|THE AWAY DAY by Jim Mountfield|
The desk-booking system bumped Reg at nine o’clock. He received an automatic email telling him the desk he’d booked for today hadn’t been checked into. His booking was cancelled and the desk was available for other staff-members to use. “In future,” chided the email, “please ensure you check into your desk or cancel your booking if it is not required.”
Reg stood up and turned around. “FUCK OFF!” he bellowed across the rows of desks and computer terminals to the glass-walled conference rooms at the office’s far end. “FUCK RIGHT OFF, YOU BASTARDS, FOREVER!”
Nobody responded. The office was silent. Today Reg was the only person at work. Having enjoyed that moment of catharsis, he sat back at his desk—his desk whether he’d been bumped or not—and returned to the report he’d been working on.
Just then, he heard sounds. Perhaps a door creaked open and then creaked shut. Reg sprang up again. “Hello?” he called less aggressively. “Is anyone there?”
He thought he saw something shimmer in a conference room’s glass wall. The sun was shining through a nearby window and he wondered if it was a trick of the light. Was the sun brightening and creating a reflected glare in the glass? He called “Hello?” again but didn’t see anything more.
Meanwhile, between him and the conference rooms, the vertical computer-screens along the desks made him think of tombstones. Deserted, the place resembled a cemetery. It occurred to Reg that he might’ve been wise to attend the away day after all.
He decided what he’d seen was a trick of the light and the office was indeed empty. He sat down again. To reassure himself that he’d done the right thing in avoiding the away day, he retrieved the email about it sent by Human Resources:
“To: All Constellation Services Staff.
Re: Away Day Schedule, July 7th
09.30: Opening ceremony and Kieran’s introductory speech.
10.45: Teambuilding activities.
12.15: Special surprise! A humorous skit performed by the Marketing Department.
13.30: Presentations from each department.
15.15: Brainstorming. Determining our future priorities.
16.30: Ian Langton from Finance entertains us with his guitar.
17.00: Chillax time with drinks!
“I’m here alone,” he muttered. “It sucks. But it’s still miles better than a day of teambuilding, brainstorming, skits, guitar music and Kieran’s bullshit.”
He’d worked on his report for five more minutes when a bead of sweat landed on the back of his hand. He felt similar beads oozing down his face to his shirt-collar. Looking up, he realised that the air-conditioning system was dead. Not a whisper came out of its vents.
Reg got up again, aware that that he had no idea where the controls for the air-conditioning were, and crossed the office searching for them. He’d almost reached the conference rooms when he glanced through a window in a sidewall that looked in on Kieran’s room. This, he saw, had its own air-conditioning unit mounted above Kieran’s desk. A remote lay on the desk itself.
Since Kieran’s room was an enclosed space that’d cool much faster than the main office and since all the computers, including Kieran’s, were networked, Reg decided to work in there. He was sure Kieran wouldn’t object. Not a great right-on guy like Kieran.
He activated Kieran’s air-conditioning unit, sat in Kieran’s chair and switched on Kieran’s computer. Then he lifted his legs and dumped his feet on top of the desk. Kieran did that sometimes, to demonstrate what a great right-on guy he was. Oh yes. And he often turned up in jeans and a T-shirt. And he used first names with everyone, even the cleaning staff. Because, you see, he wasn’t above the people. He was of the people. Reg gritted his teeth at the thought of him.
He did an impersonation. “C’mon folks!” he barked in Kieran’s affected working-class London accent. “Let’s think outside the box! If we’re taking this to the next level, we need some blue-sky thinking! Yeah!”
Reg even reached for the spherical glass paperweight that Kieran kept on his desk and would absent-mindedly throw up and down in his hands while he spoke to people. The sphere contained seven silvery little stars. If you peered into it from a certain angle, they’d align themselves in the form of the star-constellation that was Constellation Services’ logo. But today the paperweight was gone. Probably Kieran had taken it to the away day so that he could throw it up and down whilst giving his speech.
