The Eavesdroppers - Rosie Chard - E-Book

The Eavesdroppers E-Book

Rosie Chard

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Beschreibung

When social attitudes researcher Bill Harcourt puts an advertisement in the newspaper for ‘listeners’ to work on an unconventional project, he anticipates that his team of eavesdroppers will discover previously untapped insights into public opinion.

But as five eager listeners begin eavesdropping in the cafes, dentist waiting rooms, public toilets, tube trains and launderettes of London, discreetly noting the details of unguarded conversations, Bill starts to notice subtle changes in their behaviour and realises he has underestimated the compulsive nature of his group. His anxiety is compounded after he receives a series of anonymous letters warning him of the dangers of his experiment.

As the group becomes increasingly intertwined in their subjects’ lives, eavesdropping descends into obsession and Bill has to find a way to rein in his increasingly unruly team before they are beyond help.

Informed by conversations collected over three years, The Eavesdroppers, by award-winning author Rosie Chard, is a dark, yet wryly humorous tale of present-day Londoners, living in a constant state of noise and crowds and eavesdroppers.

Praise for The Eavesdroppers:
A creepy ambush of a novel, unsettling and profound in its ideas and fears. One feels the weight of history and of the future; one hears a warning.”
~ Michelle Butler Hallett, author of This Marlowe
“At an address somewhere between Bletchley Park and Franz Kafka’s house, Rosie Chard locates a curious and compelling tale about a group of life’s outsiders who find meaning – and much worse – when they’re tasked with listening in. Part spy-thriller in miniature, part fable for our disconcerting times, The Eavesdroppers is funny and haunting and achingly human.”
~ Ian Weir, author of Will Starling and The Death and Life of Strother Purcell

The third novel from Rosie Chard is a potent but entertaining commentary on our modern surveillance society.
~ Quill & Quire

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NeWest Press wishes to acknowledge that the land on which we operate is Treaty 6 territory and a traditional meeting ground and home for many Indigenous Peoples, including Cree, Saulteaux, Niisitapi (Blackfoot), Métis, and Nakota Sioux.

Copyright © Rosie Chard 2018

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication — reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system — without the prior consent of the publisher is an infringement of copyright law. In the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying of the material, a licence must be obtained from Access Copyright before proceeding.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Chard, Rosie, 1959–, author The eavesdroppers / Rosie Chard.

Issued in print and electronic formats. ISBN 978-1-988732-44-2 (softcover).—ISBN 978-1-988732-45-9 (EPUB).— ISBN 978-1-988732-46-6 (Kindle)

I. Title.

Board Editor: Douglas Barbour Cover and interior design: Michel Vrana Cover images: istockphoto.com Author photo: Nat Chard

NeWest Press acknowledges the Canada Council for the Arts, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and the Edmonton Arts Council for support of our publishing program. We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada.

NeWest Press #201, 8540-109 Street Edmonton, Alberta T6G 1E6 www.newestpress.com

No bison were harmed in the making of this book.

Printed and bound in Canada

1 2 3 4 20 19 18

For Nat

To those who have never visited the Whispering Gallery. . . it may be proper to mention. . . that a word or question, uttered at one end of the gallery in the gentlest of whispers, is reverberated at the other end in peals of thunder.

Thomas De Quincey,Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, London, 1822.

CONTENTS

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER 28

CHAPTER 29

CHAPTER 30

CHAPTER 31

CHAPTER 32

CHAPTER 33

CHAPTER 34

CHAPTER 35

CHAPTER 36

CHAPTER 37

CHAPTER 38

CHAPTER 39

CHAPTER 40

CHAPTER 41

CHAPTER 42

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

CHAPTER1

“Can you hear me? Mr. Harcourt. Can you hear me?”

I thought I was alive. My fingers were moving; my nose itched; yet I was detached from the world. Something lay on my face. A binding of sorts, it stopped me opening my eyes and seeing where I was. I felt a twinge of panic at the base of my throat.

“Everything’s alright, Mr. Harcourt.” A female voice beside my ear. “The surgery went well.”

