I was sitting there staring at my shoes when a penguin came up to me and tried to sell me a small child for Christmas. I looked down at them both and considered the question. Just as I prepared to articulate my concerns the penguin slapped the boy with his flipper and threw him inside a cardboard box. Twelve red breasted robins descended from above and hastily tied an elaborate ribbon around the circumference of the cardboard casing. Before I could adjust my spectacles to ensure I was sighted correctly, the penguin turned into Morgan Freeman and marched away, narrating his exciting journey into an incredible true story.
Back in the office I pushed the box under my desk and waited for the telephone to ring. I picked up the stapler on my desk and counted the unspent staples remaining in the chamber; forty seven. Folding an internal mail envelope into tiny squares I stapled it in each corner and ran a line along the edges until the border was complete. I checked the chamber once again; 12. It seemed like a satisfactory number so I returned the stapler to its place beside my UHU stick and turned towards my computer monitor. In preparation of my duties I flipped my mouse over and scratched the dirt from the tiny circular rubber pads attached to its underbelly, methodically scraping, wiping, and blowing. Satisfied with my industry, I rested.
I awoke several minutes later to the sound of Christmas music booming from the overhead speakers and I hummed along until my phone began to ring. Switching the volume setting on my receiver to mute, I finished the final verse and stared at the flashing light on the handset. Regrettably, the caller was persistent, so I picked up the phone and initiated company protocol.
‘Good morning. You are through to The National Festive Helpline. This is Kevin McCallister speaking. Can I take your order number please?’
‘Hello. My reference number is; 13-1-14-4-19.’
‘Thank you. Please wait one moment while I access your order.’ On the other side of the office Pat was battling with the Xerox machine and I observed him tussle with the paper tray, the jam not clearing despite his determined efforts. ‘Right. Here we go. Am I speaking with Mrs Buck?’
‘Can you please confirm the first line of your address and postcode please?’
‘It’s 44 ZSAFPM Road, E4 7DX.’
‘Great. Now what seems to be the problem?’
‘What about them?’
‘They’ve gone rogue.’
‘I see you ordered package number four.’
‘Yes, but what about the fairies?’
‘Everything seemed fine. We released them from their cages and they flew around and zapped things. Like in the commercials, you know. Changing stuff.’
‘Yes. Then what?’
‘Then the Red One started on the Egg Nogg.’
‘It does say in the instruction manual to keep the fairies away from alcohol.’
‘They turned the manual into Egg Nogg.’
‘What am I supposed to do now?’
‘I will send an emergency response unit over to you as soon as possible.’
‘How long will that take?’
‘It depends on the extremities of the emergency.’
‘Well, they have just zapped my daughter and turned her into a stapler.’
‘A stapler you say?’
‘Never mind the practicalities, what shall I do in the meantime?’
‘I would advise that you avoid making them angry.’
‘What happens when they’re angry?’
‘You won’t like them when they’re angry.’
‘I don’t like them now.’
‘Well, just try to wait it out. The response team will be with you shortly. Might I suggest you get off the phone now, before they realise what you’re doing.’
‘They already have. And it’s not a phone, it’s a fish.’
The phone went dead and I looked at the clock. It was only half past ten. I decided it was time to check my emails. Awaiting my attention were 32 unread messages, so I deleted 31 of them, still unread, and pondered on the remaining email; ‘Announcement: Scheduled Upgrade to HighView system has been completed.’ This seemed important, so I read the email again. Yes, the upgrade had been completed. I ignored the subsequent content about ‘system failure’, ‘power outage’ and ‘warning’, and turned my attention to a speck of stubborn dirt imbedded beneath my nail. Following several attempts, I successfully removed the dirt, rolled it into a ball, and flicked it towards Miriam’s desk. I had no idea what HighView was, and though the email encouraged me to contact a member of HR should I have any questions, I refrained from sharing any knowledge of my existence. Instead, I deleted the email and congratulated myself on my efficient professional progress. To celebrate, I put a new roll of sellotape into my desktop tape dispenser.