Reg raised one of his legs off the desk and farted loudly. “C’mon folks!” he repeated. “Let’s fart outside the box!” He farted again, yet more loudly. “We need some blue-sky farting!” Then he noticed how the room suddenly smelt like rotten turnips and he sighed regretfully. Excessive flatulence. That was one of the curses of growing older—
The word made him grimace: ‘older’. He huddled over Kieran’s keyboard and resumed work.
He added another paragraph to his report but then had to leave it for a minute. Too much stuff was churning around in his head. He sank back into Kieran’s chair and recalled the argument he’d had last week with Dominic, his line manager.
“Reg,” Dominic had pleaded, “listen. As a recent recruit, one of your objectives is to integrate with your colleagues. And an excellent way of integrating is to attend the away day—”
Reg interrupted. “I’m not going. I attended one at my previous company and it was a waste of time. Took place in a park with a go-kart track and ziplining course. I remember the CEO overturning his go-kart and breaking his arm in three places. Anyway, I have things to do. Deadlines to meet. I’m not sacrificing a workday for an orgy of touchy-feely nonsense.”
Dominic sounded stern now. “Also, this away day is a major fixture in the Constellation Services calendar. We expect you to attend.”
Reg decided to be diplomatic. “Look. Tell you what. I’ll go to the one next year. Promise.”
“There won’t be one next year,” retorted Dominic. “They’re not annual. The last away day was several years ago. These are rare events—rare but precious events that allow the Constellation Services family to bond.” He stared at Reg disappointedly. “Really. I’d hoped for more from you. More cooperation. More gratitude for what this company has done for you.”
“Gratitude? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well… Constellation Services did hire you. And…”
“And what? You hired me because I was the best person for the job.”
“Yes, you were an excellent candidate. Mind you, other companies might not have hired you because…”
“Of my age?”
“For certain companies, that might count against you. Unlike Constellations Services, of course, where we’re committed to a non-discriminatory policy of inclusion—”
Reg exploded. “Inclusion? You hired me as a token old person? Like you hired that IT guy who’s partway along the autism spectrum? Or that cross-dresser with the incomprehensible Geordie accent in Marketing?” Reg leapt up from his chair. “You hired me because you thought I was a dribbling geriatric? Well, thank you, Constellation Services, for your pity!”
“Let’s resolve this non-aggressively, Reg. If we talk things over, I’m sure we can arrive at a win-win solution satisfactory to both parties—”
“Oh, fuck off!” And he stomped out of the conference room.
Reg sat brooding at Kieran’s desk, too depressed to return to his report. Then a shadow fell through the window and flitted across him.
He jumped up and rushed to the window. The office still looked empty. Had the shadow come from the window in the opposite wall, which overlooked the street? Had a wisp of cloud passed before the sun? But the shaft of sunlight entering through that window stopped halfway across the floor, short of Kieran’s window, and any shadows from outside would stop short of it too.
Feeling frightened as well as depressed, Reg decided to abandon the office. He’d go home and work there. He saved his report on a memory stick, switched off the air-conditioning unit and computer and left the room. Outside Kieran’s doorway, from the corner of his eye, he saw something coalesce in one of the glass conference-room walls and disappear again, like a ghost assembling and disassembling itself out of ectoplasm.
He was too afraid to check the conference room. He didn’t even ask, “Is anybody there?” for he assumed that if someone was there, the person didn’t intend to answer. Instead, he walked to the desk he’d been working at earlier, lifted his briefcase and returned across the office. It was a struggle not to run and grab the briefcase.
The vestibule leading to the entrance-exit doors was in the corner between Kieran’s room and the end conference room. “Don’t,” he told himself, “look at those conference rooms.” But when he reached the corner and turned into the vestibule, he couldn’t help looking. A ghostly swirl materialised in one of the sheets of glass.
“A trick of the light,” he said aloud. Then he was in the vestibule. Ahead were the external doors, seven silvery studs representing the seven stars of the company’s logo embedded in their glass panes. “Just a trick of the light.” He pressed the button but didn’t hear the click of the locking mechanism being released. “A trick of the light…”
Yet tricks of the light didn’t explain the creak of a conference-room door opening and closing behind him.
