Human Resources

Human Resources

I knew something was up with MacInnes as soon as I shook his hand. He hadn’t been in my office for a few years. Time must’ve been ruthless with him. Deep gullies fell from the corners of his mouth making an exaggerated frown, and the majority of his hair was grey, the original red only a suggestion now, a souvenir. He looked exhausted, beaten.

His palm was sweaty as it met mine – anxiety, I guessed. I shake a lot of hands, so I know these things. To quote Tom Jones, it’s not unusual. The room was air-conditioned, but it was insane outside and he’d arrived late, flustered. My secretary had ushered him in immediately. He didn’t meet my eye as we shook, glancing down at our linked hands instead.

“Hello Leo,” he muttered.

I didn’t mind him using my first name. I’m cool with that. He’d started out as my boss, after all.

As soon as I relinquished the handshake – which always happens when I decide, not them – I sensed something was awry. I rubbed my fingers against my palm and felt something there, something damp and filmy. Although it was pretty uncool to do so, I examined it – it was a reflex, I guess – and saw that it was a layer of skin. His skin.

Freaked out but trying to retain my composure, I sat down, said nothing about it.

“Well, Paul, you’ve perhaps guessed what this is about,” I said instead. “There’s no easy way to approach it, I’m afraid. But then, you of all people know that.”

He slumped in the chair across the desk from me. Something fell from his head, bounced on his shoulder and slid down his upper arm before tumbling to the carpet. He turned his head to try and conceal it from me, but even though the desk obscured my view of where it had landed, I knew what I’d seen.

It was his left ear.

“Of course, Leo,” he said, putting his hand up towards the side of his head, trying to make out he was simply replacing a stray strand of hair, rather than stopping his glasses from falling off.

“I hope you won’t think I’m shitting you when I say it wasn’t my choice,” I continued, determined not to get distracted. “I’ve been getting squeezed by head office for months now. It’s just not…not happening here. Not the way they want. Not the way anyone wants.”

“No, no, of course. I understand, Leo.”

He crossed one leg over the other. As he did so, his lower leg came away at the knee – shoe and sock in place – and cartwheeled across the room, leaving an empty trouser leg dangling freely. The leg – his leg – came to rest over by the filing cabinet. Miraculously, it landed the right way up, shoe downwards, leaning against the bottom drawer. But for the ragged skin just below where the knee had been until a few seconds before, and the blood running down his shin, it could’ve been a prosthetic. Who knew he had such hairy legs?

Our eyes finally met. He said nothing, just uncrossed his leg – carefully – and cradled his head where his ear used to be.

“You’ll…er…you’ll get the standard package, Paul,” I said, peeling the extra layer of skin from my palm beneath the desk. My own hands had begun to dew with sweat.

He nodded, though only be a few degrees, like he was afraid what might happen if he was more vigorous.

“I tried to cut you a better deal, I promise you,” I lied. “What with all your loyalty to the company over the last – what is it? – twenty-five years?”

“Thirty-one,” he said.

“Human Resources just wouldn’t buy it,” I continued. “You know how things are. When it’s my turn, I’ll probably be lucky to get a thank-you.”

I thought he might at least smile at this, but he didn’t. Then I noticed a small crack beginning to open up in his forehead. It quickly grew, splitting his skull, following the centreline of his face, moving downwards. I could see shards of bone and brain flying off, then teeth pinging out of his jawbones.

“Paul?” I said. “Are you OK?”

His entire body was cleaving down the middle. Buttons flew from his shirt. Organs spilled from his torso as the skin opened, and flopped out – first into his lap and then between his legs and onto the carpet. I thought I recognised a liver, but then it could’ve easily been something else. His vertebral column parted like the teeth of a zipper.

He wasn’t going to answer. He wasn’t going to do anything at all. I could see why they were letting him go.

I stood up for a moment so that I could see beyond the desk. The right side of him had toppled forward and down to the floor, while the left had leaned over and was resting on the arm of the chair.

I picked up the phone, scrolling through the internal directory to find the cleaning department. They’d be really pleased. I was about to press the number but I stopped. “Priorities, Leo,” I said to myself.

I dialled H.R. instead. They weren’t paying me nearly enough for dealing with this type of shit.