Beneath my desk the box thumped against the side of my drawers so I gave it a gentle kick and decided it was time for a cup of tea. In the communal kitchen Miriam was talking to Pat so I nodded at them and flicked the switch on the kettle. Not having the most intimate relationship with my colleagues had its benefits, the main of which was that they were never entirely sure who I was or what I was paid to do. I preferred to keep it this way and delegated a great deal of time to ensuring that such a working environment was sustained, often creating area graphs to determine suitable periods at which to visit communal areas, and line charts to record my movements. I used a scattergram to measure any variables, such as weak bladder and/or hangover, and a radar chart to display my observations of co-workers circulating habits. After analysing all this data I was able to navigate secure paths through the office, stealthily avoiding conversation, and more importantly, work. So far my labours had proved instrumental in my professional permanence, and two pay rises and a promotion later, I can safely say the lavatory cubicles are the ideal location to expedite advancement.
As I waited for the kettle to boil I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. ‘I need to call facilities.’ Miriam said. ‘I mean, it just fell from the ceiling, straight into my cup of tea.’
‘What was it?’ Pat asked.
‘I don’t know. I thought it was a fly and pulled it out, but when I looked closer, it was like a tiny bit of grit or dirt or something. I mean, we can’t be expected to work in conditions where filth is falling from the ceiling.’
I cleared my throat and checked my nails. I had done a good job. Thorough. The kettle finished boiling so I started to pour the hot water into my mug when Pat tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Are you the engineer?’ He asked.
‘What?’ I replied, squeezing the tea bag against the edge of the mug.
‘The photocopiers’ been playing up and I thought you might be the engineer.’
‘No. I’ –
‘That’s Kevin,’ Miriam interrupted. ‘’He sits next to me. Say, you haven’t noticed things falling from the ceiling have you?’
‘No.’ I replied. ‘Sorry.’
Pat was staring at me, his eyes narrow and sternly focused. ‘Did you hear about Steve?’ Miriam asked him.
‘Sorry?’ He shifted his attention back to Miriam.
‘Steve. Apparently he’s gone AWOL. They didn’t pay him for that commercial and he’s taken the truck and disappeared. Nobody has seen him since last week. They’re saying he’s really pissed off about it, I mean really pissed off.’
‘Well, wouldn’t you be? That’s the most famous commercial we’ve ever produced. I’d be pissed off if I was him.’ Something about Steve and his unpaid wages sounded strangely familiar, but I couldn’t recall why so I dismissed the issue and threw the tea bag in the bin.
‘Are you sure you’re not the engineer?’ Pat asked me once again.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Well, if you see him, can you tell him the copier needs fixing?’
‘Sure thing.’ I retrieved some milk from the fridge and added it to my tea. ‘Consider it done.’
‘But what about Steve?’ Miriam asked.
‘Fuck Steve.’ Pat said. ‘That was my milk, buddy.’
‘Really?’ He was now frowning at me, his arms folded above his rotund midriff.
‘Sorry. I thought this was a communal kitchen.’ I said and sipped my tea, the scolding brew burning my tongue.
‘It is, but that,’ he pointed at the carton, ‘is not communal milk.’
‘I’ll remember that. Sorry.’ I put the milk back in the fridge and walked away, leaving them to consider how another piece of dirt had landed in Miriam’s tea. As I made my way back to my desk, I scorned myself for such sloppy behaviour. I had made a cardinal error. Interaction with colleagues was strictly forbidden and against my code of conduct. It was rule number two, closely succeeding rule number one; Shirk the Work, or rather, work solely to maintain the pretence of effective and efficient management of professional responsibilities. These two rules were a firm example of my conscientiously acquired multi-tasking skills, and I performed each with admirable efficacy. However, the recent exchange left me frustrated. Now my name would be known – that is – until it was forgotten, and the most effective way to ensure this occurred was to arrange a re-location. Back at my desk, I logged a call with Facilities and expressed my cause for concern regarding the unpleasant smell emanating from my neighbouring co-worker. I was provided with assurances that a full investigation would take place, and pleased with my resourcefulness, I pushed a banana to the back of Miriam’s drawer.
My telephone began to ring once again, and in light of my previous blunder, I decided to answer it and appear industrious. ‘Good morning. You are through to The National Festive Helpline. This is Kevin McCallister speaking. Can I take your order number please?’
‘My order number is 2-15-15-20-19.’
‘Thank you. One moment please.’ I waited for the customers’ order details to appear on my screen. ‘Right, here we go. Is this Ms Lampoon?
