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It had never been a great job – you know, one in which you came home each day full of the satisfaction of doing what you had always wanted to do, one in which you have found your joy, what you were meant to be doing on this earth. It had never been that sort of job, but it had been one that I’d made my own – got good at. It’s not anyone that could’ve organised pressboard supplies so that they turned up on site at exactly the moment they were needed – it takes logistical skill, knowledge of the manufacturing process, and an oracle-like understanding of the road system, where and when it would be congested.
My legacy would never be more than a stack of neatly folded Michelin maps and some satisfied customers who were pleased that their pressboard arrived on time and in the right place.
But despite this, it had been my job; I did it well, and it had kept me and put food on the table for the family, and we’d had a nice holiday once a year.
Some to whom I spoke said Gorman had come in via a sideways move from Sales. Others, that he’d parachuted in from Accounts. Some even said he’d walked in off the street and had gone into the empty office on the fourth floor and had been there ever since and no one had asked him where he had come from, or what he was doing there. Tony Murgatroyd, the section head, said not to worry. He’d checked with head office and it was all perfectly normal and just to carry on as if he weren’t there unless he asked to speak to us, in which case, we were to answer his questions and nothing else. We were not to ask him questions, and we were certainly not to go into his office.
I had the suspicion he was one of these “consultants” that companies drafted in to make studies of efficiency – see where they could cut costs and save some money. I wasn’t worried about my own job, but for some of the younger members of the team it might be last in first out, as they say.
Gorman’s office had a frosted glass door and often, when I walked past to make a coffee or get a cup of water, I would see the dark shape of him as he sat at his desk near the big window that looked out over the staff car-park. That shape never seemed to be moving. I mean, not even the sort of fidgeting that everybody does even when they’re trying to sit still. I stood outside for ten minutes once, and he never moved.
“You all right, Phil?” Tony Murgatroyd said when he saw me, all smiles and expensive cologne.
“He doesn’t move,” I said.
“Doesn’t he?” Tony said as if it were the first time anyone had mentioned it. “He doesn’t need to move, I suppose. He’s got us running around after him.” He laughed, but I could tell he was faking it. I notice things like that – fake emotions, false smiles, and so on. Always have done – I was a very sensitive child. I could always tell if my parents had been arguing and my father had lost his temper. They never said anything, but I knew. That’s how I knew Tony wasn’t comfortable with Gorman being there – he knew something that he hadn’t told me.
It had to happen sooner or later; Tony said it would. One of us would get called into Gorman’s office to answer his questions.
It was a Friday morning and I was making sure the weekend deliveries were all sorted out; I didn’t like having to come in at weekends to sort out problems. Weekends were the only time I got to see the kids.
I saw Helen from Resourcing going down to Gorman’s office at the end of the corridor. I stuck my head out of my office and saw her open Gorman’s frosted glass door and go inside. I’d never seen him myself, but I imagined him to be a slight man to judge by the shape I had seen sitting at the desk through the glass, unmoving.
I was keeping an eye on the door to Gorman’s office all morning, but I didn’t see Helen from Resourcing come out. Later, I wandered past the door and saw that familiar shape, sitting motionless at the desk in the light of the window that looked out over the staff car-park.
“Anyone seen Helen?” I asked when I went to make coffee in the kitchen.
“Helen?” someone said. “In her office, I expect.”
“Thanks,” I said. I didn’t know Helen really well but, apart from Tony, she was one of the only other people I spoke to on a regular basis. She worked in a small office on the other side of the room – not really an office, more of a glorified cubicle made from demountable walls that had a gap at the top.
I wanted to know what had happened in Gorman’s office, so I thought I’d take her a coffee over as an excuse. I sometimes did that if I wanted to talk to someone – brought them a coffee.
I knocked on the door and said, “Helen, I’ve brought you a coffee if you want one,” and waited.
“That’s kind of you, Phil. Come in,” she said. “Just pop it on the desk, would you?” She had her back to me facing the computer with a large, complicated spreadsheet on the screen.
I put the coffee down on her desk. “Two sugars, how you like it…By the way, how did it go?”
