By Vicky Grut
A few minutes before I was due to take my mid-morning break, four strangers walked into the office. One of the men stayed at the door while the others went over to Sondra, our office manager. I watched them out of the corner of my eye. They all wore white shirts and navy blue suits; the woman was in a skirt. From head office, I thought. There was an undercurrent of controlled purpose to their movements that I didn’t like. They spoke in low voices.
Sondra stood up. At first she appeared to be challenging them. ‘Who authorized this?’ I heard her say.
I began to work my feet back into my shoes under the desk while keeping my gaze fixed on Sondra. I reached for my bag, slipped the strap over my shoulder. I could see the lobby from where I sat. I could be away in less than a minute.
Just then, Elaine came scuttling down from Accounts with a sheaf of papers in one hand. She brushed past the man at the door without even noticing him and headed for Phil, who orders our stationery. She waved the document, tapping at something with her pencil. ‘What’s this, Phil? What’s this?!’
Sondra stepped out into the centre of the room. ‘OK team!’ She looked around at all twenty of us sitting at our desks. ‘I want you to finish what you’re doing right now – end your call, save your data, whatever it might be – and then I’d like you to go either to the left or to the right and stand along the wall. Take nothing with you. Your handbags, mobiles, iPads must be left out on the desks in plain view.’
A murmur of confusion rippled through the room.
‘Why?’ somebody asked.
‘Please comply with your supervisor’s instructions,’ said one of the be-suited men. ‘We’ll do our best to get through this as quickly and smoothly as possible.’
‘Get through what?’
I’d heard enough. Gripping the strap of my bag with one hand I rose smoothly and headed out towards the lifts. The man at the door stepped out to bar my way. ‘If you wouldn’t mind waiting a bit, please, Miss.’ He waved me back.
‘It’s my break now,’ I said. ‘I need to go to the toilet.’ As I spoke, I did indeed feel an urgent need to pee. Nerves, I thought, though of course I had nothing to be nervous about.
The man shook his head. ‘No one is authorized to leave this room at the moment. We’ll get through this as quickly as we can.’ He didn’t meet my eye. His words were directed at a spot somewhere above my head, as if he couldn’t spare the time to look at me directly, as if he had more important things to see.
The blue-skirted woman came over and marched me to the left-hand side of the room, adding me to a cluster that was beginning to form around the drinking fountain. ‘That bag needs to be on your desk,’ she said. ‘I’ll pop it back for you, shall I?’ The words were pleasant enough but the tone was chilly.
‘I’ll do it,’ I said.
‘No. I want you to stay right there. Just tell me which desk is yours.’
Reluctantly I surrendered my handbag and pointed out my desk.
‘We appreciate your cooperation,’ one of the men said in a robotic tone.
Blue-Skirt deposited my bag and re-joined her colleagues who were working their way down the lines of desks, accompanied by a worried-looking Sondra.
From the opposite side of the room came a flurry of noise and movement. Elaine from Accounts was attempting to break out.
‘How many times do I have to explain, I must get back upstairs!? We have heaps to do. The auditor wants our figures by 4 p.m.!’
The suits pushed her back but Elaine wouldn’t give up. ‘We’re busy beyond belief today!’ she kept repeating. ‘Beyond belief!’
Blue-Skirt said something to Sondra, who unlocked one of the meeting rooms at the back of the office and Elaine was ushered away, out of sight. The rest of us watched this scene in uneasy silence.
Roxanna, who deals with website queries, murmured, ‘What do you think they’re looking for?’
‘Who cares!’ cried Liz, my nearest desk neighbour. ‘If they want to pay me to stand around doing nothing I’m not going to complain.’
Some people laughed, including me. Liz comes closest to being what I’d call a friend. She showed me round when I joined the company, filled me in on all the unwritten rules, explained what was tolerated and what was not. If I get stuck she’s always helpful as long as she’s not under too much pressure.
‘All I need now to improve my mood is a piña colada,’ said Bob – still scorched and lazy from a week in Tenerife.
But others were looking anxious. There must have been a leak, someone said, or an error. Something had probably been done or not done, and the team had been sent down from head office to find the leak or the error, or the thing done or not – perhaps all of these.
‘We don’t know what they know,’ said Andrea, a milk-pale woman newly appointed to the sales team. ‘They’re probably not allowed to tell us why they’re doing this.’ I’d heard a rumour that she’d been unemployed for more than a year and had applied for three hundred and fifty jobs before getting this one. Three hundred and fifty rejections: it didn’t bear thinking about.
People began to mutter about Elaine. Why did she have to make a fuss and soak up the time of not just one but two of the suits, who would otherwise have been continuing their search of the desks. ‘They might even have finished by now,’ someone muttered, ‘if it wasn’t for her.’
Bob mentioned that he’d always found Elaine a bit demanding. Sometimes he felt she enjoyed pulling rank – always talking about the auditor this, the auditor that. ‘Who’s even seen this so-called auditor?’ Bob scratched at his sunburn.
Derek, who’d been in the customer service team for years, leapt to Elaine’s defence. It was shameful the way these strangers were treating her. ‘She’s probably worked here longer than all of us lot put together.’ He said he thought it was a symptom of the way things had changed since the takeover.