‘I see here that you ordered package number two.’
‘And what seems to be the problem?’
‘The problem is that my house has been robbed.’
‘Oh my. And how did that happen?’
‘You tell me. It’s your family.’
‘It’s not my family. It’s the family you ordered.’
‘Yes, but I didn’t order a family of thieves.’
‘Every family has its problems.’
‘But now their problem is my problem.’
‘I finished my shift in the hospital and when I got home, rather than setting up the Christmas tree and decorating the house, they left me with nothing to decorate. They took everything. Even my slippers.’
‘Not your slippers?’
‘Yes, my slippers. What am I supposed to do now? I have no family and no possessions. All I have is an empty house, which is precisely what I didn’t want. That’s why ordered package number two; The Family Christmas.’
‘This is rather unusual.’
‘I would hope so – though whether it is or is not doesn’t concern me. What concerns me is that Christmas is tomorrow and I have no food, no fridge, and no family.’
‘I see, well, I will log your call and send a response team over to you right away. I can send you a replacement for the replacement?
‘No. Thank you.’
‘Perhaps you might like an alternative package? Free of charge, of course.’
‘I would sooner forget about the whole thing.’
‘That can be arranged. We have a fantastic new package -‘
She hung up and left me to log a request for our response team to visit her empty property and tally the items which no longer existed. Having completed the necessary procedures, I leaned back in my chair and looked at my desk. Despite my proficient conduct, my desk had become somewhat cluttered, so I decided to conduct a pre-vacation clean, knowing full well that in doing so, I would appear both efficient in my swift completion of designated duties, and conscientious. I began by testing all the pens within my desktop organiser, one by one separating those with ink, from those that no longer functioned. Next, I gathered all the paperwork on my desk and ripped each sheet into tiny pieces, aware that the noise would not go unnoticed and confirm my status as an organised and orderly employee. I then shredded all the paper, which was mostly blank, and re-organised my array of stationery and various office supplies. The paperclips were placed in the left compartment of the desktop organiser, the pins in the right, pens in the middle, and a large elastic band around the perimeter. Once this was done, I wiped my desk down with an anti-bacterial cloth, re-aligned my keyboard and mouse, and raised and lowered my office chair until I was sufficiently comfortable to absorb the remaining hours of my working day. Now that my working area was clean and comfortable, I peeled an orange.
Before I could commence the calculation of my copper coins, my telephone began to ring. I glanced around the office and reached out to press the mute button on the handset, but I became aware that Miriam was watching me, as she tended to do upon discovering her hole-punch had been sabotaged, again. Reluctantly, I answered. ‘Good morning. You are through to The National Festive Helpline. This is Kevin McCallister speaking. Can I take your order number please?’
‘Fuck my order number. You can take the order.’
‘I don’t want him.’
‘Peter bloody Andre, that’s who.’
‘Did you order package number three?’
‘What? Yes. I think so. What has that got to do with anything?’
‘It explains Mr Andre.’
‘I didn’t want Peter fucking Andre. I wanted the goddamn Winter Berry Glistening Gateau and the pork loin crackling joint. Not Peter Andre. What the fuck is he doing here?’
‘I’m afraid he comes with the package.’
‘But we didn’t get a package. All we got was him, and now he’s walking around rummaging through our cupboards and eating our food. He even finished the Graham crackers. The fucking crackers, man.’
‘Can’t you just let him out?’
‘No. That’s the other problem.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘There’s a bunch of old women hanging around outside my house going on about how gorgeous he is.’
‘Can’t they take him away?’
‘That’s what I said but he just started making some stupid brain explosion gestures and talking about what’s not to like about a Strawberry Daiquiri Dome. He’s insane.’
‘To be honest, sir, I’m not sure we have any protocols to deal with Peter Andre.’
‘Well you bloody well better come up with something. What am I supposed to with him?’
‘Let me think.’ I realised at this point that I should probably speak with my manager, but not knowing who that might be, nor desiring for them to know me, I decided to use my initiative. ‘Listen, I know a lady who would probably love to have Peter Andre in her house.’
‘Yes.’ I proceeded to tell him about the previous caller, which was technically against regulations, but I figured I could solve two problems with one Peter Andre.
‘But how do I sneak him out with all those old women hanging around?’
