“Is this Casual Dress Day?”
Head of Youth Services blinked innocently. Corporate swallowed a titter.
“Not as far as I am aware.” said the CEO, tipping his head back for a better look. His tone was chilled, a snow-wind from the heights.
“I thought it must be something like that.” muttered Youth Services to Corporate in an apologetic undertone.
Communications crossed her arms over her cleavage and glared. Another would have run from the room.
“I can’t help it!” she hissed furiously. “I don’t know what’s happening to me. It’s not my fault. You don’t think I’d come here on purpose dressed like this, do you! What I want to know” she continued, pitch rising, “is which one of you did this! It’s a conspiracy, that’s what it is…you all hate me, don’t you! Just because I’m blonde and female and powerful…you can’t bear it, can you!”
As Communications stared about her in wild defiance, the board considered this proposition, and considered her. Apparently, she was well put together. Her black g-string bikini was flattering, if inappropriate for the occasion. She was cold. Over it all, the blonde corporate bob hung politely to her well muscled shoulder blades. All in all, not a bad looking woman, thought Youth Services.
“Are you trying to make some sort of point, Elena?” asked Human Resources, helpfully. She was the only Board member not dressed in a suit: instead she wore an angora cardigan and soft curls. She was famous for her empathy.
“And exactly what point would that be?” asked the CEO, bringing his gimlet gaze back to the swim-suited offender.
Communication’s face twisted, as if she were making up her mind between a final defiant stand or a dive under the boardroom table. She began to shuffle her papers in a blind, pointless sort of way, and with amazement the board noticed her eyes glistening with tears. It was unsettling, like seeing your father cry. Communications was a hard woman.
And then a funny thing happened – as if enough funny things had not happened already. From the crown of her head, Communications began simply to melt into the air. First the glossy fringe, then the laundered eyebrows, then slowly on to the short, pugnacious nose, the matte cheeks and lifted neckline. Finally, we were left staring at a headless torso, upright in its plush chair – and then that, too, finally disappeared.
Corporate bent down to peer under the table.
“She’s disappeared!” he said unnecessarily.
There was a silence. Community Liaison broke it by screaming, loudly. It was the signal for the entire room to run, pushing and shoving each other, in panic out the impressive oak-panelled doors. I was left alone, staring at the spot where Communications had so recently sat in her black string bikini, thinking. I am used to dramatic situations, in the course of my work, and so am not easily moved. I was, rather, curious.
It all began when Communications, otherwise known as Dr Elena Sharp, arrived in the office wearing a large red nose.
“Red Nose Day? But that’s not till…”
Quite. When the startled secretary looked floorwards in embarrassment, she realised that Dr Sharp also wore, instead of her usual high-heeled courts, outsize, striped, clowns shoes. She immediately assumed that Dr Sharp was making a joke, and laughed with as much genuineness as she could muster. Dr Sharp, who had no sense of humour, did not.
During that week, Communications began to exhibit other strange quirks. One day it was pantihose trailing from the back of a carefully ironed linen calf-length skirt, another day, a spiky dog-collar and tampon earrings. People began to look askance. Dr Sharp took to locking herself in the toilet. No one said anything. Most of us thought she might be going through a mid-life crisis. Most people thought she was in for it, presently. Most people were pleased, because Communications was not a popular woman. Some people called her Madame Lash.
Then, the bikini episode. By this time, the CEO had had just about enough. Five minutes longer in that boardroom and she would have been handed her notice. But me, I was thoughtful. There must be more to it, I thought. Even if mid-life crisis, people don’t just melt. I, you see, am Head of Personnel, and so I ought to know.
I caught up with Corporate in the corridor. He was breathing heavily and looked as if he might be sick.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Oh my God, oh my God!” he said. “Do you believe in witchcraft?”
“Not really.” But it did seem possible, in the circumstances. Were we dealing with the paranormal here? Or was it some strange bio-mental disease which would be presently diagnosed and explained rationally as a collusion of hormones and antimatter, viral in origin and treatable through a course of regular medication?
I left Corporate mopping himself in the corridor, and headed to Communications’ salubrious office, past her secretary who was sobbing unconvincingly on the keyboard. I don’t know why I went there. The investigative impulse, perhaps. Maybe I thought I’d find a box of pills, or a threatening letter from a black magician laid out neatly on the desk. I flipped through some papers. Nothing there, just a pile of emails printed out zealously to cover Communications’ back, and some artwork. I glanced at her screen and typed in her password to override the security screen saver. Of course I knew what it was – I know everything in this organisation. Almost everything.
There was nothing there. A page full of emails – just the usual, “About Lunch”, “Free Seats at Fashion Show”, “From a Friend”. From a Friend? Which friend? I took a closer look. Open for a good laugh, it said. It had a large recipient list. I never open emails like this on principle: they usually contain viruses or, if not, pathetic attempts at humour which I would rather avoid. I saw by the formatting that she had opened it. Unwary of her, I thought. I hoped the joke was worth the risk.
I was curious but stumped. Police came and went. No trace was found of Communications and mourning, I have to say, was perfunctory.
It was a difficult time. We were being downsized. As head of Personnel I naturally had a reluctant role to play in all this. I am not, perhaps, so empathetic as Human Resources (the human face of our staff management team) but I like to think that at least I am objective. With me, it is not always last on first off. In my experience, the last are much more efficient and less complaining than the first. I am all for youth.