A voice, just a voice – sugar-coated and impatient. I couldn’t judge the distance of the disembodied sound, so far away, yet I could feel breath on my cheek. I could smell coffee wafting up from a stomach. Was this person about to kiss me? I struggled to remember where I was – a faint smell of antiseptic, a rustle of rubber curtains, then yes, the details of a face poured in: tired, bloodshot eyes and eyebrows that were badly plucked. The nurse had missed a bit just above her left eye, and with sudden clarity I recalled my thoughts as the gurney had been pushed through the double doors – could a nurse with badly plucked eyebrows be trusted to hand over the correct scalpel?

“Why can’t I see?” I said, trying to keep the slur from my voice.

“It’s the bandage, dear.” A pause. “Over your eyes.”

I imagined a child in the room, so laden was her voice with condescension. I waited for the child to retort but all I heard was my own breathing and the sound of something being dragged down a nearby corridor. A bag of clean sheets perhaps? Or a bag of old bones.

“Where am I?” I said, my tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth.

“You’re back in the room.”

The room? I tried again to recall where I’d spent the last few hours but the only room I could remember bumped and rattled across the ground at speed. “Can I go back to sleep now?”

“Yes, you can go back to sleep. But, wait. Just a couple of questions . . . what year is it?”

I tried to visualise numbers. “Two thousand . . . two thousand and fifteen . . . no, eighteen.”

“Correct. How old are you?”

“Thirty-four.” The air held a pause. Could I be wrong?

“Also correct. Finally, where are you?”

Tight within the bandage my brain struggled to form a picture of the route to the place that now held me. Inside, yes. A hospital without doubt, but where? For how long had the siren screamed into my brain? I concentrated on my ears, my most reliable sense, so reliable they could pick up the distant throb of a black cab. “London,” I said.

“Correct. You can go back to sleep now.”

“Mr. Harcourt. Mr. Harcourt.”

My thoughts snapped to attention. I was no longer a dullard, a woozy patient in post-op; I was sharp as a pencil. “Who’s there?”

“Nurse Rigby.” The sugar had melted from her throat.

“Are you the same person as before?”

I heard her chest rise and fall. “Yes, I’m the same person as before.”

I tried to roll my eyes. “How long is this thing going to be on?”

“What thing?”

I couldn’t halt the sarcasm. “The bandage.”

“Two days.”

Two days in the dark. The bandages felt tight already and, with a new twinge of panic, I tried to visualise how I’d aim straight in the bowl of the hospital toilet. “Will I be getting a dog?” I said. Faked innocence is entirely about the eyes. I realised this as I waited, trying to hear her laugh or at the very least hear a smile, but lips turning up at the corners make no noise at all.

“Is that meant to be a joke, Mr. Harcourt?”

I sighed, just like her.

Flat on my back with a bandage over my face it was impossible to be myself. That half-raised eyebrow I used so often to project sarcasm was immobilised, and it was difficult to tease someone with your nose. And it was nigh on impossible to look sheepish with a bandage over your eyes.

“I’m going to feed you now,” said the nurse.

Forget pissing on the toilet seat, forget the anonymous breath on my cheek, this woman was going to feed me now. “I’m really not that hungry.”

I heard the tut of her tongue. Then I heard what sounded like glue being whipped up with a spoon before the immortal words cut the air. “You need to eat to keep your strength up.”

Defeat was not sweet. The five-year-old me opened his mouth and tipped back his head. Such tepid mush I never experienced from my mother, but luckily it was quickly over, my mouth wiped with a rough cloth and the rattle of bowls being put away.

Icy hands – why always icy? – began making the bed with me still in it. I lay stiff, mulling over the hospital protocol concerning the making of beds while still occupied. No ‘do you mind if I make the bed, Mr.Harcourt?’ and no, ‘I’ll just tuck this bit under your chin, sir,’ – just strange hands glancing private parts.

“I think you’re done, Mr. Harcourt,” the nurse said after the sheet was tightened somewhere down by my feet, sealing me in like a piece of vacuum-packed fish. “I’ll be back later to check on your temperature.”

The idea of being ‘done’ quickly quashed all speculation on unfamiliar hands in private places, but before I could utter a comeback I heard a whoosh of hospital-starched skirts – as I imagined them – and was left alone – as assumed.