‘You need a diversion. Have you got any Michael Bolton CD’s in your house?’
‘Why the fuck would I have any Michael Bolton CD’s in my house?’
‘What about Cliff Richard?’
‘Okay, well, this requires some improvisation. Wait a second.’ I opened up my web browser and commenced my investigation. Once I was ready, I hit the pause button and commenced operation Abolish Andre. ‘Right, now, turn the loudspeaker up on your phone up and go and stand by the window.’
‘Okay, now what?’
I hit play and sent the Coronation Street theme tune booming through his speakers. ‘Look outside. Is it working?’
‘Shit. They’ve gone.’
‘Of course. Now, do you remember the address of the woman I told you about before?’
‘Yeah, course. Listen, thanks for your help fella.’
‘You’re welcome. Have a great Christmas.’
He hung up and I stared at a post-it note stuck to my monitor. It was blank and covered the clock in the bottom right corner of the screen, which had now reverted to sleep mode. My screensaver was a smiling lady dressed in Christmas attire stood before a giant decorated tree. In the background Santa was flying overhead, presents falling from the back of his sleigh down towards a group of carol singing children gathered at ground level directly beneath him. Something about this festive scene struck me as rather peculiar, if not entirely problematic and downright dangerous. The children were unaware of the presents tumbling though the sky, one of which was a colourful set of Joseph Conrad Kitchen knives, plummeting blade tip first. I looked back at the mother and wondered whether this was why she seemed so happy. Perhaps her Christmas wish had finally been granted.
I looked at Miriam’s desk and considered the countless decorative items spread across the polished oak veneer, all of which were strategically displayed to reinforce the reasoning that she possessed a personality. There was a miniature Eiffel Tower, a squidgy pink pig, a frazzle-haired troll, three porcelain elephants, two plastic plants, some sanitary wipes, a bottle of hand cream, a purple Christmas Tree, and a signed photo of Russell Brand. Behind this oversized framed photo several images of unsmiling children leaned against a chrome desk lamp which illuminated a sad looking man I presumed to be her husband. Turning back to my desk, I examined my own presented personality, and recognising a lack of exhibited identity, I seized my UHU stick and turned it upside down.
On the other side of the office I noticed a congregation of co-workers gathered in a circle staring at the 42 inch plasma television attached to the wall. This television was forever fixed on the BBC news channel, a tactical manoeuvre recently introduced to verify that the world was unquestionably worse beyond our dull prefabricated walls. Somewhat curious, I decided to take a closer look, and as I approached the television I noticed the Xerox engineer standing by the entrance to our office. Being the obliging operative that I am, I enquired about his business, assured him the photocopier was in full working order, and sent him home. As I approached the huddled group I carefully maintained a safe distance, thus ensuring that my presence was not mistaken as a sign of conversational commitment. ‘I can’t believe it.’ One of them said. ‘I can,’ another replied, so I looked up at the television to identify the divisive cause of faith.
‘Holidays Are Coming; NFH employee crashes truck into company headquarters and refuses to exit vehicle. It is believed the dispute is surrounding unpaid wages for what is quite possibly, the most famous commercial ever filmed.’
I spotted Steve sitting in the cab of the iconic Coca-Cola truck, smiling. The footage cut to the exterior of the building; the destroyed front façade and vast NFH logo dangling from above the pulverised entrance, severed electrical cables flickering dangerously and piles of rubble and debris surrounding the rear of the truck. It was a fabulous festive fuck up. Admiring the spectacular window dressing, I suddenly developed a warm affection towards Steve; a man admirable in conviction, and marvellously determined. Good old Steve. Steve. Shit. Steve. Finally I remembered. Of course. Immediately I returned to my desk, located the envelope, and hid the unprocessed wage slips in Miriam’s gym bag.
My telephone began to ring and I answered without delay. ‘Good afternoon. You are through to The National Festive Helpline. This is Kevin McCallister speaking. Can I take your order number please?’
‘Thank you. Please wait one moment.’ The customer’s details appeared on my screen and I acknowledged the data displayed before me. ‘Is this Mrs Poppins?’
‘Yes.’ A female voice replied.
‘Can you please confirm the first line of your address?’
‘I don’t have one.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t have an address. Not anymore.’
‘And why is that?’
‘Because the people in the package blew it up.’