Intensive Care

Intensive Care

Vinnie came to on a Thursday afternoon. He didn’t know this, however. It could’ve been a Monday morning for all he was aware. He had no idea how long he’d been out, but he instantly sensed it must’ve been a long time. And it was obvious to him that he was in a hospital. He couldn’t move much, but he didn’t feel any pain. That would come later.

There were four beds in the room, arranged in opposing pairs, but only two of them were occupied – Vinnie’s and the one directly opposite. The guy in that bed looked like he was well out of it. He was clearly younger than Vinnie, and had the same heavy-duty brace around his neck. Various bits of plaster cast covered most of his body, and all the bits that weren’t covered had serious bruising. There were tubes and wires everywhere.

Nurses fussed around from time to time. They were mostly young, mostly foreign. Vinnie noticed that the younger and more foreign they were, the friendlier they were. One was particularly sweet, and reminded him of a girl he’d had a thing for at school, apart from being foreign, of course.

“What happened?” he asked the doctor, who was also foreign. “I don’t remember anything.”

“You were at work,” she told him. “You’d climbed up onto a leaking machine to try and fix it. But the fumes made you pass out, and you fell.”

“That was a bit stupid,” he said.

“It probably isn’t the way you’re supposed to do things,” she said, smiling, a warmth in her voice he wasn’t sure he deserved.

Visitors came, but they mostly just got upset, leaving Vinnie more relieved when they departed. They brought him useless things, things you’d need two working arms for – magazines, bananas. Danny brought him a Rubik’s Cube, but he knew that was a joke. Days blurred into one another. He lost count of them. He would fall asleep not knowing if he was falling asleep, losing consciousness or dying. Other hospital staff buzzed in and out like flies, took readings, attended to him, chatted.

And all the while, the guy across from Vinnie lay there inert. You could’ve thought he was dead. Had everyone forgotten about him? Could only Vinnie see him? Was he really even there?

When the woman came, she crossed the room incredibly slowly, tentatively, like she was frightened to approach. She paid Vinnie no attention at all. She was young, quite glamorous, almost too much so for visiting someone in hospital. Her hair was all done up, and her make-up fresh, like she was going for a night out. She looked good, Vinnie thought. She wore a long, expensive-looking coat, and shoes that stabbed at the floor as she walked.

She pulled up a chair and sat by the bed opposite, her back to Vinnie. She bowed her head, like she was praying. Perhaps she was. He could hear no words.

Vinnie had no idea how long she stayed like that. Just like days, minutes and seconds were starting to become meaningless. He was on the verge of drifting off to wherever it was he went, when she rose from the chair and flicked off the light switch. She kissed the guy as close as she could get to his mouth. There was no response Vinnie could see, though it was gloomier in the room now, with only pale light filtering in under the blinds.

She hitched up her coat, slid off her knickers – appearing not to be wearing much else under there – and stuffed them into one of the pockets. She moved the guy’s right leg – which wasn’t covered completely in plaster – out towards the side, then climbed on, straddling and settling herself down onto his exposed foot. It took her a few moments of adjustment to get the position she was looking for, but once there, she began to rock gently to and fro, never hurried, never frantic. Vinnie could hear her breathing, but the room was so quiet he could hear almost anything. There was a shudder, and a series of noises on the edge of being groans, before she climbed off the bed and straightened herself out.

She left the room much more purposefully than she’d entered it, but only once she’d unplugged the ventilator, and – for good measure – every other machine surrounding the bed.

Vinnie watched in silence before drifting off to sleep.

The Goldfinch

the_goldfinch_by_donna_tartIt had been a gift – and a thoughtful one – yet it perched on my bookshelf for the best part of a year, intimidating me. Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” weighs in at 800-odd pages of reasonably small print, which is meaty by anyone’s reckoning, and I knew it wasn’t going to be tackled in a weekend. Tiny bird, enormous book. Like an ascent on Everest, or the running of a marathon, I would need to approach this in a resolute, professional manner, and arrive at the starting line with loins girded (whatever that actually means) and feeling seriously on my game.

But something else happened instead. I got ill. Not gravely – just the inconvenience of a chest infection, but it left me needing to take several days of bed-rest, and at the same time presented me with a window of time in which to tackle the book without any distractions, except for preparing occasional cold and flu remedies and wheezing painfully.

