To Harry Furniss, working for a corporation felt like wearing a clown suit: a façade that made it easy to avoid taking anything seriously. After all, working for a global brand lubricates some people’s social lives better than a bottle of Scotch. Turn up at some hotel bar, and before long a slightly heavy nonentity in middle-manager casuals (polo shirt, belted chinos worn above the navel) will ask what business you’re in. After comparing your burdens, from regulation to office politics, you’ll stagger back to your room with a card in your pocket, plus an invitation to visit him and his wife next time you’re in Pensacola. Or Reykjavik. Or wherever.
Today, Harry has that clown suit on. He’s meeting one of his company’s Senior Vice Presidents, or SVPs. Someone who has flown all the way from the Big Apple to Runcorn, Cheshire, to meet exclusively with Harry – and sixty-eight other members of the Field Support Team at Starfish Technologies.
According to his LinkedIn profile, this SVP is “Global Head of Compliance, Financial Controls Unit” – what used to be called a Regulatory Manager. That long job title suggests a level of personal aggrandisement it would foolish to dismiss when weighing up the man’s character. His corporate headshot, much googled since the announcement of his visit last week, shows a man in early middle age, balding, a slight smile about his lips. The photo hints at his belief there could be no greater adventure than to manage regulatory compliance at a manufacturer of radio gizmos.
Harry held his security pass up to the bleeper on the second floor like an animal being herded towards ritual sacrifice. The bleeper bleeped its satisfaction, and Harry walked through into a maze of glass cubicles – designed either to foster a spirit of collaboration and openness, or (as was equally likely) to stop people from pimping the free wifi in the office. Yes, in this age when anyone can access any information from anywhere at any time, good old curtain-twitching, paranoiac snooping is making a raging comeback. Only it’s virtual and digital now, so we can pretend it’s not happening. Sort of.
Harry slung his black leather bag on a hot-desk in the middle of the room and nodded hello to a colleague who had drowned herself in music, headphones on as she tapped away at her keyboard. He sat down, placing his cardboard coffee cup of coffee on the fake-wooden formica hot-desk. Harry couldn’t remember when it had become OK to listen to music while working, but it definitely was OK these days. The quiet of concentration punctuated by low discussion had been replaced by music’s hiss and swish and the clack of keyboards, big fat ghetto headphones clamped on people’s domes like stun guns in an abbatoir. Knocking, they called the practice: when you place the electrodes at the cow’s temples and – ZAP – they feel nothing afterwards.
“Ready for the arrival of le grand fromage, are we, Harry?”
Harry looked up. This guy would never be seen dead in headphones. It was Jimmy Currey, office prankster and friend. A working-class lad from the Wirral who’d been educated into a world his family couldn’t understand, Jimmy had a double PhD in Physics and Electronic Engineering that had taken him away from a life of driving buses or labouring. Yet he’d retained a good working-class honesty and sense of humour, neither of which were especially useful at Starfish Technologies.
Jimmy’s tie hung at half-mast under a shirt collar whose sides stubbornly refused to meet in the middle; his grey-white hair, three months adrift from its last cut, bushed wildly from his shiny pate.Whenever the higher-ups called for a town-hall meeting, Jimmy could be seen ringing an imaginary bell and shouting “Oyez! Oyez! More corporate ballocks fresh from the bull’s arse! Come and get it! More spin than a tumble dryer, right this way!”
This performance, together with other stunts including the exposure of his manhood while turning out his pockets to mimic an elephant, swearing at his boss while hiding under a desk and making false confessions of alcoholism in client meetings, had hardly marked him out for superstardom. In fact, at the age of fifty-three, it was a safe bet that Jimmy Currey couldn’t wait to either retire or get fired. And preferably the latter, with a fat pay-off that would enable the former.
Harry felt blessed to know someone who had long breathed deep of corporate life’s steaming dunghill, yet still ate every last morsel of shit he was given anyway. And that without a word of complaint. At least not to the management. Too old and uninterested to harbour any ambition, yet too young to retire; not poor enough to suffer, but not rich enough to stop working – that was Harry. And Jimmy. And millions of others.