“And. . . .” A sentence was deposited at my ear. “If you need any help, just press this.”

Disturbed that the starched skirts scenario could be so wrong, I fingered a plastic object that had been placed into my hand. “Okay.”

People could clearly come and go without my knowing it. I lay still for several minutes before I felt satisfied I was alone. Feeling my wrist, I found it bare. Bastards, I thought, they’ve nicked my watch. I gingerly tested the space beside my bed. A table was uncomfortably out of reach, but by wrenching my arm out from my sheeted bondage and stretching out I could explore its surface: a plastic cup with water inside – I surmised by sniffing it – and a card that tipped over under my touch – who’d send me a card? – plus my wristwatch. How cheerful it sounded pressed against my ear. But I soon grew weary of the chipper little sound and strapped it, with surprising difficulty for an activity so familiar, back onto my wrist.

For a while I lazily formed a picture in my mind of the nurse tidying her eyebrows in the Ladies loo, then I fingered the callback object, resisting the urge to press ‘nurse’ just for the sheer hell of it. Finally I sank back down into my pillow. It smelt funny and creaked a bit. My God, there was nothing to do in a hospital bed with a bandage over your eyes. Nothing to do, but lie back and listen.

“He’s not going to make it.”

“I know he’s not.”

My ears pricked up, as far as is possible for a human with a head encased. I heard a pause. Bandages on less than a day and already I knew the sound and weight of a gap in proceedings.

“How are we going to tell mum?” said a woman – young sounding.

“God knows,” replied a male voice.

It was the first time I’d heard fingers being run through hair, but there it was, distinct as a rake through straw.

“We have to say something, don’t we?” said the female.

“Do we?”

More raking, more silence. A knuckle cracked.

I tried to breathe quietly. It was hard to tell how much time had passed since I’d woken up the first time, but my fingers had sweat between them so I felt confident that time had moved on. I had no idea how long these people had been in the room and I felt uncomfortable that they’d entered without me knowing it. Had they befriended me in my sleep? How long had I been asleep? My lack of judgment was beginning to worry me.

The conversation started up again and, like a thief beneath a windowsill, I tried to angle my poor squashed ears and listen.

“We can’t lie to her.”

“I think we should keep it to ourselves, Jane, I really do.”

Another pause, long, oh so long.

“Joe, I can hardly bear it.”

“I can’t bear it either, but Jane, I think we need to play for time. Let’s give her a few more hours of hope, shall we?”

I could hardly bear it. I thought I heard something being rubbed, a shoulder maybe, or a knee.

“Alright.”

Later – how much I’m no judge – I sensed that several people were coming into the room again in shoes with soles of varying thickness – oh, I was getting good – and muttering about the lack of chairs in this ‘godforsaken place.’ They took a long time to organise themselves and I lost count of the numbers. Was it three? Four? Or perhaps it was just two people who couldn’t settle, the sort of people who couldn’t decide where to leave their vehicle in an empty car park. Having wanted them to just sort themselves out, I was left regretful when they did just that and a horrible silence hung in the air. Were they looking in my direction? I wondered. Maybe they were reading my chart. They always did that on the telly, read the poor bastard’s chart while he was asleep, then switched it with another poor bastard’s – the one who was about to have a leg taken off.

“How was the bus, Mum?”

It was the same deep voice as earlier, yet different in a way I couldn’t identify. I tried to think how I’d answer that question. I hardly used the bus if I could help it. The paired seats were never big enough for two people and there always seemed to be someone already there, oozing over the line.

“It was late. It took hours to get down the Euston Road.”

Good answer.

“How are you doing, Mum?”

I heard a sniff and felt like a real shit. But in my situation I couldn’t help but listen. And listening was painful. They were a family of four, it transpired, a mother, a father, two adult children who seemed to be the owners of the earlier voices, and a mute patient in a bed. I tried not to think of the mute patient in the bed and focused on the people around them. ‘Joe’ was clearly the one in charge. Almost every comment was followed by a, ‘Don’t ya reckon, Joe?’ and although he sounded young he answered quickly. He was the one who had all the answers, the bloke down the pub who could sort things out.