‘Can you explain to me what happened?’
‘I was hoping you could explain it to me.’
‘You need to tell me what happened.’
‘War. That’s what happened?’
‘In the Banks’s house.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Neither do I.’
‘I’m afraid you will have to be more specific.’
‘I opened the box – like it said in the instructions – you know; Christmas is Sharing – and then all hell broke loose. Even Bert couldn’t help.’
‘What was in the box?’
‘Well, it wasn’t a bar of chocolate, or a cracker.’
‘So what was it?’
‘A bunch of soldiers. Shouting and screaming. Gunfire and grenades. Explosions. All of it spilling out into the front room. Bayonets and bullets aimed at Jane and Michael. Death and carnage everywhere. In my house. ’
‘Oh…I…I don’t know what to say.’
‘You better say something because I’ve got a very angry German General standing beside me.’
‘Er…’ I racked my brain to remember my German lessons. ‘Hallo…Frohe Weihnachten.’
‘What? What was that?’
‘There’s nothing happy about it?’
‘Yes there is. The war is over. Erm… Der Krieg ist vorbei.’
‘What in heaven’s name are you talking about?’
‘Nur ein Löffel Zucker hilft der Medizin, unten gehen.’
‘Löffel Zucker what?’
‘Is he still angry?’
‘Good. I’m glad I could help.’
‘Wait. What am I supposed to do with all these dead bodies?’
I put the receiver down and ripped the cord from the back of the phone. There was no satisfying these people. I mean, what did they expect? A perfect reproduction of a televised representation? It was all in the small print, even in German.
I decided it was time to go home and logged off my computer. Picking up the box from beneath my desk I moved among desks towards the exit. I was waiting for the lift when a door to an office I had never previously noticed opened and a rotund gentleman with a pink tie called my name. ‘Kevin?’ he asked. I paused. ‘Mr McCallister?’
‘Yes.’ I replied.
‘Can you step into my office please? It won’t take long.’ I followed him into the small office and looked at the empty chair facing the desk. The man gestured for me to sit down, so I did, confused and rather concerned. ‘Don’t look so nervous.’ He smiled. ‘I’m Jeremy Peedle. Your department manager. I know it’s Christmas so I won’t keep you long. Basically, Kevin, I just got off the phone with Peter Andre.’ He leaned back in his chair and straightened his tie. ‘He had some very nice things to say about you. Some very nice things indeed. Well, this led me to examine your file and I must say I was quite astounded.’ I cleared my throat. ‘As a consequence of my review, and with the full backing of the Board, I would like to offer you the position of office manager. Effective immediately. You don’t have to give me an answer right away, however, I can assure you the financial remunerations are more than generous.’ He handed me a contract and I scanned the details of the proposed promotion. ‘Think of it as a delayed reward for your continued hard work.’ He rose to his feet and guided me towards the door. ‘One more thing. I have also arranged for you to receive a small bonus in your next payment. Happy holidays.’
‘Thank you,’ I said and shook his hand. He closed the door behind me and I stood motionless looking across the open plan office floor. My floor. I couldn’t believe it. Bonuses. Rewards. Promotion. Me. Office Manager. To salute my managerial elevation, I returned to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and finished the milk.
When I finally got home I greeted my dancing cardboard friends and navigated my way through the countless traps I had lain around the house. My parents had left for Paris twenty three years ago and I remained at home, alone, ever since. It was a rather strange situation at first, but once I became accustomed to my own companionship, I made sure the necessary allegations were administered by the correct authorities, and in accordance with the law, my parents never returned. Satisfying myself that everything was in order, I returned to the front room, placed the box on the coffee table, and poured myself a large glass of wine. Removing the contract from my satchel, I examined the figures once again. I noted the specification which stated I would be granted my own office, and in accordance with my desire to delegate from a distance, I approved the detailed proposal. I decided that my first act as manager would be to take a vacation. Whilst I was away, Miriam would take charge of all my duties, and upon my return, this would continue. I would manage my diary with scrupulous attention, ensuring I remained forever busy – too busy – and thus unfortunately unable to engage or interact. I had been rewarded for my rigorous approach to obligation, and hence there existed no rational reason to modify my methods. The plan was working. My next stop; Parliament. ‘Keep the change, you filthy animal.’