“My knees are trembling in anticipation,” Harry replied in answer to Jimmy’s non-question. Harry opened his laptop and fired up his email. The laptop always took around five minutes to get going – time enough for a chat.
“I know you’d like them trembling in rhythm with Pippa, but that’s not on the menu, chum,” Jimmy replied with a grin, popping a piece of nicotine gum in his mouth – yet another of his futile attempts to quit smoking.
Ah, Pippa. Pippa McMahon. Starfish Technologies’ UK SVP. That special type of woman teenage boys fantasise about – before they grow up and learn to avoid her like Ebola, open sewers or parking violations in major cities. Pippa McMahon was the head of Starfish Technologies’ Manchester “hub” – or office to you and me. At forty-three, she was single, teetotal, rich, gluten-intolerant, obsessed with reality TV and endowed with a personality that could put the devil in a headlock.
The term “cow”, now largely a cliché and far too cursory to do her various forms of spiritual ugliness justice, was insufficient; Harry found himself reaching for phrases from the Revelation to St John the Divine whenever he thought about her. In Harry’s febrile imagination, he would imagine Pippa dicing on her carpet with centurions, using human souls as gambling chips during her monthly “Town Hall Update”; her “management by walking around” became visitations of the noonday devil, and even her number flashing on Harry’s desk phone became, in his mind, an algorithm of the number of the beast.
Pippa was so self-absorbed she worked out religiously for ninety minutes a day, got her hair and nails done weekly and was, as Jimmy would put it with tongue adrift and eyebrows semaphoring lust, “a presentable lass.” And no doubt, she would be sat next to the guy coming today – she sat next to all the important visitors. Harry could picture her twiddling her necklace, smiling at him every five seconds, laughing at his jokes and flicking her hair. Just as surely, the assembled staff would be staring out the window, sipping coffee or looking at the presentation on the wall – anything to avoid seeing the flirtatious Rabelasian jissom-rite being visited by Pippa of Babylon on Starfish Technologies’ Compliance Weenie.
Then Harry heard his email ping:
REMINDER: Staff Town Hall meeting with Rob McMillan, 10AM. Edison Room.
Rob McMillan, SVP and Global Head of Compliance, FCU, will present a corporate update today in the Edison Room at 10AM. Attendance at this meeting is mandatory for all STM (Starfish Technologies Manchester) employees.
Thank you –
Senior Vice President and Office Lead
Starfish Technologies Manchester
Starfish: Enabling the New Golden Age of Wireless
“That it then, mate? Are we off to open our mouths beneath the next arse-dump from some teenage bigwig?” Jimmy asked, looking over Harry’s shoulder at the missive from Pippa-who-must-be-obeyed, passive-aggressive sign-off and all. Never could the two words “thank you” have been imbued with more veiled malice than when used at the end of a Pippa McMahon email. Jimmy scratched his chin ruminatively while staring at Harry’s screen, then said: “Here, I’m dying for a fag, me. Do you think we’ve got time” –
But Pippa’s secretary’s voice boomed over the PA:
“Attention all employees. Please make your way to the Edison Room, where Rob McMillian will be presenting at 10AM. Please note attendance at this meeting is mandatory.”
“Fooks’ sake, this must be an important one.” Jimmy opined. “I thought it was only the Regulatory Manager. Wonder why they’ve sent him? Are we getting a bonus? Is Runcorn the next Silicon Valley or summat?”
Harry drained his coffee and tossed the paper cup at his bin. It bounced off the rim, teetered then went in.
“Bingo, mate”, said Harry. “Only by the time Runcorn becomes Palo Alto, you and me will be either retired or dead.”
Harry was ten years younger than Jimmy. Despite the age gap, he was if anything even more stained and pickled, more steeped in cynicism about corporate life. For Harry, the number of people employed to do non-jobs (including himself) at Starfish suggested they must be overcharging customers to afford all these hangers-on. Harry stood up, creases in his tired suit, dress shoes more scuffed than they should be, and motioned towards the corridor behind Jimmy’s sloping shoulders:
“For God and England, Jimmy?”
