studied political science,” someone would say, only to be contradicted by another saying, “No, I think he mentioned some art,” causing more confusion. “Moved to London from an Asian country of some sort in his teens,” – and then, another incongruity, “Didn’t it sound Slavic? Miro . . . something, mired in something. A total quagmire.” In any case, it was only a matter of frivolous curiosity.

Left alone, Ted scribbled on his napkins under the soft yellow light of the bar and the stars. He must have called it quits early, and no one noticed Ted’s absence, and no one was willing to invite Ted out for drinks from then on.

In the beginning, we happily ignored Ted, we viewed him as a ghost-like being. Not that he passed invisibly through walls – instead, he seemed inexplicably to blend with their greyness and their constancy. He came into work before any of us arrived, and he remained after we had left, barely producing any sound in between. Whenever he accidentally touched or hit an object – a table-leg, a metallic lever of a chair, an empty glass – he delicately laid his hand on it as if to stop any consequent sound, as if he could prevent any vibrations in the physical universe.

Every morning, when the hustle and bustle picked up, shouts interspersed with keyboard strokes, clacks of phones, rhythmic clicks of pens, he would sit there looking all confused and overwhelmed, anxious, catatonic in his Herman Miller chair, as if everything seemed peculiar to him, stranger than how he would have imagined it. Consistent to a fault, with awe and amazement more befitting a tourist at a landmark cultural site – head still, eyes rolling sideways – he would survey his surroundings. The grey melamine desks crammed with stacks of files, newly accrued throughout the day, all stamped “Strictly Confidential”: some carefully arranged in alphabetical order, others scattered around in a state of creative chaos, depending on the personality of the desk’s owner. The neon signs on the walls, periodically lighting up as reminders of organisational values of integrity, success and teamwork, all in capital letters. The bodies marching forward with intent and immaculate postures, arms swinging, across hallways.

“Ground control to Major Ted!” someone would shout after his downtime ventured into minutes, “Wish we all had your superpowers of completing the work just by squinting at the distance.” And we would all laugh. Silently, he would lower his gaze and at last commence the day.

Ted would follow his established routine. He would take a seat at a tiny desk without anyone at arm’s length; a team unto himself. Beside him, he would put a tall glass of water and a pack of Bin-Bin rice crackers for sustenance, a heap of napkins to scribble on, and start reading documents, his facial expressions confined to and interchanging between consternation and reverie. He would spend the entire day in that position and would only be seen missing on short toilet breaks. Once in a while, he would shut his eyelids but his lips would still be twitching, so to passersby it would appear as though he was performing some weird form of meditation, as if he was trying to slow down a bullet train of thought running at him. One would be able to take no more than wild guesses as to the mysteries inside that mind.

When the floor cleared out, Ted would remain, his posture as upright as if his shift began a moment ago. Eventually the lights would be dimmed and then switched off, so it would be him and two bright monitors glaring at him, his upper body alone illuminated in the dark. One time on the way out of the office we noticed Ted from behind the screens and it reminded us of an immigrant behind the counter of an off-licence shop at night. “The grocer”, someone said, and we all laughed. So it went.

Soon enough, a barrage of applications inundated his desk. Ted was given the menial task of sorting through them. Anyone with a modicum of brain was capable of doing it, but, as the mantra went, great leaders delegate. Ted had to read every resume, each one hardly distinguishable from the other, a bunch of repetitive motivational letters full of untruthful clichés, every reference letter full of careful comments written under the duress of political correctness and diplomacy. Stories from sons and daughters of third-world refugees; children of single mothers who had worked at nail salons; descendants of bus drivers, of small store owners; students on free school meals programmes at state comprehensives; first-generation university graduates – which followed similar arcs and shared common narratives of survival, shame and an instinctive drive for recompense. An immigrant, prominent at home, having to start over in this new-found land. A teacher, maybe, who swapped his cape for the humble mantle of a corner shop owner. Or a burgeoning poetaster who settled for management of a launderette. All in the name of sacrifice.

Ted never complained – he embraced the workload. He still sat at his tiny desk with no one in arm’s length proximity, still put in longer days than anyone else, and still didn’t join us for drinks. Although technically we shared a floor, we preferred to hear less and less from him, less and less of him, until he would not have a voice at all. Justifiably or not, we were confident of his diligence, confident that there was nothing he had been missing and that if we ever had to put him on the spot, he would recall the details of our recruitment pipeline with ease. So we never felt a need to check on him or ask him how the weather was his side of town.

