‘Have you typed up that contract yet?’
My manager’s voice cut into my little lonely bubble and made me jump half out of my skin. He glowered a bit, angry with me for being startled, but he was somewhat mollified when I told him I only had two more pages to go out of the original 19.
‘By lunchtime, yeah?’ he reminded me as he moved away to pester someone else.
I can’t stand it here. I’ve been here a month but it feels like a life-sentence. A weekend is just not enough parole time for the working week that precedes it.
I stared at the postcard my predecessor left pinned to the hessian wall of the cubicle. It shows a ramshackle cottage on a beach, an empty beach, with palm trees and golden sand that seems to stretch on for miles, lapped by blue, blue water. And nothing else. No one else.
The cottage wasn’t really a cottage, it was more like a shed or a hut. The roof looks like it would blow away in a hurricane. And this looks like the kind of place where they actually have hurricanes. And the walls don’t exactly look sound. There are cracks between the boards—I can imagine all kinds of creepy crawlies getting in through those. And there’s only one small window, partially boarded over. There’s a wonky railing around what appears to be a microscopic veranda.
But all the same…The card seems to call to me. Wish you were here? Oh yes, I most certainly do.
With each passing day I look at it more and more. My eyes are drawn to it.
On Monday, after a tense weekend of knowing what awaits me once Sunday is over, I return to my cell, turn on my computer, and take my first look of the week at the card. Then work begins, I get my head down and get on with things. And quite often, I hardly look up from my desk until half an hour after I should have gone home. That’s Monday madness.
Tuesday is not a lot better, though I quite often get a lunch break and I usually leave more or less on time. I glance at the picture several times on a Tuesday.
Wednesday is easier—the lull before the end-of-the-week storm. Usually I catch up on some filing or photocopying, both of which keep me away from my desk for a while—so I often forget all about the little hut.
Thursday things start to get crazy again—contracts to type, documents to chase, people to phone, emails, faxes, and yet more phone calls. It’s manic but still only a dress rehearsal for Frantic Friday. It’s a bit like grocery shopping the last weekend before Christmas—total chaos with everyone grabbing haphazardly at things just in case they never get any food again.
Friday. So close to the weekend but such a horror to live through week after week. That’s when I seek refuge the most often, gazing at the picture, really drinking in that impossibly blue sky, reflected in the improbably blue water, the wide expanse of deserted beach. As if by the sheer force of my concentration I can transport myself there. I can almost hear the soft sound of the water washing up onto the shore.
The office is huge. And we are all tucked away in our little cells—our cubicles which accommodate our desk, chairs, computer, phone and trays upon trays of paperwork. I remember once years ago people used to say that using computer systems would make most administration processes redundant, and that there would be a huge reduction in paperwork. The strange, alluring legend of the paperless office. There are 86 of us on this floor. 86 computers all warming the heavy recycled air with their hot little components. 86 chairs on rollers that don’t quite roll. 86 miserable people kept in little squares like veal calves or stray dogs waiting to be adopted or euthanised, housed temporarily until either retirement or death claims us—either one is good at the moment.
They play the radio over the PA system—to ‘keep up morale’. The problem is, there is only one radio, and 86 tastes in music. I find it so stressful to listen to boy bands and rock chicks and divas all day long. It’s mentally exhausting.
Then there’s the constant toing and froing of the workers—like being on some crowded stairs—figures bustling back and forth, not friends, not visitors, just milling about.
I bet that doesn’t happen on that little beach. I bet it’s quiet all the time. If I sat on that little veranda, I bet all I would hear if I closed my eyes would be the soft rustling of the palm trees, the sound of the occasional bird overhead, the sound of the waves and my own calm breath, moving in and out and washing away my tension.
I bet no one ever yells out ‘what the hell has happened to the accounting software updates?’ I bet if people ever came to that hut they would bring a small gift—some fruit, perhaps or maybe some flowers. And I’d make tea, and we could sit on that veranda and look at the water. We could talk if we wanted to, but I wouldn’t mind if we didn’t.
‘What happened to that blue folder marked ‘urgent’?’ My manager barks in my ear suddenly, and I accidentally type half a dozen letter Ys on the screen as I jerk round to look at him. He glares at me again. ‘Daydreaming again? For God’s sake, keep you mind on your work. Then maybe folders wouldn’t keep disappearing.’
He’s gone again and I’m fighting back tears. It seems so unfair that I’m here in this place when there are places like the one on the postcard on the wall. I know people say we all have bad days, you’ll feel better tomorrow. But this dread, this slow, cold death has been going on for decades. What if it’s not how I feel in a passing moment of self-pity but it’s the length and breadth of my whole existence?
This is all I’ve ever known. All I’m likely to know until I retire. It’s no good telling me that when I retire I can do all the things I’ve dreamed of, like travelling. Why do I have to wait until my life is almost over to begin enjoying it? I don’t just need a holiday, I need a whole change of life.
I’m hardly thinking. I reach out and grab the postcard off the wall. I lean down under the desk to pull out my handbag. I thrust the postcard inside and put my bag under my arm. I turn and look around me. I see nothing that is mine. I get up, and walk away down the aisle to the lift.
At the lift door, I wait impatiently. When it arrives and the door opens, I feel a sense of excitement, of doing something terribly naughty yet wonderful. I step inside before anyone tries to stop me. As the doors close, I realise no one has even noticed me leave my desk, and as the lift drops towards the ground, I wonder how long it will be before they realise I’ve gone.
No one even sees me walk out of the big double doors. No one. I’m nothing to them. As I hurry down the hill towards the railway station, so aware of the precious cargo in my bag, I feel a slight pang of guilt.
Perhaps I should have left the postcard to brighten the day of the next poor sap that occupies my cubicle.