“Cry Harry, for God and St George!” answered Jimmy. And with that, our two middle-aged non-entities sallied forth unto the field of corporate endeavour.
There was a good crowd in the Edison Room, though nothing like the crowd there should have been for an SVP all the way from New York. But a 45-minute meeting with the Global Head of Compliance hardly sets hearts a-flutter; most of the salesmen had booked client meetings to avoid this presentation, while other staff discovered urgent medical appointments they couldn’t get out of, meetings with Head Teachers, or something else to skip this. But how wrong they were to have missed it, how wrong.
Rob McMillan fulfilled the promise of his corporate headshot. A man on the fringes of middle age, ruddy of cheek and unapologetically balding, sporting a neat charcoal suit without a tie and those light brown leather buckled brogues that always betray deep pockets and little dress sense. He sat at the middle of the head table in the Edison Room, Pippa McMahon at his side, a thick gold chain around her neck with some type of higher-rent fashion branding on it. Her black pant suit was nipped in at the waist and she wore an expensive-looking T-shirt, her hair pulled back in a girlish pony-tail.
Harry sat next to Jimmy as the room filled up, Pippa’s giggles and titters reaching them like the cries of some spliced-gene miscegenate as she succumbed to Rob McMillan’s masculine persuasive force. He was the thick-muscled God of Compliance, she the supplicant nymph. Harry stared blankly ahead. Seconds passed, then Jimmy leaned in at his side:
“What she’s really trying to tell him is she’d let him, you know” Jimmy muttered, his breath all mint nicotine patch and tobacco.
“Either that, or she wants to tune his flesh transceiver,” Harry offered.
There was enough of a crowd now, and time was a-wasting. Pippa stood up and raised her hands for silence. On the wall behind her, the Starfish Technologies logo glowed large in a PowerPoint slide: a brown (unfortunate choice of colour) version of the eponymous submarine echinoderm with the words “STARFISH TECHNOLOGIES” in blue next to it and the strapline, “Enabling the New Golden Age of Wireless” underneath.
“Thank you for coming to this important meeting about our future at Starfish Technologies. Rob McMillan, Global Head of Compliance, has some news for you. So, without further ado – Rob?”
McMillan stood, thanked Pippa, then cleared his throat.
“Good morning team”, he said, one or two scamps at the back muttering “good morning” back, much like roll-call back in primary school. McMillan’s voice sounded vaguely English, vaguely educated, with some American inflections. No doubt he’d joined Starfish straight out of Uni, then been “seconded” to the US. His was a world of strategies and charts, not one of doing the bare minimum for eight hours then bunking off to get home in time for the kids.
“I have some important news,” McMillan said, a slight stammer infecting his voice, the colour in his cheeks rising.
Realisation hit Harry like the garden wall hits your car when you’re reversing up the driveway. Of course – fearless corporate warriors that they were, the board had dispatched a junior to let us have it. The weenie cometh, wielding an axe.
“As some of you will know, the last two quarters haven’t been great for the company and its investors,” McMillan began.
Harry heard the strains of Terence Trent D’Arby’s “If You Let Me Stay” in his head. He half-expected McMillan to break in to song, begging his listeners to put their bags down, okay? Cos he definitely doesn’t want us to leave. If we let him staaaaa—aayyyayyyy…. – instead, McMillan flicked at his laptop and a chart with spidery lines appeared. Harry was no expert, but it looked like a screen grab from a financial terminal. Next to him, Jimmy muttered “bugger me, that’s crap.”
At least Jimmy knew what it meant. Harry would have to ask him later. McMillan looked up at his silent if not rapt audience, then down again at his script. He proceeded to read laboriously, his cheeks reddening all the while.
“Our stock has underperformed both at an Alpha level – its absolute performance – and at Beta, against market. Orders are down, and projected sales are poor. Which means the marketplace expects us to take action.”
Harry wondered idly why bigwigs always said, “the marketplace”, a phrase that invited images of kindly old women and cobbled squares in Southern Europe, rather than sharp-suited guys with soft hands who owned yachts, private islands and watches studded with jewels.