He seized the nearest pull-bar handle but the door attached to it wouldn’t budge. He stuck his thumb in the button again and pulled the handle. Still it wouldn’t move—
Behind him a voice confirmed it: “The doors don’t open.”
Reg yelped and spun around. He found himself facing a small, slight girl with brown hair tied in a ponytail. She seemed several years too young to have a Constellation Services ID tag hanging on a lanyard from her neck.
She stammered, “I tried it a while ago. The button won’t work.” She held up her ID tag. “The sensor outside works, though. When I put my tag against it this morning, it opened the doors no problem.”
Already, Reg had got over his fright. His customary tetchiness had returned. “Obviously it works. I got in too, didn’t I?” He jammed his thumb into the button a third time. “So why won’t this work?”
“It’s very odd.”
Then Reg forgot about the doors and demanded, “Who are you?”
The girl held up her ID tag again. “Mary. I’m an intern here.”
“I haven’t seen you around.”
“I’m in Customer Service.”
“Well, I don’t have much contact with Customer Service. Why aren’t you at the away day?”
“Away day? Today? That’s why the office is empty.” Suddenly she looked close to tears. “Nobody told me!”
Reg almost laughed. “That’s typical of them. They forgot to tell you. What a bunch of idiots!” He walked past her, back into the office, and froze when he saw the conference rooms again. “Hold on. It was you hiding in one of those glass boxes?”
Mary caught up with him. “Yes… I came in and couldn’t see anyone and didn’t know what was happening. Then I heard you shouting from the other end of the room.”
Reg’s face coloured. “I, uh, took advantage of the office being empty to vent some steam.”
“I thought there was a crazy person in the office with me.”
“Come off it. I didn’t sound that crazy, did I?”
“Well, you sounded very angry. I ran out but couldn’t get the doors to open. So I decided to hide. As far away from you as possible.”
“In a conference room? This whole time?”
“Yes… Well, no. Later I heard a voice in Mr Mullen’s room and I thought he’d come in.” Reg winced, wondering if she’d heard him farting. “I crept out and looked through the window. You were sitting at Mr Mullen’s desk and you still looked a little crazy. So I ran back inside the conference room before you spotted me.”
Deprived of air-conditioning, the office was sweltering now. Reg felt rivulets, not beads of sweat on his face. “Look…” He glanced at her ID tag. “Look, Mary. I’m sorry for frightening you. I didn’t mean to. But we need to get those doors open. I told my line manager I was coming in today and insisted that he arrange for the building’s security staff to have this office accessible. They did that. Though somehow, they didn’t make it possible for us to leave again.”
“We could,” Mary suggested, “phone the security man down in the lobby.”
“Yes, he’s at his desk. It’s a normal working day for the companies on the other floors.”
He lifted a telephone receiver off the nearest desk and pressed the number connecting it to the lobby. But the receiver emitted no sound. “Bugger!” he muttered. He went into Kieran’s room and tried the phone there. It was dead too.
He returned to Mary, dug his smartphone out of his briefcase, found Constellation Services in the contacts list and pressed the call button. A telephone started ringing a few desk-rows away. Then the ringing ceased and a disembodied voice said: “Hello, you’ve got through to Constellation Services. We’re very sorry there’s nobody in the office to take your call just now, but…”
Reg cancelled the call and the voice stopped in mid-sentence. “I guess to get through to the lobby I need the number for the building itself, not the company. Let me Google the building’s address. Its phone number will come up too.” But then he squinted at the phone-screen and noticed an absence of bars in its corner. “There’s no Internet signal.”
She stared at him and his irritability increased. “Look,” he explained, “I don’t have a data plan. I just use the Wi-Fi at work and home.” He didn’t add that he’d stopped having mobility on his phone a few years ago after getting addicted to online gambling. Then he asked, “Don’t you have a phone?”
“What? But you’re… young!”
“I can’t afford one just now. I’m an intern.”