‘Yeah,’ said Liz, ‘bloody French.’
No, no, the French company lost the bid, said Derek, we’d been bought by a German firm. Indeed not, said someone else, the money behind the takeover was from China. ‘I heard it was Americans,’ said Roxanna.
‘Well, whoever they are, I think it’s wrong,’ said Derek.
‘Tell you what, though,’ said Liz, ‘we’re lucky to have kept our jobs – in the current climate.’ Her words rippled through the group like a Siberian breeze. We all fell silent. Some glanced over at Andrea, who was staring at the carpet. Three hundred and fifty rejections; you didn’t need to experience that to fear it.
At last the meeting-room door opened and the blue-suited man and the woman appeared with Elaine between them. She seemed agitated. ‘You’re making a mistake,’ she kept saying, as they marched her across the office towards the lobby and the lifts. ‘This is a terrible misunderstanding.’ She was breathing heavily and sweating. As she passed, I could see the way beads of moisture were making tracks from her hairline down to her jaw, melting her foundation. She looked right back at me but seemed unable to focus. It was as if we were locked away behind a screen, already lost to her. ‘I have to go back upstairs and get my bag,’ she wheezed.
‘No need for that,’ said Blue-Skirt, expressionlessly.
Elaine began to shake. ‘I can’t leave the building without my bag!’ She tried to break free but they had her wedged between them and they kept moving her towards the lifts. ‘You don’t understand!’ The suits clamped her all the more tightly. Elaine’s feet paddled, her body twisting. ‘I’m on medication. My medication is in my bag!’
‘There’ll be a doctor on duty where you’re going,’ the man said. ‘You can talk to him about whatever it is you need.’
Elaine gave a despairing, almost animal howl. ‘No, NO. I need my medication!’
They were out in the lobby by now. The lift doors pinged open and a pair of disembodied hands reached out to claim Elaine. ‘Nooooo,’ she wailed. The doors slid closed again and the noise stopped abruptly. It was as if Elaine had never even existed.
There was a frozen silence.
I was beginning to feel a bit ill, or possibly hungry. I wondered if I might be sickening for something. Perhaps I just needed the loo.
‘Poor Elaine,’ Roxanna whispered, blinking away tears.
‘A disgrace,’ muttered Derek. ‘An absolute disgrace.’
People coughed and shifted uneasily. I could see that some weren’t sure whether he meant Elaine, or what had been done to her.
Liz gave me a knowing look. ‘No smoke without a fire, as they say.’ A few of the more literal-minded people glanced up at the sprinkler system.
‘Yeah, and what was all that business about “my medication”?’ said Bob. ‘You’d think she was an addict, the way she was going on.’
Roxanna said she’d heard that Elaine suffered from a chronic condition, some kind of wasting disease. She couldn’t remember what. There were stifled giggles at the idea of an accountant with a wasting disease.
‘Life is a wasting disease,’ said Bob, waving a lobster-collared arm.
Liz and I exchanged a look that said: idiot.
Several people clearly preferred Bob’s theory. Addicts were notoriously unreliable. They told lies – perhaps even lies about their health. They could be blackmailed. That would explain a lot. That would be a much more comfortable explanation.
‘No,’ said Roxanna. ‘No, no, no!’
I was shifting from one foot to the other. ‘I really need the loo,’ I whispered to Liz.
‘Leave it to me,’ said Liz.
She went up and talked to the suits. Eventually, after Liz had employed the phrase ‘Health and Safety’, Blue-Skirt agreed to escort a small party of us to the ladies, which entailed going through to the offices on the other side of the lifts.
As we crossed the lobby, I considered making a dash for the stairs. I imagined myself running, making it all the way to the ground floor and then out into the street. The idea of outside sparked a sharp longing in my chest. I pictured light, fresh air, sky. But everything I needed was back in the other room: my bag, my keys, my money, my phone, my job. If left now I might never be allowed back. And then what? Three hundred and fifty rejections. Think of that. My rebellious impulse withered.
‘Come on then!’ Blue-Skirt nodded for us to walk ahead of her, into the Admin and Human Resources section.
Here, too, there were men and women in suits conducting searches. Things seemed further advanced in this part of the building. They had made all the admin staff take off their shoes and kneel, barefoot, with their hands clasped behind their backs and their faces to the wall. I snatched furtive looks as we went by. I knew most of them – portly, argumentative, middle-aged women, every one of them silent now. I felt a strange muddle of emotions: surprise that tactics like this should be necessary; sadness for the women themselves, few of whom dared look around; and quite inexplicably a surge of guilt. But mostly, what I felt was relief that I myself was walking and not (yet) kneeling. In the current climate, that was something to be grateful for.
© Vicky Grut 2015
Vicky Grut is an award-winning short story writer whose fiction has been anthologised in collections published by Granta, Picador, Duckworths, Serpent’s Tail and Bloomsbury. She has worked as a freelance book editor, as a reader for The Literary Consultancy (TLC) and for the New Yorker magazine in London. She is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and teaches BA and MA courses in Creative Writing at London South Bank University. Her first full collection Live Show Drink Included was published in 2018.