“And as you can see from this graph here, I don’t really know how to use PowerPoint,” droned the speaker.  It was a valiant effort, to be fair.  For someone who definitely wasn’t tech savvy, the very fact that one axis went up and the other went across was the sign of a thoroughly decent attempt, and something to be applauded.  Truth be told, if he hadn’t drawn attention to the shoddiness of his bar chart nobody would’ve noticed anyway – most people’s eyes were firmly shut to protect them from the veritable smorgasbord of slide transitions.

To Robert, sitting in the audience with a can of Stella and a falcon on his arm, the whole thing was a total hoot.  He’d been far past drunk since the second talk of the day and was now sitting happily sozzled, taking in very little and haphazardly tossing morsels of bread into the air for Franz to catch in his beak.  Every now and then he would permit himself a roaring belly laugh, entirely at random and completely unrelated to whatever was showing on the board at the time.  At first the other conference attendees found this routine mildly entertaining, but once he’d guffawed at the statement that ‘50% of subjects with acute liver cirrhosis also experienced heart attacks or strokes’ the room rather turned against him.

When Professor Garfield took the stage for his presentation on ‘Kidney stones – I can’t get no satisfaction’, two stewards moved in for the forced removal.  Eight seconds later they were hastily retreating, covered in peck marks, talon scratches and henna tattoos.  “Let that be a lesson to you, fascist scum,” was a very unusual line for the professor to open with, but it certainly caught everyone’s attention.

As the presentation continued it soon became clear that it was really really boring.  A Mexican wave of yawns travelled around the room (which could have gone unnoticed if the participants hadn’t also stood up with grand panache).  No fewer than seventeen games of hangman were simultaneously taking place, as well as eight games of noughts-and-crosses, ten of battleships and eighty-five of Monopoly (Stoke-on-Trent edition).  Realising that a grand total of none of his ‘listeners’ were actually doing it, the Prof decided to make fart noises with his mouth until somebody noticed.  Four hours later, a research assistant raised their hand to ask a question.  Prof. Garfield stopped and motioned for her to speak up.  Unfortunately she interpreted his actions as an offensive gesture and reported him to the local ombudsman.  Robert collapsed in hysterics and sicked up some lager; Franz gratefully received it.

At this point, the events manager walked into the lecture theatre to check on how things were going and why no one had turned up for the coffee break or lunch.  Finding everything to his satisfaction he left and went to Barbados where he fell in love with a waitress, set up a school for the underprivileged, and found a lovely shell which looked shiny if you held it in just the right way.

All of a sudden, someone got Mayfair and Park Lane (you know, the ones round the back of the Port Vale stadium), and everything kicked off.  Laptops were smashed, chairs were ripped out of their fittings, and many bits of otherwise-clean paper were scribbled on.  Shirts were ripped, ties were peanutted, and one attendee had some feathers pulled out.  At the end of it all, sixty conference goers were taken away to hospital; everyone else went to prison, or Sainsbury’s – I can’t remember which.

The room was left empty; the smashed-up furniture, spilled blood and burning curtains the only indicators that anything had ever happened.  The events of that day were seldom to be mentioned by those who survived to tell the tale, but generally when the subject was raised there was one thing on which they all agreed – it was most definitely the best seminar series they had ever had the good fortune to attend.

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“Okay, so does anybody want me to go through that again?”  Team Leader Ken looked up and down the line of new recruits, inspecting the evasive faces for even the slightest flicker of emotion, hoping for a signal – any signal – a twitch, a scratch, an epileptic fit – looking for any excuse to repeat the exercise.  All ten newcomers stood absolutely still, determined not to allow even an arm hair to move in a way that said “ME, ME!  SHOW ME!  IT WAS AMAZING!”

“Lynn – do you want me to go through that again?”  Lynn knew it was a trap.  She ignored Team Leader Ken with all of her being, her gaze firmly focussed on a packet of dried prunes, two shelves up, next to the apricots, willing him to move on to somebody else.  Recognising a lost cause when he saw one, Team Leader Ken switched his attention to the 17-year-old lad beside her.  Masoud took a deep breath and held it, braced for the onslaught.  “How about you Masoud – perhaps a sixth demonstration will help you really get to grips with the manual tasks required in this job?”  Masoud’s lips began to tremble and his left eye leaked a tear with the strain, but resolutely he refused to let out even the slightest sound.  As Masoud’s eyes began to goggle, Team Leader Ken abandoned his pursuit and moved on to his next victim.