“Is he going to get through, Joe?” asked the mother after a pause I could almost smell.

For some reason it’s quite hard to hold your breath with a bandage over your eyes, but I managed it, for just long enough.

“Of course he’s going to get through,” said Joe.

My face reddened. I knew from the heat beneath the cloth that I was blushing like a schoolboy. Or maybe it was just my bandage, rubbing against burning ears.

“Of course he’s going to get through,” repeated the grown-up daughter.

I heard a slight movement, shoulders slumping perhaps.

“Thank God,” said someone.

I breathed. The big sentences were over and the little ones quickly followed. Everyone was rushing out details at once, trying to get them in before another pause opened up: the terrible food, the fearsome nurses and wasn’t it funny when they forgot to pay for a ticket in the car park and Dad ‘made a face’ at the receptionist. I tried to imagine ‘Dad’ making a face. Maybe he had a lopsided grin, or a ragged moustache or maybe he just had a strained look all over his face. It wasn’t long before they ran dry. In my mind ‘Dad’ was making his ‘I think we should go’ face and I felt triumphant as I heard them gather themselves up and leave the room, their departure more efficient than their arrival.

That left just me. And him. Funny how they’d never mentioned his name. Was he even there? Perhaps it was all just a little play. Something to keep old Bill amused while his eyes healed up. He was certainly very still. Not even a cough. Then I began to worry. Perhaps he was dead. Maybe the morgue was full and there was nowhere to store him? I tucked my sheet tighter beneath my chin and tried to occupy myself. But there was absolutely nothing to do. Nothing to do, but lie still and listen.

MISSY’S lounge walls were thin. Voices seeped into them like vapour through cotton, but often the sounds were muffled and she liked to imagine, as she lay on the floor of her flat, the people next door sitting in armchairs, their mouths covered with a soft layer of muslin. Her ears worked best in the horizontal position. Her sense of the world worked most efficiently with her legs stretched out and her arms limp by her sides. It was the only time she could really relax. Odd, when the floorboards were so hard. The rest of the time she held her body taut. Not that she was fit; she hated exercise and a ring of surplus fat girdled her waist, but because she had to be ready for what was around the corner. She had to be ready to run. But down there on the floor she could close her eyes and slow her heart and hear what was coming through from the other side of the wall.

Mrs. O’Malley ran up the stairs at a quarter to two every day. Missy knew it was her, the step so distinctive, chipping onto the wood with the ball of her foot. Mr. O’Malley shuffled on loose-sounding slippers and occasionally the grown-up daughter visited, rushing through the tiny flat on impatient heels. Sometimes someone would slap the wall and Missy would jump and feel anxious right through the evening.

She was lying on her back, waiting for the sound of Grandma O’Malley’s eight o’clock trip to the toilet, when she heard the garden gate squeak. She angled her ears towards the window. Lightweight shoes skipped up the path, one kicked a stone. Then the sound of something being forced through the letterbox. Missy sat up, counted to ten then walked downstairs into the communal hall. She picked up the newspaper lying on the doormat and carried it back upstairs into the kitchen. Beer cans littered the countertop so she sat at the small breakfast table and opened the paper at the entertainment section. Here she would find the photographs she liked best – the ones that showed people out on the town. Londoners living it up until the small hours with feathers flying and crooked ties and tiny skirts riding up and make-up, so much make-up, shiny on their cheeks. She’d linger there. Not long, but long enough to imagine a stocking clinging to her own ample thigh, and tinsel in her hair.

Next to this section she would find the job adverts, designed by clever people to make her feel guilty. She scanned the page as she did every day, hoping that this would be the day for which she had been waiting.