Reg threw up his arms. “What is going on? I know the Intra-net’s working—the bloody thing bumped me this morning. But no Internet, no internal phones, no way of opening the doors…!”
“You could call 999 and ask the police to come. Or the fire brigade. Whoever deals with situations like this.”
Reg shuddered. He imagined Dominic finding out that the emergency services had had to rescue him from the office. He’d be too professional to say anything to Reg’s face, of course. But no doubt he’d snicker mercilessly behind his back. “Let’s not do anything as drastic as that yet. There must be a way we can get out by ourselves.”
Then they looked towards the bottom end of the office, past where Reg had been working. Located there were five more doors, leading to the staff kitchen, to the ladies’, gents’ and disabled toilets, and to a room that housed the office’s photocopiers, printers and supplies of stationery.
Mary started, “The photocopier room…”
“…has a fire exit,” said Reg, feeling a surge of relief. But immediately his relief evaporated. “If the fire-doors are opened, they set off an alarm.” He had visions not only of fire engines arriving but of all the employees on the other floors abandoning their desks and assembling on the street below. That’d really give Dominic something to snicker about. “I’d prefer not to do that, either.”
But then he remembered that a second pair of doors, smooth metal ones, were situated next to the fire doors. “Wait. There’s a lift too. The freight-lift they use to bring up the boxes of stationery.”
They entered the room. An aisle ran down its middle, between two photocopy machines and then between two tables. One table had printers on top of it, the other had a guillotine at its end overlooking a box half-filled with cut-offs. Past those, the aisle was bordered by sets of shelves loaded with ring-folders, blocks of A4 paper and cartons of pens, clips and staples. They approached the rear wall, where the fire-doors were on the right and the freight-lift doors on the left. Reg feared the freight lift would be de-activated for the same lunatic reason that everything else was de-activated, but the panel beside the door was illuminated with a letter and number: ‘B2’.
He pressed the lift-button. Machinery hummed and the ‘B2’ changed to a ‘B1’, then a ‘G’, then a ‘1’—
Trying not to sound excited, he told Mary, “We’re on our way. The first thing I’m doing is speaking to that moronic guard. Why did he let us enter the office but not let us leave it again?”
But Mary was distracted. For some reason she’d turned to a shelf and started rummaging in a stationery-carton. Meanwhile, Reg noticed a small red light glowing on the wall opposite, above the doorway they’d just come through. The light was positioned at the base of a CCTV camera whose lens pointed down towards them. He went back, raised a fist and shouted at the camera, “Hey, Mr Guard, do you have audio too? Did you hear me? I called you a moron—”
Mary turned around from the shelf. She held a paper cutter with a trapezium of sharp metal jutting from its plastic handle. She raised it and slashed it downwards into Reg’s right shoulder an inch from his neck. He felt the blade scrape past his collarbone and slice down his right breast. Lowering his head, he saw the shirt-fabric part on his chest, and skin and tissue part beneath it, and blood spray out over Mary’s hand and forearm. Not yet registering pain, just feeling a dull shock, he looked at Mary’s face. It’d suddenly become a blank, inscrutable mask.
She prised the paper cutter from his chest, lifted it and plunged it again. The trajectory was the same but this time it struck Reg’s face, below his right eye, because his legs had buckled and he was a foot lower than before. His rump crashed down into the cardboard box containing the trimmings from the guillotine. Redness fountained up before his right eye and now a savage pain came from the right side of his chest, as if someone had placed a white-hot poker there.
Shrieking, he thrashed about on the crumpled box. His hands flapped on either side of him, trying to grab hold of something that’d give him purchase, so he could pull himself up before Mary struck again. But the intern no longer seemed interested in stabbing him. She turned her attention to the table on his immediate left, where she grasped something and pulled at it.
Just as the thing snapped away in Mary’s hands, Reg’s left hand managed to clutch hold of the table-edge. He dragged himself upwards, straightening his legs, sliding his shoulder-blades up the wall behind him. The right half of his shirt, he saw, was blood-soaked down to his waist.