“How did what go?” she replied, still fiddling with the spreadsheet.
“Your interview with Gorman. What’s he like?”
She swivelled her chair around to face me, smiling pleasantly.
She looked like Helen, but it was someone else.
It was like when you were watching a TV programme and saw an actor you thought you knew and then, when you read the credits, it wasn’t who you’d thought it was at all but some other actor that sort of looked like them, and you realised they’d been chosen for the part because they looked like the more famous actor who you’d thought it was…or something like that. It’s difficult to explain.
The woman at the desk looked like Helen, but it wasn’t her. She picked up the coffee and took a sip. “Ooh, hot,” she said still smiling. “The interview was fine, thanks. I think he’s looking to make some cuts. Better make sure you’re absolutely indispensable, Phil. He’s very efficient. Going over everything with a fine-toothed comb. Thanks for the coffee, by the way.”
“What sort of cuts do you think?” I said.
“I don’t know. Listen, have you seen this new logistics software? It’s state of the art.”
I started backing away. “No, sorry, I haven’t. See you later.” I had an overwhelming desire to get out of there. There was something odd about the new “Helen”. I wanted be away from her – she was…unwholesome.
As I walked back to my office, I saw the others looking at me as I passed. They were going to talk about me when I’d gone. People often did that.
I sat with the door closed and listened to the sounds from outside; the phones ringing and the voices talking, somebody laughing – probably about the look on my face when I’d come out of “Helen’s” office.
Was this the famous midlife crisis I’d heard about? Instead of wearing unsuitable clothes or buying a Harley Davidson, I’d started imagining things that hadn’t happened. Maybe it was a kind of waking daydream or perhaps those laughing bastards had put something in my coffee as a joke – some hallucinogen so that they could all laugh a bit more at me. I’d heard of that happening.
It was the usual story. People just found it amusing to play tricks on me. Like the time they’d glued my personal coffee cup to the worktop in the kitchen – very funny. Or when they’d set off the fire alarm when they knew I was suffering from a stomach upset in the toilet. All very amusing and, of course, you have to be a good sport about it. To do otherwise would only encourage them. I’d learned that at school. Good one, guys. You got me there.
There was another explanation that I didn’t want to contemplate, but it existed nevertheless.
Perhaps it was really happening.
Perhaps the old Helen had been replaced by the new “Helen”. She went into Gorman’s office and something had happened whilst she was in there and a different Helen had come out. Sounded like science fiction, but maybe…
The sure way to find out would be to just go down to Gorman’s office myself and see him. That way I could get a good look at him and make a judgement about what type of person he was. I had always been a good judge of character, even if I say so myself. I resolved to do just that.
I strode towards the frosted glass door and carried some manifests under my arm to provide an excuse for going in.
I was about to grab the door handle and knock when Tony Murgatroyd shouted, “No, Phil.”
“What?” I said, my hand poised, about to rap on the glass. “Why?”
Tony reached me from the main work area and gently turned me away from the office. “He’s not there now.”
“Yes, he is,” I said. “I can see him. Look.” I indicated the motionless form behind the desk, lit by the big window that overlooked the staff car-park.
“No, no. That’s just the chair. He left early today.”
The others were all looking at me now, and I sensed I’d broken some unwritten rule that they were all aware of and, as usual, nobody had bothered to tell me.
“Why don’t you let me take a look at those manifests. We can go to your office. Come on.”
He steered me firmly back to my own office. Tony didn’t mention Gorman again and seemed pointedly light-hearted as though trying to smooth things over. I wanted to ask him about Gorman, but he didn’t let me get a word in edgeways.
That evening I waited until all the others had gone to pass by Gorman’s office. I put my hand on the door handle and pushed against it very slightly. The door was locked.
In the car park there was only one other car, parked some distance away. I threw my briefcase and raincoat in the back seat of my own car and went to get into the driver’s side. Did I need to go to the supermarket to buy something for dinner? I glanced up, trying to visualise what was in the fridge, and saw something that put all thoughts of an evening’s meal out of my head.