CHAPTER2

Time does pass in hospitals, but I didn’t know how much. My usual methods of measurement, glancing at my watch, checking my phone, glancing over a shoulder and checking someone else’s phone, were gone in a world without eyes and now I was dependent on a new set of clues. I imagined I’d be able to actually hear night fall but it wasn’t some godly sense that took me over, it was the lack of sound that let me know the day had ended and the ward had gone to bed. The snores creeping from a distant room were a distraction, but soon I learnt to ignore them and concentrated on the sound of the routines that divided not my night, but my day. And these routines were all about pills. What sounded like a small go-kart was wheeled down the corridors at what I gauged to be three-hourly intervals and I would be held in a state of high alert as I succumbed to the ever-increasing sounds of packages being unwrapped and lids being popped. Feeding rituals also punctured my day. A friendly, ‘How are we, Mr. Harcourt?’ followed by the almost imperceptible sound of plastic being wiped told me food was about to be served. Eating was a whole new world of burnt tongues and spilt drinks, but the skills came. Quickly I improved my accuracy and I had managed to get my entire breakfast into the hole in the middle of my face on the third morning when I was paid a visit.

“You ready?” said a female voice close to my bed.

For someone without sight this was a terrifying question. Were they going to put a spider into my hand? Throw me a cricket ball? “Ready for what?” I said.

“The great unveiling.”

Oh, yes. I was more than ready for the great unveiling.

It was a strange sensation: the gentle peeling, the slow emergence of light. My whole body felt lighter as each layer of bandage was removed. I felt self-conscious too, yet at the same time curious. Would my face be gloriously restored, or would it be puckered and yellow like a wound released from beneath a damp plaster?

“Looking good, Mr. Harcourt.”

“Oh . . . there’s two of you.”

“Yes. Welcome back.”

“Could you close the curtains?” I said in the direction of the speaker, who was blurred as a hurried photograph.

“They are closed.”

I put my hand up to my eyes.

“Don’t touch!” snapped the apparition. “Put these on.”

I felt something placed on my face; it was intimate, a warm hand glancing my cheek, the plastic arms of glasses sliding across my ears.

“Better?”

“Much.”

“Can you see me?”

I blinked. The brightness of the windows was already receding and I could just make out a tall man with a surprisingly large head. “Yes. I can see you.”

“Good. Do you remember me? I’m Dr. Treadmill.”

“Ah. The man with the needle and thread?”

He laughed. “Yes. That’s me. Everything went well; you’ll be glad to hear. It feels strange to have the bandage off, doesn’t it.”

“Yes. That was a long two days. Although . . . ” I resisted the urge to scratch my eye, “you see things differently when you can’t see, don’t you?”

He laughed again. “Everyone says that.”

Funny how much that cut me. Bill Harcourt, never original.

The doctor sat on the chair next to the bed. Doctors never sit on the chair next to the bed. “So, Mr. Harcourt, do you have any idea what happened?”

I blinked in the direction of his face. “I was walking home from work–”

“Alone?”

“Yes, alone. And something . . . some thing hit me – in the face.”

The doctor glanced at the clock on the wall. “What hit you?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t see it coming.”

“So, there was nothing left behind . . . on the street?”

I shook my head. It hurt.

“Was there anyone else about?”

“No. The street was empty.”

“And you definitely didn’t see anything coming?”

“No, I didn’t see anything coming.”

He leant towards me and gazed into my eyes. “Alright, I suppose we’ll have to put it down to one of life’s unexplained incidents. The nurse will go over the post-op procedures. She’ll be here in a minute. Then you can go home. Have you got someone picking you up?”

“No.”

“Someone’ll call you a taxi.” He shook my hand. Or rather picked it up from my chest and held it. “See you in a month, Mr. Harcourt.”

“Yes. And thanks for patching me up.”

“You’re welcome, and remember the golden rule. Don’t touch your eyes.”

“I’ll remember.”

Blinking fast and desperate to scratch, I watched his back as he passed through the doorway.

The room was smaller than I’d imagined and there was only one other bed, not two or three, as I’d thought. The other bed was empty. I heaved my feet onto the floor and sat up. Then I shuffled over to it – funny how you lose control over your legs after just two days in bed. At first I just stood there like an idiot. Then I gingerly sat down. I’d heard the sound of the sheets being peeled back earlier that day, had almost felt the smack of the mattress, but only then did it sink in. The silent patient had gone. I blinked. Then I lay down on the pristine sheets and gazed up at the ceiling.

“Mr. Harcourt!” A female voice hurtled from the doorway. “Get back to your own bed.”