I hardly needed that long, when it came down to it. Right from the first few pages, I was completely hooked on the story of young Theo Decker’s unlikely and traumatic encounter with the titular work of art by Carel Fabritius, his opportunistic acquisition of it, and his subsequent struggles to both reconcile his situation and simply survive. I scarcely noticed being ill, and may have even given the impression of faking it! It’s a real gift to fall so utterly under the spell of a writer and their universe, and to be in that rare situation of wanting to devour the pages greedily, whilst also trying to make them last as long as possible.

“The Goldfinch” is one of those novels that inspires me to write, makes writing seem like the only thing worth doing, and it makes me want specifically to write novels, to create worlds equally as tangled, rich and real (ditto just about anything by David Mitchell). Yet at the same time, I find its scope and inventiveness quite daunting. I can’t imagine ever being able to produce anything quite so breath-taking, so daring. The consequent temptation to avoid even trying is one I’m constantly fighting off.

I came to “The Goldfinch” knowing nothing about it, about the stir it had caused when first published, not only for being Tartt’s first novel for over ten years. I had previously read “The Little Friend” and been impressed by it. Reading back now through some reviews of “The Goldfinch”, it strikes me how divided opinions have been about it, how polarised the views of its readers, bearing in mind its status as a Pulitzer Prize winner.

It is certainly not without its flaws. It’s a little flabby and over-indulgent in places, but hardly surprising given its length. I’ve never been to New York, never mind lived there, but using chance encounters on its streets to drive the plot more than once feels contrived – or perhaps it really is just like one big village? And the last few pages try too hard to explain what the ‘message’ is behind all that has gone before, all of Theo’s experiences.

But what struck me most about the critical reviews of the book was the debate about how ‘literary’ – or otherwise – it is; whether it is ‘grown-up’ enough to be considered truly great, and if it isn’t, whether it should therefore be considered terrible. This argument seems unnecessary to me. I either enjoy reading something, or I don’t, and the novels I most enjoy reading are usually those that sweep me up and along with their audacity and ambition. I’m just amazed by the imagination of writers – and also film-makers – who can invent a version of reality so convincing and absorbing, and have the courage to do so.

Sunday morning stream

Blank lined ringbound notebookThe corner table in Starbucks had uneven legs and wobbled unpredictably. It made writing a challenge. My eyesight had become so poor I could barely make out the words as they escaped my pen and fled across the page.

Where were they going? Did they have any clue? Or was freedom not an idea to them, but a reality only experienced in that moment, as everything must be. None of them made it beyond the page’s edge. If they did, I had no idea what they were and where they ended up.

Perhaps they had found their way onto other pages and assimilated themselves there as part of a broader narrative. With stoicism – and some concealed longing and regret – they had accepted their positions within new and unfamiliar sentences, trying their best to fit in, regardless of the inexplicable discomfort they caused the other words.

Other may not have been so lucky. They could never adapt, never find any peace. They would be condemned to standing out, their difference being the only defining character the other words could discern in them.

Or else they loitered on the edge of a page, lost but conspicuous in the margins, hoping to avoid being crossed out…


Footnote: I’m what I would label a “tight” writer. Too careful. I rarely allow myself the opportunity to simply go with the flow, scribble down the first thing that comes into my head and see where it takes me. This was an exception. I just had a spare twenty minutes and a notebook, and managed to switch the thinking part of my brain off for once. It may be nonsense, but it was fun!

Image: gratuit

Desire lines

June 5th

It always pleases me to find evidence of the tracks that animals have worn through the undergrowth by their passage. I can’t explain why. Perhaps it’s something about the reassurance of knowing those animals are there? This is only a small area of woodland after all, ringed fairly tight by estate housing and roads, yet within it there are clearly populations of undomesticated creatures leaving their mark, simply by doing what they do, going where they go, following their instincts.

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I also know they’re there because I see them. If I’m lucky, I’ll happen upon deer on a weekly basis, and more so in the winter when there is less vegetation to hide them. They typically freeze with what seems like fear, but will calmly hold your gaze until you realise you’re no longer breathing, often only fleeing once you move on again. Squirrels are plentiful but rarely on the ground. Foxes are more elusive, and tend to keep their distance – I smell them more often than see them. There are surely other mammals around – mice, rats, voles, hedgehogs (although the latter of these are easier to encounter in the garden than the woods). Badgers I’m hopeful but not sure about. I keep on the lookout for the telltale entrance to a sett, without success so far.