“We will implement a workforce management programme, or WFM. As part of the WFM for Q3, we have identified a number of key roles in Starfish Technologies Manchester that will be secured.”
McMillan looked up. He had the audience’s attention now, all right. Jimmy was the only one not looking at McMillan or the screen; he’d probably heard this a million times before. Jimmy whispered “BUT” at Harry, then winked. “There’s always a but…”
“However,” McMillan continued, his balding scalp now glowing with perspiration, “a further segment will be eligible for our voluntary redundancy programme, or VRP. Those who wish to apply for VRP may do so via their local office manager” – and here, McMillan looked up and glanced at Pippa McMahon, who smiled encouragingly – “And there will be preferential terms for those over fifty years of age.”
Jimmy made a fist-pumping motion and whispered “Yeeeeeess!”
At the front of the room, McMillan took a sip of water from the bottle on the lectern in front of him and sighed audibly. Poor little bastard, Harry reflected. He wasn’t liking this any more than we were. Harry thought about the compensation figures from last year’s Annual Report. Apparently, the Chief Financial Officer made fifteen million dollars. Rumour had it he’d just bought an island in the Turks and Caicos. And now his stooge was here to tell everyone they were getting fired.
“Before I hand back to Pippa, I should say that if we do not achieve our headcount reduction target, there’ll be at least one round of compulsory redundancies. As we are aiming to make a seventy per cent reduction in field sales and service staff from this location, I must advise you this is highly probable.”
McMillan looked visibly relieved. “Right, that’s the news. I’m sorry it’s not better and I know how disappointing this will be. Now I’m happy to take any questions.”
There was a moment’s silence, then the hands rose slowly at first, hesitantly, like flowers in early Spring. Jimmy was one of those who put his hand up.
“Yes sir,” McMillan said, pointing at Jimmy. Pippa McMahon’s secretary walked towards Jimmy with a hand-held microphone, but Jimmy waved it away. On the podium, McMahon began twisting her hair faster, her face frozen in a faint smile.
“Er… thank you. Can you hear me OK?”, Jimmy asked, mock-cupping his hands in McMillan’s direction. McMillan smiled and nodded, not fifteen feet away from Jimmy’s seat in the middle of the audience. “Good”, said Jimmy. “So basically, you are looking at taking us from an office of around seventy down to fifteen, is that it?”
“Well, it’s not all bad, is it? At least everyone’s going to have their own private toilet, aren’t they? Never mind “Find a Place Where You Can Shine” – you should change the recruitment poster to “Find a Place Where You Can Shite!” The audience laughed. Jimmy stood up and gave a mock bow to his colleagues. A thin ripple of applause wraithed through the room and he sat again as the noise died down. “Seriously, though, mate – you are going to close this office, aren’t you? We’re going to relocate, aren’t we?”
Pippa McMahon leaned in to her microphone, smoothing away an imaginary crumb on her suit as she did so.
“Er, thank you for that contribution Doctor Currey. At this time, we’ve no information on whether or not a relocation is planned.”
“Oh aye yeah, well right,” muttered Jimmy to no-one in particular. “They’re closing us down, you mark my words.”
When Harry walked in to the office three weeks later, the atmosphere at Starfish Technologies was void. Void of people, of life, of purpose. No-one hid the fact they were bunking off early: there was no need to schedule a client visit near your home so you could be outside the school gate at three-thirty; no need to pretend the calls from recruitment consultants were really from friends. Instead, Harry found an emptiness in the office that would have made the Marie Celeste look like a pumping nightclub at 1 AM on a Saturday.
After a little while spent pretending to work, he ran in to Jimmy having a smoke outside the deliveries area at the back. Jimmy’s shirt had been washed too many times, its green and red stripes faded into incongruity, its fabric tight over his impressive belly. He sucked greedily at a cigarette and raised his eyebrows as Harry approached.