JACK was on his way home. It had been raining all day, that warm, steady spit so typical of August in London, and the inside of the Tube had the atmosphere of a neglected greenhouse: wilted raincoats, limp newspapers and commuters sapped of their last ounces of energy. The woman directly opposite him endlessly rearranged her fringe across her forehead and Jack felt disturbed by the way she was never happy with the result.

He gazed out of the window, and then, tired of the blackness of the tunnel, he glanced at the newspaper held by the man sitting next to him. It had been folded into a rectangle and the man gripped the bulging folds in a way that suggested he repeated this action every day of his life. The train’s seating allowed only tabloids to be opened wide enough to be read thoroughly so owners of the increasingly rare broadsheets had to be content with a truncated story, read in snatches as the paper was folded and refolded over cramped knees or, as with standing travellers, bent into even smaller squares and held aloft like trophies. Jack was particularly keen on truncated stories. He liked it when his news was edited by a stranger. It meant he read what the stranger did not: the car theft on a skew, the upside-down bombing, the story cut in two as the owner of the paper abruptly turned the page. But that’s what he was about: finding the little pieces and putting them together to make a story.

Sometimes his news would be reduced to a single line, ‘Sex-change vicar in shock horror mercy dash,’ or occasionally summarised by a lone word –‘Gotcha!’ lunging across the carriage towards him. During the rush hour, when every seat was taken and readers’ elbows were jammed tight against their ribs, the newspapers would disappear completely from view and all he’d get were the expressions on the readers’ faces, the dart of excited eyes across the football results, or the sad mouth of someone reading of a death in a faraway place.

That day the train was sparsely peopled and he had a chance to have a long look at what his neighbour was reading. This particular traveller was a very slow reader, his finger suspended beneath the lines as if holding the words in place. Jack watched the ink-smudged digit travel across the news pages, and then feel its way through the film reviews until it reached the classified ads. Here everything changed. The paper was opened out fully – a corner cantilevered over Jack’s knees – and the man pulled a pen from his pocket and settled himself back into his seat with an air of great purpose. Then the work really started. The pen bled a dot beside each job advert as it was checked off and then the man began to underline phrases as they caught his attention – no training required, minimum wage, start immediately.

He seemed to be at rock bottom, the man, circling the occupations of the desperate: the early school leavers, the unqualified, the ones with skills known only to themselves. Jack had been there. Even now he wasn’t so far removed from the cheap orange chairs of the Job Centre that he’d forgotten what it was like to have to apply for anything and everything. He glanced at the man’s shoes; they were sturdy, but of another era – nylon laces, square toes. Jack then noticed the pen circling a job in the top left corner. He couldn’t see what it was, but he felt a prick of curiosity as it was heavily ringed in ink. As if suddenly exhausted the man let out a sigh, folded up the newspaper and placed it casually down on the seat opposite. Jack fretted. It seemed a long way away to stow ones’ possessions, especially on the Tube where distance suggested abandonment. Jack glanced sideways at the man who had now pulled out a Tube map and was studying it, his horizontal finger holding up the whole of the Northern Line. Jack stared at the newspaper on the seat and wondered whether he could pick it up. Discarded newspapers were public property, after all. But before he could do anything the train pulled into a station and people got on, hopping inside the carriage as if scared of the doors. His view was now just waists in every direction: belted waists, bulging waists, waists of naked skin. He stood up to let a woman holding a baby take his seat and noticed the newspaper had been chucked onto the window ledge just as the train pulled into the next station. His stop, he realised, also scared of the doors. With a glance back at the square-toed man, Jack bent forward, picked up the newspaper and stepped off the train.

CHAPTER3

I’d seen it so many times. Someone is out of the office for a few days and when they get back their desk is covered with someone else’s junk. I’d done it myself. When James, the bloke who sits opposite me, went to Majorca last year all my paperwork crept sideways and by the time he came back his desk had become my overflow filing cabinet and I’d lent out his chair. Nature abhors a vacuum was my favourite expression in such circumstances, but it was still a shock to see the amount of rubbish that had piled up on my desk in just two weeks. There were at least twenty dog-eared ‘circulating’ envelopes awaiting a signature – nobody ever looked inside those things – and a small, pink envelope, no doubt a staff leaving-card filled with smiley faces and comments, will miss you, or won’t miss your rubbish tea. And there were coffee rings everywhere, on everything, as if some strange, workplace creature had run amok. And there on the corner of my desk waited the pile. Jean liked to place James’ pile on the right side of his computer and place my pile on the left, so it always glanced my hand as I clicked on my mouse, a tactile reminder of what I did from nine to five – reading questionnaires from the pile, researching the social issues of the day, hunting down patterns and quirks in human opinions, drawing desires on graphs that our clients would then reconfigure, swapping X axes with Ys, and massaging the data, up and down, in and out, until it resembled the truth.