“Terence…  Terence, Terence, Terence.  I know your type when I see it,” he schmoozed.  “The consummate professional.  The method actor.  The keen angler.  The Pope.”  Terence was beginning to feel that Team Leader Ken really didn’t know his type when he saw it.  “You’re a man who likes to make sure he gets things right, yes?  A man who cannot stand to do anything at a level anywhere less than the height of his supreme powers?  A man who knows the importance of practice and repeating the same task until perfection or death, whichever comes first?”  Terence glared at his shoes, reciting the Buddhist mantra “Go away, go away, go away” under his breath.  Shutting his eyes, Terence imagined himself as a lotus on a still, calm pool atop a mountain, the sound of pan-pipes echoing around the hills, a small golden fish leaping gracefully above him to catch a fly with ruthless efficiency and panache.  Sighing blissfully to himself, he awoke some five hours later to find the store closed and facing the prospect of a night snuggled up under an extra large dressing gown beneath a rudimentary fort of bedsheets in the home section.

Team Leader Ken interpreted Terence’s silence as a bad thing and turned to face Lorenzo, the new fishmonger.  “Lorenzo – I’m sure that you-”  “YES, YES, YES!  SHOW ME AGAIN!”  Team Leader Ken shook his head, blinked hard and returned to the real world.  “Lorenzo – I’m sure that you’d like me to demonstrate this procedure once more, yes?”  “I would rather gouge my eyes out through my nostrils with a coat hanger.”  Team Leader Ken took that as a no, then addressed the group as a whole.  “Anybody?  Are you all definitely one hundred percent sure you’re happy – did you appreciate all the nuances of my actions?  It’s a very specific set of instructions and things can go drastically wrong if they are not followed to the letter.  Do you seriously want a sub-standard delivery of store protocol to endanger your safety on a lonely late night shift?  At one in the morning, your corpse might lie undiscovered in one of these aisles for more than an hour – think about that.  Just think about that for a moment.  By the time that Mrs Bedson or Mr Davies comes looking for the vinegar or the Oxo or the tinned plum tomatoes and stumbles upon your maggot-infested cadaver, you might be so beyond help that you’d wish you’d asked Team Leader Ken for one further demonstration to ensure that you fully understood the magnitude of what you were taking on.  So…  Who wants to see it again?”

A stony silence hung in the air, all of the new starters silently praying that in unity they would remain resilient and strong and repel Team Leader Ken’s persistence.  But eight heads (Terence the Lotus was snoring by now) swung round in outraged despair at the sight of a shaking hand being slowly raised above an abashed and reddening head.  “Team Leader Ken…”  Ken positively glowed with delight as he wheeled around to listen.  “I think it would be a very sensible idea if you showed us just one… m-more… time…”  The group collectively groaned and tossed their heads back in agony.  “EXCELLENT, Lucy!  What a splendid suggestion – you will make a fantastic cashier, I can tell.  Possibly one of the best the world has ever seen.”  Lucy smiled weakly in apology to her co-workers; they weren’t too furious with her – they themselves had felt almost helpless to withstand Team Leader Ken’s guilt-inducing monologue, and could understand why she’d felt compelled to do it, but she certainly shouldn’t expect any break-time company in the staff room until at least next Christmas.

Team Leader Ken bounced back to the front of the assembled crowd with a clap of his hands and a manic grin.  “Right then – everybody watching?  I’ll only do this once…  Okay.  Approach the box of raisins, stop, and then – this is the most important part – bend your knees, not your back, to get right down next to it…”

TSP063: The night shift

February 27, 2013

The guard re-crossed his legs and picked up his magazine for the third time.  So many unnecessary interruptions in one night – could a man not drink his brew, complete his crossword, put his feet up on his desk and only occasionally peer at the security monitors in peace?!  If it wasn’t one thing it was two things, or three, or four, or…  Definitely not zero things at any rate, which was a shame because that’s what he’d have really liked right at that moment in time.