In the window of Gorman’s fourth floor office, at the very edge of the frame, was a pale blob that could have only been a human face. There were the merest smudges of shadow for the eyes and a tight, thin line for the lips with a slight hint of a smile. The ears protruded on either side and the head appeared to be completely bald. As I watched, the head receded into the shadows of the room and I lost sight of it.
Was that Gorman? At this distance it was difficult to tell, but I had the distinct and oddly precise impression of a piece of window dressing; of moving a mannequin around. It was something about the rigid pose, and the pale skin tone.
I thought that maybe I had made a mistake, but I counted the windows along from the edge of the building – yes, it had been Gorman’s window.
I waited a few moments more, half in, half out of the car, but the pale mannequin face didn’t appear again.
When I got home, I poured myself a stiff drink and forget about dinner. Things began to add up: Gorman’s arrival and seeming mysterious function within the team, Helen’s change from the one I knew to the one I didn’t, and Tony’s strange behaviour when I’d tried to go into Gorman’s office. That, and the sense I had that everyone knew a secret except me, led me to believe that something was going on at work. Maybe a change of management style, replacing dissenting staff with those more amenable to the new way of doing things. I remembered Helen always speaking her mind to management in the past. Didn’t worry me. I wasn’t going to make waves. As I said, even though it wasn’t a great job, it was all I had – and I was good at it.
I saw the kids on Sunday.
I think they might be getting a bit too old for the park now. They just sat there on the bench with their heads in their phones.
“How’s school?” I tried
“You mum’s all right?”
“Did you know my new boss looks like a shop dummy?”
“I think he might be disabled in some way. He never moves.”
“Can we go to McDonald’s now?”
On Monday morning, I went in to work early to see Gorman arrive, but it looked like he was already there. There was that shape at the desk through the frosted glass door. I found it slightly unsettling being alone with him in the building, even though he wasn’t likely to come out and, after the other day, I certainly wasn’t going to go in and see him. He must’ve have known I was there; he would have heard me even if he hadn’t seen me pass down the corridor. I went to my own office and hoped he didn’t want to see me. Although, if he didn’t come out, he wouldn’t be able to let me know. He could have shouted, I suppose.
Soon the others started arriving and the feeling faded. I saw the new “Helen” from Resourcing in the kitchen where she was making coffee. I lingered long enough to see that she didn’t put even one sugar in her coffee. There was proof if I needed it – she was different.
I saw Tony by the water cooler a little later. He was just standing there looking at it as though he was lost somewhere in his own mind.
“Are you all right, Tony?” I said. “You seem a bit distracted.” I was getting my own back for when he did the same to me the other day.
“Yes, yes,” he said without tearing his eyes away from a small hole in the wall where someone had once tacked a notice about not refilling water bottles from the cooler because it was unhygienic. “He wants to see me…later.”
“How do you know?” I said.
He fished a small piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to me. I unfolded it. I want to see you – at four o’clock, it said. I felt sorry for Tony. He was obviously perturbed by the idea of having to go into Gorman’s office. I couldn’t blame him.
“It’s probably nothing,” I said. “He wants to talk to you about something silly, like a stationery order.”
He looked at me with what I would have said was a species of pity. The way you might look at a small child to whom you’d been made to promise some impossible thing.
“I don’t think it’s the stationery order, Phil,” he said, and put his hand on my arm.
“Don’t go then,” I said. “Go home now. I’ll cover for you if you want. We’ll call the police – tell them Gorman’s replacing us all with doubles.”
Tony smiled a twitching, desperate smile. “Thanks, Phil. You’re a good man, but that’s not going to be possible.” He crushed the paper cup in his fist and dropped it into the wastebasket, then he walked hurriedly back to his office and closed the door. I thought I might have heard him crying.
I looked around at the others who were getting on with their jobs, not looking up, knowing that they were unable to do anything to help. It would happen to all of us sooner or later, we knew that. I wondered what Tony had done to warrant a trip to Gorman’s office.
I saw him just before the end of the day. He seemed perfectly normal; happy even – except, of course, it wasn’t really Tony. It looked like him, but it wasn’t.