Humans beings have made paths too, but by the more deliberate, co-ordinated use of earth-movers, aggregates and vibrating whacker plates, rather than the gradual weathering action of their feet. An army of dog-walkers, pram-pushers, cyclists and joggers criss-crosses the woods every day, and largely keeps its feet and wheels free of mud. We’re well-behaved on the whole, going where we’re ushered, following routes that someone else decided we should take. There’s little incentive to do otherwise unless you’re determined to stray no matter what – the paths are well-made and extensive. And there are nettles and fallen trees everywhere!

A “desire line” (or “path”, though “line” sounds better and is more familiar to me) is the term used by landscape architects, parks authorities and planners to describe what happens if we don’t behave ourselves when going from A to B, and instead go off-piste, following our own course rather than the one suggested and provided for us. This usually means a lazy shortcut, cater-corner, directly through the middle rather than around the outsides. We’re creatures of habit too, it seems.


Image: Metro Centric

I don’t imagine that cutting lazy corners, seeking a swifter route, is what the animals who made the tracks in the three previous pictures were necessarily doing, whichever species they were. Not deliberately, anyway. They were, and are, probably looking for food, seeking safety or returning to a reliable source of water. They have probably been doing it for centuries.


Once bitten…

Once bittenI don’t think any of any of us had ever thought about Vicky before. Not in that way, anyway. There were plenty of others to think about – Maria Fairley, Jacqui Sellars. Lisa Williams too, of course, although she mysteriously lost it at the end of seventh year. I don’t know where it went, but once it was lost, it never came back.

When I say ‘us’, I should specify who I mean, because I don’t mean everyone. I mean the losers, the nerds, the retards and the irredeemably unhygienic. The ones who all the girls were so not ever going to even give a chance to, we had to experience it all vicariously, a reluctant yet fascinated audience for the couplings of the chosen few. We were a shudderingly desperate collection of cretins.

Not so Ash. He wasn’t especially handsome, with his uneven front teeth and Pontefract Cake hair that just couldn’t be cut into a flattering shape. When I saw him again in my early twenties, his hair closely-cropped, I understood that some guys’ heads are only designed for the crew-cut. He was also neither eloquent nor intelligent, although these were not considered advantageous at our school. What he was, was confident. And good at sports. And that was a killer package as far as all the girls appeared to be concerned.

I suppose Ash was also imaginative. As I said, no-one had thought about Vicky Chapman as potential girlfriend material, not until the rumour that he was going out with her reached escape velocity and entered the intoxicating orbit of school gossip. How had this happened? What had we missed? When I picture her now, I get it instantly. She had perfect olive skin and always wore her hair in a long braid you could moor a yacht with (until she had it tragically lopped to collar-length in the summer holidays between the eighth and ninth years). She also had these nut-brown, cartoon eyes that never looked far from playful, wicked laughter. Yet there had always been something equally fierce about her, and intimidating, more so than the girls who were intimidating just because they were universally reckoned to be desirable. And because they were girls, of course.

Another thing I should probably clarify, are the details of the going out with arrangement. Expectations were low. A typical first date would involve a walk around some of the town’s choicest alleys and lanes, with optional grunting. Hand-holding was on the menu for the brave and romantic. If all was progressing well, the evening could be capped by a shared bag of chips on a park bench, before the first exploratory snog at a safe distance from the girl’s house. Safe meaning either far enough away so that no parent would accidentally disturb the act, or close enough that a hasty exit could be arranged if necessary.

The morning after Ash and Vicky’s first date was one of rare anticipation. We all huddled at the usual location in the school grounds, hands in pockets, staring at our feet, waiting for something to catch our attention. When Ash arrived, he looked very pleased with himself. You could sense he was bursting with something.

Before saying a word, he took hold of his lower lip and pulled it down to show us its inside. There were two red marks, wounds of some description.

“She bit me,” he informed us. “When we were snogging.”

She’d bitten him. This was a new piece in an already complicated puzzle. Had she meant to? I’d never come close to kissing a girl before, obviously, but I’d seen it happen, and it did look quite violent at times. Was it normal for the girl to bite you though?

With his lips back in place, Ash resumed his self-satisfied, perhaps even boastful air. The urge to not seem even more stupid by asking the wrong question meant that a nervous silence gathered, but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in having my head filled for the rest of the morning by thoughts of that braid, of it being slowly and carefully unplaited.


Image: Nicolas Raymond