Fifteen years ago, nobody would have thought it possible or even a good idea to call up the night watchman to report a hoo-hah within the factory’s perimeter fence – mostly because he was ex-directory – but these days his number was on every toilet cubicle wall from here to Hyderabad, and a surprisingly large number of people along the route had more mobile credit than apathy.  “I think there’s a pigeon prowling on the staffroom awning” – that was his first call of the night.  Yes, there was a pigeon up there on the roof, but it was only a pigeon – and to describe it as ‘prowling’ was a stretch of the imagination.  It was more likely foraging, or just plain old loitering – pigeons tended to do that, often under the influence of alcohol.

No sooner had the first phone call been ended with a brusque “Thank you for your information – I’ll make sure it gets to the right person”, and the informant’s gist relayed to the nodding dog at the base of the desktop aspidistra, than the ringer sounded again.  Huffing quietly to himself, he lifted the receiver again and listened.  An agitated voice met his ears.  “Hello?  Is this the night watchman?  I’ve just seen a bird of some sort crossing the path by the entrance to your compound.  It flapped a bit and set off my security light, and I don’t know what to do…”  The voice cracked and broke into a full-on shriek of terror.  “Help me, please – the bird… flapping… crème anglaise… on the path.”  A few reassuring words to the unnerved (and unclothed) woman on the end of the line and a guarantee that he’d take a serious look into this flapping bird, and he was back reclining in his chair, arms above his head, hoping that his eventful evening would calm down a little – tonight was the deadline for submission of completed puzzles and he had eight clues remaining.  The prize was a weekend break in Venice, which he was hoping to sell and then spend the money on old camera film cases.  The thought set his mouth to drooling…

After a couple of easy answers (‘hilltop’ and ‘C3PO’) his serenity was shattered by yet another piercing scream from his desk phone.  Just his luck – the next clue was one that required absolute quiet for at least seven (consecutive) minutes and a wafting scent of freshly set alabaster.  Removing his safety goggles, he once more offered himself up as a slave to the telephone.  “Neil, is that you?”  Tut.  “No, Neil’s shift is on Tuesdays.”  The sound of a man’s brain performing a swift calculation filtered through the earpiece.  “Okay, well never mind.  I was just going to tell Neil that there seem to be a few of those flying vermin stationed on top of the portaloos, but it doesn’t matter – I can tell him on Tuesday.”  “Okay great, he’ll look forward to it.”  The phone was returned to its base unit, the pen to his hand and the aforementioned leg re-crossing and magazine picking-up ensued.

Within ten seconds of thought resuming, the glass skylight suddenly burst inwards, showering his chair, desk and Spiderman lunchbox with assorted-size shards.  Using the puzzle book as cover from the falling debris, the guard looked up towards the hole in the roof and was instantly dazzled by a brilliant light (seriously, it was truly excellent).  The next thing he knew, the air was filled with the flapping of fifty pairs of wings and the sound of fifty sharp beaks pecking at his uniform.  Falling to the floor, he flailed about with his extendable keychain in an attempt to repel his assailants.  A single swift peck to the knuckle forced him to relinquish his grasp and angry clawed feet scratched at his arms and earlobes.  Slowly overcome by the relentless feathered assault, the noise faded in his ears and the interior of his office gently turned to darkness as he slipped out of consciousness.  The firm’s defences had been breached and eliminated.  The birdseed factory was finally in the hands of the Resistance.

“Name?”

“Tonsil.”

“Age?”

“24.”

“Occupation?”

“Well, it’s um… it’s complicated…”

This was going to be a difficult interview, for both the tonsil and the army recruitment officer.  Although it certainly wasn’t common to receive applications for military enrolment from specific body parts instead of the whole person, it was definitely becoming less rare – that’s what all the statistics showed (that’s right – all of them – even the ones about how much coal is mined in Cameroon…).  Just last Thursday the Stadhampton Military Pogo-Stick Corps had interviewed no fewer (and no more) than 14 individual organs, tissues or fluids minus the rest of the man.  6 of them failed the admission medical for pretty major reasons (the major hadn’t thought them very pretty) but the remainder had made the grade and were being shipped out to Iran next Tuesday, to play their part in the great conflict of their time – the Shah Wars.