It got trickier and trickier with interviews; we were afraid that other people could see him. We had our concerns and they were not unfounded. “It’s not like Ted is going to somehow emerge to the external world with his other, unbeknownst-to-us normal, well-adjusted self”, we used to complain around the office and to the MD who, in turn, shrugged his shoulders and smiled amicably. Despite our subtly thrown suggestions, Ted didn’t shy away from showing up in short-sleeve shirts and baggy pants. Who knows if candidates were put off as soon as they encountered him.

Worst of all, there was the issue with the scribbles. The first time we finally got a glimpse of them, a group of us was sat in a dimly lit interview room. An EID candidate had been telling us a familiar story: his father came to this country with nothing, taught at a school until he reached assistant headteacher, and sacrificed his own happiness for his children’s until he was asked to retire. But it was one of those days when the striking of the clocks was more audible than a person’s vocal cords; our brains weren’t registering details. The room was humid, dense with evaporating sweat, be it because of the absence of windows or the lack of space between us. We relied on Ted to note it all down – we thought that’s what he had been doing all along.

But when we leaned in, all we saw was jagged, jittery lines on his napkins. He seemed to have sketched a sailor in a primitive, childlike manner. The sailor had a triangular cap on his circular head and his feet were planted on a trapezium-shaped boat with a rhombic sail on a slanting line of mast. On the hull Ted had written, sloping downwards, Dreamboat. The sinusoidal lines of ink below the boat were narrow, indicating calm waters, but above he had drawn multiple clouds which, judging by the stipple beneath them, were raining ahead.

Frustrations mounting, some of us snarled at him to stop messing around, to which Ted replied, in a matter-of-fact tone, that he had merely been recording his observations.

He, of course, continued scribbling, even as he hid the napkins in a drawer when someone approached him. Here was the endeavour for which he possessed boundless and intolerable zeal. At some point the water cooler chat deteriorated to the level of witness reports, someone catching him press his black pen lightly against the paper, so as not to pierce, and letting it roam around like the brush of an action painter.

Before this discovery, some had humorously speculated that Ted was jotting down the identities of those who poked fun at him, so that he could one day unleash a mighty vendetta. Others apprehensively presumed he had been filching from our internal kitchen to leak new scandals to the press. Afterwards, most of us wanted to dismiss his quirk as odd little creatures born from a deranged mind. And yet, as far as Ted’s existence went, it became the only thing we desired to know. The scribbles, or what we could glimpse of them during random interviews, were dissected at lunch, on coffee breaks, on the way to the bathrooms and even during post-work transitions to inebriation. They were told and retold, and their strenuous connections were wrangled over, like an assortment of myths, whose claims to truth were unworthy of debate but whose imagery pervaded the psyche. 

We picked up on recurring motifs: some of them expressible, some beguiling and elusive to this day. Sailors, popping up whenever candidates had spoken of their families, were a common theme – carried by the wind on boats of different geometric shapes and sizes; but also paddling on rafts; or stranded, on the blank space of a napkin, in a dinghy; seafarers, invariably alone on their vessels, with herds of clouds hanging above them. There were many children, drawn with half their features: one eye, one ear, half their nose or half their teeth. A bizarre emergence of Ted’s imagination: he would seemingly stare, with emptiness in his expression, at a resume with two names in the header, one of them westernised, and draw a girl, puffed cheeks, bowlcut, balloons in her hand, her teeth a comic palisade of lines, and then he would stop in the middle, with the remaining half of her teeth left undrawn.

In retrospect, it’s strange how vexed we got about them, how paranoid. For some reason we felt that we had been monitored and documented, and it unnerved us. We never minded Ted – indeed, we were delighted at every opportunity to ignore him – until he amassed these puzzles for which we struggled to concoct an explanation. Subsequently, the very things that had encouraged indifference and amusement, provoked anger. Not a day went by without someone being irked by Ted’s stupor in the mornings, nettled by his isolation and his routine of water and crackers, exasperated by his constant scribbling. Not a week went by without someone filing a complaint to the MD.  Parasitism at work, we said.

At last, we took the matter into our own hands. On one of his toilet breaks, we unlocked his drawer with a spare key and delivered the stack of evidence to the MD. By the time we had ceased recollecting our misgivings about Ted, the MD’s face tensed up. Ted saw us through the glass wall and must have sensed his looming trial. The MD beckoned him with an index finger. After he had entered the corner office, he slouched silently against the door.