“So, what have I missed?” I said, reacquainting myself with the arms of my chair.

James looked glum. He was often more of a thinker than a talker and I knew I’d have to wait for the answer. Maybe even enough time to dash up the corridor and put on the kettle.

“Wilson’s got a bee in his bonnet,” he said at last.

I disliked clichés, especially those involving animals, but this one conjured up such a vivid picture in my head I let it go. Tom Wilson was the company’s boss, the ‘head honcho,’ as he liked to refer to himself in team-building sessions and occasionally mentioned in the emails sent out to all staff by his fragrant secretary Jean. He was a classic misery-guts, his social skills so minimal he was hard pressed to meet your eye if you passed him in the corridor, let alone smile. He frequently came up with barmy ideas guaranteed to lower office morale, but he was conservative when it came to accepting suggestions offered up by his workforce. He particularly enjoyed taking things apart, gadgets he found at the back of his drawer, but unfortunately could never put them together again.

“What’s the bee about?” I said, signing a circulating envelope and tossing it onto James’ desk.

“He wants fresh thoughts.”

“So long as it’s not fresh blood he’s after.”

James grinned then stared at my face. “How are your eyes by the way? I thought you’d be wearing dark glasses.”

“I’m past that stage. They’re almost back to normal. The eye is one of the quickest parts of the body to heal. Itched like hell at the beginning, though.”

“Any more news on what happened?”

“No. I . . . no.”

“Right. So, we’ve got to come up with some new proposals. By Wednesday.”

“About what exactly?”

“That’s for you to decide.”

“You mean he’s letting us think?”

James’ Adam’s apple was suddenly prominent. “. . . yeah. He is . . . yeah.”

The office hummed on. James and I were both quiet workers but our keyboards tapped pleasantly and voices drifted down the corridor in sporadic waves so we avoided the distraction of silence. I checked my long list of emails, had a bite of a sandwich from my desk drawer (someone had nicked my last bar of chocolate) and then wandered off to see what was going on by the vending machine. I was ready. Ready for condolences, ready for interest in the gory details of the last two weeks of my life.

“Got change of a quid?” It was Sammy Gringold: data analyst: big hands, face of a teddy bear.

“You what?”

“Have you got change of a quid?”

I fished some coins out of my pocket and looked at my colleague – poor Sammy, so hard at thrift. “Here you go.” I said.

“Thanks.” He flipped two coins into the vending machine with a practiced finger and pressed a button; something thumped down by our knees.

“So, how are you doing?” I said.

“Not bad. You?” He reached down and pulled out a Toblerone.

“Almost healed.” I held my head at an angle, ready for inspection.

He glanced up from unpeeling the chocolate in his hand. “What do you mean?”

“My eyes. Almost healed.”

He stared at my face. “I don’t get it, what do you mean, ‘almost healed?’”

“I had an accident.”

“Did you?” He popped a piece of chocolate into his mouth. “When?”

“Three weeks ago.”

He sniffed. “Didn’t hear about that. Did we send you a card?”

“Yes.”

“Healing up, then?”

“Yeah, healing up.”

“Want a bit of chocolate?”

“No, thanks.”

“That’s good.” He smiled with genuine happiness. “See you later.”

“See you.”

I watched his back as he walked down the corridor, his collapsing trouser hems dragging along the floor. Sammy wasn’t high on my list of people. I had a list. Deep in my head I categorised my colleagues into those whose opinion I cared about and those whose opinion I didn’t. This made life easier – it allowed reactions to be classified, smile sizes put in order, intonation graded and time spent at home nursing only the worthiest of slights.