“Keeping you on your toes, is he?” I said as heartily as I could manage but there was sadness in my voice. The Tony I had known was gone for good.
“I’m not sure what you mean, Phil,” he said. “Mr. Gorman is a very reasonable man and it’s a pleasure to work for him. Let me take a look at that paperwork, will you, before you go.”
“Sure, Tony,” I said. “As you want.”
I exchanged looks with the rest of the team. They averted their eyes from mine. They knew any one of us might be next. Everyone needed the job. “Maybe we could’ve done something to stop it,” I said and walked away to get the manifests.
Gorman must have heard about what I’d said, because the next day I found a tiny piece of folded paper in my coffee cup. It said, My office, four o’clock, Friday.
I didn’t tell the others; I didn’t try to elicit any sympathy from them because I knew that they didn’t care. They were just glad it wasn’t one of them.
No one else went into Gorman’s office all week. On Thursday night, I phoned my wife and asked to speak to the kids. I told them that after tomorrow, they might notice some small changes in me when they saw me at the weekend.
“Are you having cosmetic surgery?” one said.
“No, not that,” I replied.
“I didn’t want you to worry if I seemed a little different, maybe a little happier.”
“Okay, fine. See you then.”
I spent Friday morning doing my job to the best of my ability – there was no reason to slacken off. And then I pondered that perhaps I would still be here but with a new mindset, a new outlook on life – that would be all right. I needed a new mindset, that was for sure. Maybe the transformation would inspire me, persuade me my life wasn’t that bad after all and, with a bit of work, I might get the family back together again.
As four o’clock approached, the office took on an expectant atmosphere, as though something big were going down. People were tense – excited almost. I suppose they wondered what was going to happen to old Phil Benson the weirdo.
With thirty seconds to go, I picked up some papers from my desk, walked down the corridor to Gorman’s office, and opened the door.
Gorman’s chair was facing the big window that looked out over the staff car-park. I couldn’t see his face.
“Mr. Gorman?” I said. “You wanted to see me?”
He didn’t reply but continued facing the window, and I continued to stand there – waiting for him to acknowledge me. Then it occurred to me that perhaps he had been taken ill and couldn’t turn around. From the one glimpse I’d had of him, he had looked very pale.
“Are you feeling okay?” I asked. He still gave no reply. Then, the chair slowly began to turn to face me.
In the chair was a mannequin – just the top half. The surface was cracked and the end of the nose was broken off. The painted eyes were mostly worn away. Its arms were set in a graceful pose, like a ballet dancer, and the unnaturally long fingers of the hand were poised as if to pick something up from the desk.
Around the neck was a sign, printed out on a piece of A4 that said, GOTCHA! in big, black capitals.
I heard laughter at the door and turned to see Tony, Helen, and all the others standing there wetting themselves. Bob from Accounts was taking a picture.
“Got you good, Phil,” Tony said through his mirth.
“Your face, Phil,” Helen said. “It’s a picture.”
I turned back to face the desk and saw Andy Burnham from Sales just crawling out from underneath – he, too, was laughing fit to bust.
“You’re a good sport, Phil,” Tony said. “Andy had wanted to do the voice, but I said that was just too much. No hard feelings.”
At last, I realised it was too late. The substitution was complete. I was the only original left. I had to act now.
The police had used a taser on me, the nurse said. That’s why all my muscles ache. He said not to worry though, and gave me something to relax me. I asked if Tony Murgatroyd was in the same hospital, but the nurse said he was in a different one.
It is very calming here, that’s for sure. In fact, I haven’t felt this relaxed for a very long time. It’s like a great worry has been lifted from my back.
I suppose Gorman really did help me – gave me a new mindset, a new enthusiasm for life. I can’t understand now why I was so against it. Gone are those worries about the kids, the job, my marriage. It’s all just plain sailing now.
I’ve decided to write a letter to Gorman and thank him for his intervention (They said I can have as much paper and as many felt tips as I want.) Without him, I’d still be there, doing that job that wasn’t my joy or my vocation, carrying on because of the money, because of the kids, because of the responsibilities.
Now I’m going to get on, and really begin to live life.