“Come in,” the MD said, when Ted had already stooped like a schoolboy in the headmaster’s office.

From the top of the stack, the MD picked out what might have been the most recent Ted’s creation and held it with an open palm: a characteristic trapezium-shaped boat, but one bereft of any crew or skipper. Its mast stood naked, a thin vertical line without a sail. The waves were calm, there were no clouds above, only the stretch of rough white paper. One would have thought it was unfinished, but at a distance from the boat lay an island populated with caricatures of children, one-eyed, one-armed, half their teeth missing.

“We were just having a chat about this,” the MD laughed. “What is this meant to suggest? You fancy yourself a little artist? Pray tell us.” As he spoke, he tapped on the napkin with his pen, until he applied such force as to puncture it altogether.

Ted gazed at the hole in the middle. He appeared on the verge of saying something, but in the end there was little patience for silence.

“I suggest you finish them in your own time,” the MD snapped. “And I suggest you start moving the needle. Maybe you haven’t caught on: we are in the business of results. My daughter likes to draw, too, but I don’t pay her for it. This firm and this world live on results. No fad and no window dressing – let’s make no bones about why you’re here – will change that. Those who can’t deliver don’t last very long. Final warning, and a bit of advice, man to man.”

Once he had finished, the MD pointed with a swiveling motion of his hand towards either Ted or the stack of napkins, or both, and turned to us. “You have outdone yourself here,” he said, and waved us away. The napkin he held in his hand, now punctured, he threw in the bin beside him.

Nobody knows how we lost Ted. Whether he quit out of his own volition or whether he received a letter of termination, none of us remember. It was a regular day: we walked into the office and saw that he hadn’t occupied his tiny desk. When we came over there, there was no glass of water, no Bin-Bin rice crackers, and no more napkins. We knew immediately that he was gone forever. That’s how people disappeared – without a trace, as if dreamed up, nothing but a harmless natter after the fact. “Expediting the historical process,” is how we called it. There was, as far as we can remember, no drama, no screaming, no bodies hauled across cold flooring by security guards; no sense of closure; there was, instead, a prevailing sense of inevitability. It was clear to all of us that his days had been numbered after that meeting.


I left and settled for a tame existence, away from strife and striving. In the corner office, I had volunteered to throw out the napkins but could never bring myself to do it, and so they lay on my desk like damning evidence, making each day at work less tolerable, making my surroundings blend into a big grey mass and my colleagues into one nameless entity. “Burnout,” I said at my exit interview, although it may have been an epiphany, I just would have never told the difference. The only instruction I got was to button my lip.

My evenings have become a ritual of sorts. I sit down by the fireplace, pour myself a neat drink, and flick through the napkins, playing out the same story in my mind. There it begins, inside the outline of the MD’s office, surrounded by mocking faces captured in rough strokes of grins. A bunch of hasty, fading lines on paper, sitting in a conference room in front of floating polished heads. A high bar table and slanting stick figures nearby, a crowd in commotion. Preposterous bodies marching around, their broad shoulders defined by wide lines and their swinging arms by absurdly obtuse angles, and value signs scribbled in capital letters on the outlined walls. And there it ends, in a pile of lonely sailors and crooked children.

Alumni gossip now informs me that the MD retired, happily, to a house in the countryside, and the rest of the team accomplished, by conventional standards, stellar careers. Someone else from our team was put in charge of EID and we duly hit the quotas, but it wasn’t necessary – the hype died down and the media swiftly forgot about it.

The older I get, the more my old life haunts me as I look at one napkin, a man clothed in a shaded apron, his oval face scribbled without any features, standing behind parallel lines tilted at odd angles, in which I recognise a flattened counter. On the other side, two-legged figures crowd, some laughing with their gaping mouths and protruding teeth, full set, some goading with both their twig-like hands, some merely watching, expressionless.

I reminisce about the man I was, and the man I wasn’t. I shut my eyes, and I drift at sea.

Dat Khac Nguyen

About Dat Khac Nguyen

Dat Khac Nguyen is a London-based writer and translator. Dat has won the Silver Stanza prize for his poetry in Russian. His fiction has appeared in Epiphany Magazine. Dat was a Clarendon Scholar at University of Oxford.

Dat Khac Nguyen is a London-based writer and translator. Dat has won the Silver Stanza prize for his poetry in Russian. His fiction has appeared in Epiphany Magazine. Dat was a Clarendon Scholar at University of Oxford.

Leave a Comment