The calls on Human Resource’s store of empathy were heavy, but she coped calmly as always. Her office was a virtual meeting place of retrenched or about-to-be retrenched malcontents. Corporate, who still had a nervous look, was kept busy analysing cost overruns and finance sheets. He was an introverted man, an accountant by trade, and rumour had it that his had been the inspiration for the recently installed coin operated company toilets.
One day he walked into my office with a cappuccino in his hand and sat down opposite my desk.
“How are things?” I asked politely.
“I love you.” he said, looking desperately into my eyes.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I love you.”
“Well, that’s very flattering, but –“
“I adore you.”
I looked at him. He looked anxious, as well he might. He took a quick gulp of his cappuccino and coughed. He must have burnt his tongue. He stuck it out and as I watched, it sailed right out of his mouth and hung in front of me like an obscene gesture. Presently, his right arm detached itself and floated slowly to the ceiling. It was quite cleanly done, no mess at all. His left leg followed. Body parts began drifting about like party balloons. The head landed on my desk mat, still gazing at me with confused passion. I noticed that Corporate wore a hairpiece, something which had escaped my usually vigilant eye. It must have been a good one. I wondered when he would get himself together again. Just then, the head turned into a small inkpot, and the other body parts went effortlessly up the ventilating strip, as if made of smoke. It seemed that he had been well and truly downsized.
I sat there, bemused, then rang the police. Naturally the company tried to hush it up. A note went out that Corporate had been eaten by a shark on the Gold Coast, as he had been attempting to swim with the dolphins. Tributes flooded in, mostly from consultants and other accountants. The police dropped by again, and began to hunt around the offices. By this time, there was no need to downsize. People were leaving anyway. For some reason, our company was beginning to acquire a bad reputation. I led the officers to Corporate’s computer, and we looked through his emails together.
From a Friend. There it was again. I pointed this out to the officers, and they hmmed.
“Common enough.” said one, who went by the name of Superintendent Parkes. “I got something similar myself last year. The Love Bug. Crashed my entire hard drive! You should never open those things.”
“Perhaps” added the superintendent “somebody is pursuing a vendetta against your company. Can you think of any reason for that?”
No, I couldn’t think of any.
Still, I wondered. From a Friend. I wondered even more when I opened up my computer one morning and saw it there, in bold. From a Friend. I sat there, looking at it. Was it some sort of bad joke? What could it have to do with these mysterious happenings. There was only one way to find out. I double-clicked. It was against company policy of course. Then it occurred to me, what if something happened to me? I needed some insurance. Of a kind. Some time ago, I had arranged for a programmer to set up an email program for my exclusive use, through which I could send emails to staff. These emails would open automatically, playing a short tune to alert the recipient (since I had found that often, when emails came from Personnel, staff tended to delete immediately). I amended the title of “From a Friend” to “Staff Circular – Virus Warning.” and clicked on “All Staff”. Just then the door to my office opened.
“Peter, could I just have a minute of your time?”
She stood in the doorway, stroking her cardigan as if it were some sort of needy friend.
She came in and pulled the only chair round from in front of the desk to the side of it, the better to have a confidential chat. I glanced at her stonily. I was busy. I wanted to see what was in the email, but she’d come at just the wrong time. She leaned round to see what was on my screen.
“You shouldn’t open those things, you know. It’s against company policy.” she pointed out, in her soft, warm voice.
“I know.” I was feeling sick. I pulled at my pants, which were suddenly too tight. To my surprise they were white satin, with gold appliqué. My head hurt.
“I always liked the sixties, Peter.”
Peter. Was that my name? I looked down at my hands and saw that they had turned into rabbit’s ears – a white rabbit, soft and fluffy and pink on the insides. I can’t type with rabbits ears. Or phone for help.
“They were days when people really cared about each other. Peace, love. In this company, people don’t really care, do they.”
“I care!” I mumbled, trying to remember the emergency phone number.
“No you don’t. Any more than Sharp did, with her bobbed hair and her corporate priorities. Thanks to her, I had to leave my kids in full day care. She said part time work was for go- nowhere wusses.”
Funny, she still looked empathetic.
“And him. He said I talked too much to staff. He said what they needed was a good kick up the backside, not a fireside chat. Do you agree with that, Peter?
“Certainly not.” It was no good, I had forgotten the phone number. What is a phone, anyway? Peter, she said. Who’s that? Was that supposed to be me?
“And you. I was next on your list, wasn’t I.”
I don’t know, I wanted to say. I’ve forgotten. What list. I opened my mouth to speak and realised that I couldn’t. As if the memory of how it’s done had gone.
Something’s happening to me, I tried to say. She smiled, comfortingly. I can’t remember, I mouthed. Help me.
“Corporate memory.” she said, soothingly. “You see, it is useful sometimes after all. But of course, we don’t have any now, do we. All the old ones went first. Tell me, are you fifty three or fifty four this year?”
I looked at the thing sitting beside me. What was it? I had seen it somewhere before – but perhaps not. Its mouth was opening and shutting, speaking in some language I could not understand, but perhaps I had once known.
“You’ve crashed.” she said. “Your hard drive has gone troppo. I’m afraid you’re losing your memory, and in another few minutes, it will be all gone. Pity you didn’t keep it backed up on a floppy. Another breach of company policy.”
I waved my rabbit’s ears. There was one last thing…if only I could remember it. As my vision went blurry, I pressed the keyboard with one soft ear-tip.
“You should never open emails with subjects like “From a Friend.” she advised, leaning forward. They were almost the last words I registered as my mind went dark. But not quite. The last thing to pass through my emptying mind was “Send”.