Reg had raised himself to the level of the table-top when he realised Mary was holding a big transparent triangle of plastic—the safety guard from the guillotine.
He looked leftwards and saw how his left palm rested on the table-edge and his fingers extended onto the guillotine’s base. And then Mary sprang forward, seized the handle and slammed the huge blade down onto his knuckles.
During the moments between the blade descending and Reg’s mind flipping, he saw four long pink things go scuttling across the guillotine’s base. It was as if the room was suddenly infested with hairless mice.
The normal fluorescent lighting in the sub-basement had been switched off. Now it was illuminated by candles.
Two lines of them burned along the floor, forming an avenue from the lift-doors to the room’s centre, where there was a grand table. The table stood with one of its long sides facing the lift and on top of it seven more candles were planted in candlesticks. These candles were of random heights and seemingly arranged in random spots along the table-top. But viewed from the lift, burning against a backdrop of darkness, the candle flames resembled the seven stars of a certain constellation.
The lift-doors opened and a small figure in a hooded robe emerged carrying a platter. It advanced towards the table along the avenue of candles. Chanting came from either side—produced by several dozen people, also robed, kneeling in the margins between the candles and the sub-basement’s walls.
Another robed figure stood before the table. This figure took the platter, turned and raised it towards the seven candle flames above the seven candlesticks.
“O seven stars, I give thee our offering. Harvested as the ritual demands from the flesh of our oldest follower by the hand of our youngest. Proof of our wish for renewal, every seventh year, on the seventh day, of the seventh month. We beseech thee, stars, with thy infinite power, renew us. Expunge us of all that is old. Infuse us with all that is new!”
The chanting of the kneeling people grew louder. “All that is new!” they intoned.
“Now,” said the lead figure, “I give thee the seven parts of our offering. As symbolised by the eyes, grant us vision to see the obstacles on the road ahead, so that we avoid them.” The figure removed two blood-slicked eyeballs from the platter and put them at the bottom of two candlesticks. “As symbolised by the ears, grant us power to hear all things, so that we know the plots whispered by our enemies and foil them.” It transferred two dripping ears from the platter to two more candlesticks. “As symbolised by the tongue, grant us persuasion in our speech, so that we convince others of our rightness.” At the base of a fifth candlestick it placed something long, limp and ragged at one end. “As symbolised by the spleen, source of fiery yellow bile, grant us the spirit necessary to fight and destroy our enemies.” It laid a small bean-shaped organ below the sixth candlestick. “As symbolised by the liver, source of blood, grant us the joy that comes from with success in our endeavours.” And it set a rough-hewn lump of flesh at the final candlestick.
From the chamber’s sides came the chant: “Vision, hearing, speech, spirit, joy!”
Then the figure turned back to the one who’d brought the platter. “Go, child, and proudly take your place among our family. You have performed the sacrifice and we are renewed!”
Smiling inside her hood, Mary went and joined the figures kneeling along one of the walls.
Then another figure came around the table and grasped the lead figure’s arm. “Kieran,” it said above the chanting. “Sorry to disturb you. Before you give the introductory speech—could we have a word?”
Behind the table and candles, the other end of the sub-basement was almost entirely dark. The only illumination came from a corner containing a huddle of consoles and screens. One screen was switched on and showed grainy footage of a room with photocopiers, tables and cluttered shelving. A body lay face-down in a slick of blood on the room’s floor.
“He isn’t dead,” explained Dominic. “He moved a moment ago. And look! He’s just moved again.”
Kieran peered at the screen and conceded that the body had managed to drag itself a few inches along the floor, towards the CCTV camera. “Remarkable,” he said. “That shows determination. He lacked flexibility, but he’d still have been an asset to Constellation Services.”
“What should we do?”
Kieran passed something across. Dominic felt a smooth, round weight in his hand. He looked down and saw the seven silvery specks inside the glass orb glinting from the glow of the screen.
“As his line manager,” said Kieran, “I guess you’ll have to bump him.”