Corporal Vimto looked down his glasses at the small, quivering tonsil; then he looked down his tankards and his mugs to boot (this last action having the desired effect, rendering the meaty offcut out of sight and out of mind).  “We get an awful lot of tonsils that want to join the army,” thundered the corporal, salivating slightly as he recalled a particularly appetising ham he’d seen in the butcher’s window the Wednesday last.  “Let me tell you now, young… thing… the going is tough – it doesn’t just get it, it is it.  And in that situation the tough already have to be going – it’s no good just getting going at that moment in time; ‘going’ has to be coursing through your veins before you’ve even had a thought or a cup of tea or a little sausage.  Do you understand?”

The tonsil attempted to salute.  Lacking any arms it merely wobbled a bit, but with confidence.  “Sir, yes sir.”  “That’s miss to you.”  “Sir, yes miss.”  “That’s better.  Now…” – Vimto meandered around the room like a mountain stream laden with silt – purposefully – “You will of course have to undergo a vigorous obstacle course before we can allow you to join our squadron – with nets and mud and balance beams and throwing the beanbags into the washing up bowl, the usual kinds of things.  This will ensure that you are fit and able to embark on the rigorous Shah Trek en route to the Shah Wars.  Will this be a problem for you?”

The tonsil looked glum.  “Will I be able to take my mobility scooter?”  This made the corporal splutter a bit and lose his footing on a particularly precarious pouffé.  “What do you mean ‘mobillity scooter’?!”

With a tiny sigh, the tonsil produced a snapshot of a mobility scooter, as he was already completely fed up of having to explain absolutely everything to this man, who was clearly a moron – and one of the highest order too.  “I see,” mused the army man, “I’d always thought these were ‘mopeds’.”  “No,” responded the tonsil perhaps a little too sharply, “these are mopeds.”  At this he flourished another colour photograph, this time of three cows in a field.  “My my,” said the corporal, “This is proving to be an education for me today…  Anyway, enough of this frivolity.  I will have to ask my manager whether we can allow you to take this ‘mobility scooter’ to Iran.”

“It’s just that if I can’t then I needn’t bother sign up, because I can’t walk you see – I don’t have any legs.”

The corporal leaned over his desk and looked down his glasses again, then down his teacups and finally down his champagne flutes.  “Great Oates!” he cried.  No I mean, he properly sobbed, tears streaming down his face and saturating his socks until they swelled up like great sponges, preventing him from lifting his legs until he had good and proper wrung them out.  “That is terribly sad.  I’ve never heard of such a thing – a tonsil without legs.  It’s so desperately awful…”  The tonsil reached out and handed him a tissue from his pocket-size pack; the corporal accepted it with good grace, dabbed his eyes, blew his nose and then popped it into his pocket to show to his children when he got home later.  “Hopefully that will all be AOK,” he resumed, bile trickling from his eyes (he’d cried out everything else).  “Probably the one thing we’ll need to know is: how wide is your scooter?  We’ll need to make sure that it’ll fit through the ShahGate at the end of the Shah Trek en route to the Shah Wars.”

The tonsil considered for a moment.  “You know, mine isn’t the best judgment of size – I’m rather inhibited by my lack of eyes, so I’d end up just guessing.  I’ll tell you what, I’ll drive it round the back and bring an old tailor’s tape of my gran’s and maybe you could measure it for me?”

“Yes, that sounds like a good plan Mr Tonsil,” agreed the corporal, just about audible through the crust of bile that now encapsulated his face.  “I must say, your agreeable nature will certainly go in your favour when your application comes before the arbitration panel.”

The tonsil stopped in his tracks.  “Oh, so it’s not just this, the medical and the obstacle course in order to get the job?”

“Oh no, sir – after successful completion of those three preliminary activities, there’s another seventeen rounds of unnecessary paperwork, arbitrary decision-making and out-and-out prejudice to survive.”

The tonsil thought for a moment.  “On second thoughts,” he announced, “I’m out.”

“I do apologise for being so late – I’ve been travelling for 3 weeks.”

