“We in this room merely appear to be different from each other when engaged on small concerns, but when we are fundamentally affected – with horror, love, excessive pain, excessive bliss – we are all the same.”
From “Mystery in White: a Christmas Crime Story”, by J. Jefferson Farjeon. I expected this novel, a reprint from the 1930s “Golden age” of detective fiction – picked on a whim from Waterstones in the middle of Christmas shopping – to provide some light relief. Foiled again.
What room are “we” in, by the way? The Chestnut Tree cafe, of course. Welcome to the company’s Christmas Free Lunch (ha!)
I wouldn’t normally attend this sort of thing; it’s not “me.” But this year I think I’d better go. For “form’s sake”, though my actual form is the last thing at risk, should I avoid a Christmas lunch.
The canteen is decorated with trees, and tinsel, and … telescreens. Huge plasma tellies, all around the wall, all full-voluming the usual Christmas playlist.
Last week, last Wednesday, these same telescreens (and their companion devices, located at each of the MegaCorp sites worldwide) were used to beam quite a different melody. We gathered then, less noisily, to listen to the company’s message to its planet.
Last Wednesday, a face we all know and respect appeared on the screens. There was a five minute countdown on each screen, though in truth we’ve all been counting down for a month. While holding our breaths.
“I’m not going to sugar-coat this,” he began, choosing saccharine instead.
They don’t use metaphors like “meteor strike” in MegaCorp, but other verbal pictures are drawn, to fight the visible unease with which the Leader gives us the lowdown. “Strong headwinds” have gathered against us, we are told.
My attention wanders. I don’t want to listen to this. You can’t make me listen. Five years ago I listened, and then wept, when I faced my soon-to-be-redundant team. (The “headwinds” then were pretty devastating.) What difference can it make, whether I listen or not?
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
Save your tears.
I look behind me, and catch Jack’s eye. He winks at me. Which feels sacrilegious, so Pay attention Jack, I frown. Just because this is the second time in five years that you and I have stood in a room like this, for a reason like this. Just because you’ve got two kids under five. “Just because” isn’t just cause for not listening carefully to the details of our brand-new/unchanging strategy.
I know what Jack’s wink means, you see; all seasoned salarypeople are expert Kremlinologists. Jack’s wink says: he, the Leader, is not here. He’s there, one of the other there’s. That decreases our chances of devastation, and increases theirs.
Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!
The canteen, other than the humming telescreen, is silent, but the whiff of defeated hope is tangible. Sometimes our thoughts are louder than our words: “God forgive me, but save us. If somewhere has to go, please, let it not be here.”
I give in, and listen to the telescreen:
“It’s my sad duty today to inform you that a meteor has entered MegaCorp’s atmosphere. Our most strategic defences have proved powerless to deflect its path. And so today, I have to tell you, the meteor is heading for…”
Julia. Not me, and not Jack. They did it to her instead. Many hundreds of Julias, but not here, not me, not us. Not yet.
Later I meet with three colleagues from the site taken out by the impact. Under the Chestnut Tree we seem nervous about what to say to one another. I ask them the banal question about feelings.
“Just, you know, angry, I suppose. Angry and numb.”
We are embarrassed with one another: survivor’s guilt, vs the mask of manned-up-ness. Till the masks become too heavy, for all of us, and they slip; or rather, and at last, we remove them, lay them to one side, and we talk of what frightens us, of the difficulty of squaring one’s integrity with the practices that follow, with certainty, whenever one works for somebody else.
When I read John McTernan’s masterpiece (What’s the government’s policy on love?) I thought of that meeting in our virtual Chestnut tree cafe. What do we talk about, when we talk about work? Not love; not often enough, anyway, so this year, I decide, I will attend the Christmas lunch, and tell my continuing colleagues how much I love them. For my true form’s sake.
Towards the end of the week, someone is viciously, and randomly, unpleasant to me. The stress on the man’s face is apparent even as he snarls at me for something that is clearly not my fault. (Oh, didn’t I mention? Though the meteor struck there and not here, the tendrils of its aftershocks reach around the world.) “Do it to her! Not me!” We are all someone else’s Julia, I suppose.