“Now then our Harry,” said Jimmy. “Are you one of the lucky ones then?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean Voluntary Redundancy mate. Yours truly has been given the nod. That’s fifteen years’ service at two and a half weeks a year plus three months’ notice and eighteen months’ extra pension.” Jimmy sucked hard at the butt of his cigarette then ground it out under his heel. “First thirty-five grand tax free. I am made up, fooking delighted, over the moon – all that. Three months off to let them see their mistake, then I’ll come back and make double me current wage as a consultant, three days a week. Now what about you?”
“No idea. I’ve not heard a word. We’ll have to see.”
Jimmy sucked air through his teeth and smiled. “We’ll see all right. I suspect you’re going to be protected – only cos every man and his dog has applied for redundancy.”
When Harry returned to his computer, he found a meeting request from Pippa McMahon in his inbox. Only the meeting wasn’t in her office: it was in a coffee room on the ground floor, a room no-one had used for years – not since the last lot got sacked a few years ago.
Twenty minutes later, Harry found himself facing Pippa McMahon and a lady in late middle age across the drab meeting room. The lady was somewhat crumpled of hair and face, her appearance suggesting someone who had seen a lot of people cry. She wore a suit of pastel grey, lots of chunky jewellery and too much makeup. Pippa McMahon smiled ingratiatingly as Harry entered the room.
“Harry. Thank you for coming. As you can imagine, we have a lot of people to see today. This is Deborah Abrahams, our Head of Human Resources. Harry, we have always valued your contribution to our company and I want to make sure we are honest with you.”
Here we go, thought Harry.
“As you may know, we have received numerous applications for voluntary redundancy, and yours is one we will not be accepting. Given other planned changes, we have decided to ring-fence your role. That means the only way for you to leave Starfish Technologies is to resign if you choose. The good news is that your job is safe, and you will not be selected for redundancy as part of our workforce management programme. Do you have any questions for Deborah or myself?”
Harry shook his head. As Pippa’s rouged lips moved, he was vouchsafed a vision of the next fifteen to twenty years of his life: some faceless serviced office somewhere off the M6 motorway, the Starfish Technologies logo from here transported there to save money, its sharp edges squatting incongruously like a Styrofoam toad in some tiny shared reception area. The proverbial death by a million cuts “to help us realise investor expectations” before Harry, too, was pensioned off at some unspecified point to rake leaves, ponder package holidays and slowly develop some as-yet unspecified and ultimately fatal age-related condition.
Deborah Abraham’s crumpled face unfolded to a grin. “It’s good news for you, Harry. You’re safe. We should tell you that at this time consultations are ongoing with the other fourteen members of staff who will be retained.” Abrahams glanced at her wristwatch, then continued: “In about ten minutes, those subject to compulsory redundancy are going to be summoned to a meeting. If you wish, you may leave and return to work after lunch. We expect this news to be distressing for them.”
Harry looked through the window to the slate roofs of the neighbourhood and the sky beyond, a dull tableau punctuated by thin patches of sunlight. Safe. Safe to keep working and earning a wage. As if being safe were all that mattered.
“Harry? Do you want to go home for a bit? Are you all right?”
Harry kept quiet. He was supposed to be happy about this. After all, he got to keep his job. But instead of relief, all he felt was numbness. More of the same. A slow decline, like when your legs got stuck to a metal slide in the playground when you were a kid. Not going anywhere. Stasis. Harry stood up, pushing his chair away from the table, and shook his head.
“Thank you, Harry!” Pippa sing-songed. “We’re all looking forward to working with you, alright?”
Harry said his goodbyes, then walked out to his car and sat in it. Then he turned the ignition and listened to the engine. After a while he must have dozed off, the music on the radio fading to white noise as he drifted in and out of consciousness and the clouds overhead kept rolling by, their pattern endless, silent and mysterious …
“Resignation” is dedicated to Neil, Julia, Iris and Kenton Hrab.
James W. Wood’s short fiction has appeared in the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, India, Turkey and Sweden in the past year. He is the author of six books of poetry and a novel, has reviewed for many newspapers, and was the 2018 recipient of the BC Writer’s Award in Canada.