“Yes, and you’ve arrived back just in the nick of time.  We were about to give up hope of you ever turning up for this interview.  In fact, Nick’s hand is still on the phone from where he was just about to dial one very impressive – and punctual – candidate for the job, so really you should thank your lucky chickens.  Now would you care to take a seat please?”

“But… you’re so emaciated… and sallow.  And Nick’s clothes look about 3 sizes too big for him.  And the lady on your right looks like she’s been very badly mummified.”

“Well, what do you expect?!  It’s been three weeks!  We’ve been trapped here in this room – no food, no water, no idea if you were even going to turn up – but we kept faith and waited for you… and waited for you… and flipping well waited for you… and then Deirdre passed away and we had no proper burial clothes to hand so I had to nip into the en suite and use the toilet roll in an attempt to preserve her once distinctly-average features for future generations of foreign students with matching backpacks to gawp at inanely through a glass case in a rundown museum in Buxton.  If we’d only gone and arranged for this session to take place in the staff mummification room we would never have had this trouble – but woe is me, I lacked that foresight entirely and booked the boring old conference suite.”

“…You’re being sarcastic.”

“NO-O-O-O.  Y’think?!”

“Well, should we begin the interview?”

“Well yes, I think we jolly well should.  After all, we’ve waited long enough – and let me tell you, Mr… Grank… that this had better be good…  So… Mr Grank… Nick, wake up, he’s here… Nick, Mr Grank is here at last… Nick… Oh, well it seems from his pulse – or lack of – that I’ve lost a whopping 100% of my fellow panellists during the 21-day siege of Gonzby-Bygones Estate Agents so I’m afraid we will have to continue with the interview on a one-to-one basis.  So Mr Grank-“

“Technically that puts me at a disadvantage compared to your other candidates.”

“What?”

“If you’re going to grill me solo then all those other candidates that faced a board with three times the opportunity to make a good impression have had a distinctly better chance at taking up the post.”

“Mr Grank, by turning up to my office more than half a month late – an action which resulted in the untimely deaths of two of the most highly esteemed property advisors that have ever graced the Norfolk Broads – I think it would be fair to say that you have forfeited any right to a fair trial.”

“How old is Nick?”

“Sorry?”

“I mean – how old was Nick… when he died.  He looks pretty old.”

“What’s your point?”

“Well I’m just thinking that it might not be completely accurate to describe Nick’s death as ‘untimely’ – I’d say he has the appearance of someone far beyond his three-score-years-and-ten, so really he was probably due to go some time soon-“

“How dare you-“

“And to be honest, by being holed up here in a relatively safe office environment he’s probably done well to avoid many of the risks that would have beset him outside – street traffic, cholesterol, vampires; he’s probably far better off in here than he ever would have been out there.”

“What gives you the right to swan in here and make such… insensitive and frankly outrageous comments about good, good people – people whose shoes you are not worthy to eat?!”

“I believe I had an appointment… and anyway, these are the least orthodox interview questions I have ever been asked.”

“This is probably the least orthodox interview you could ever go to!  Like, have you ever gone for a job where two thirds of the panel have died in their seats as a result of your gallivanting around the globe?!”

“I’ve had three fifths, which is fairly close-“

“That’s a difference of a whole fifteenth which, let me tell you, when it comes to interview panel deaths is a pretty substantial fraction.”

“Is this the point where I get to ask questions to you?”

“What?!  No!  This isn’t the interview!  This is the argument we have before the interview because of your stupid antics that have led to the demise of two leading lights in sales and lettings.”

“Right, so when does the interview start?”

“Look, get out.”

“But-“

“Just get out!  I don’t care any more.  You’re wasting my time, you’re wasting your time and you’ve already wasted what little time Nick and Deirdre had left.  This interview is over.”

“I thought you said we were just in the pre-interview argument phase?”

“It’s over before it’s begun.  Now please pick up your bags and leave.”

“Right, and where do I go now?”

“Anywhere but here.  You haven’t got the job, so just bog off and don’t come back.”

“Okay, but-“

(SLAM)

(PAUSE)

“(sigh) Well, he failed that test didn’t he Nick?”

“Yep – not Gonzby-Bygones material that one – wouldn’t you say Deirdre?”

“Mmmfff ummm rmmfffl mmmff.”