Upgrading

A man walks into his office and his boss says, Come in and sit down. It is the first morning after the Christmas break. The man’s name is Phil, Philip Chesterton. His boss is Desmond Carey.

In a few minutes, his boss says, we’re going to walk to your office and you’re going to put all your personal stuff in your briefcase and I’m going to escort you out of the building.

What’s all this about? Philip says, but he knows already: the brain works really quickly when it has to.

He is being sacked. Why? he asks himself. What have I done? Why me? What am I going to tell Suzie? How will we pay the mortgage?

Des lowers his eyes. The real reason is that he wants to upgrade the computer system, and it is going to cost plenty. He can’t say that, though. We’re going through a rough patch, he tells Philip. You know that.

We’ve had rough patches before, Philip says. We’ve gone through a lot together. We’ll all take a temporary pay cut, like we did last time.

It won’t work, Phil. I don’t want to argue. He stands. Come on, he tells Philip.

Philip is too stunned to stand. Though his brain is working at a million miles an hour, sorting and sifting, analysing, forecasting, he is emotionally devastated. He has given everything to this business for the past five years, loving it, revelling in it, sacrificing for it. And now the axe. Just like that.

Des clicks his fingers impatiently. He is embarrassed by this scene. He had known it would be like this but that doesn’t make it any easier. He wants it over. Philip has been his friend, his confidant, his mentor, sometimes. But it’s over now and it will never be the same. He has, he thinks, bitten the bullet. Let’s get it over with. Stand up, Phil, he says, but Philip has sagged forward, his elbows on his knees, his head down. His shoulders are shaking. Now, Phil. I’m not going to change my mind. He taps his foot and hardens his heart.

Philip doesn’t move, except for the shaking of his shoulders. Des looks at Phil, and what might have been compassion if Philip had meekly done as he was told turns instead to contempt. He swivels abruptly and goes to the outer office. Pat is at her desk, looks up. She doesn’t know what is happening but she can sense the vibes. She looks at Des, reads the look on his face, looks at the open door of her boss’s office, and her heart skips a beat.

Go in there and help him, Des tells her. Take him to his office and make him collect all his personal belongings. No files. No disks. No thumb drives. Understand? Then see him out. I don’t want him talking to the others.

Pat blanches. She’s a book-keeper, a receptionist, the office gofer. There’s nothing in her job description about wielding axes. She is about to protest, but Des has turned on his heel and left the office through the big glass doors, turning left towards the lift. Pat takes a deep breath and releases it in a sigh. She doesn’t want to do this, but on the other hand she has always liked Phil, and knows that she can make it easier for him. She saves the file on her computer and switches the phone to the answering machine.

Phil is still where Des left him. He’s having a hard time breathing. He can’t stop shaking. He isn’t actually crying, there are no tears on his cheeks, in his eyes.

Pat moves closer to him, hesitantly reaches forward and puts her hand on his shoulder. He shrugs her hand away and she stands back, stung by his rejection.

Phil instantly regrets his action. He had heard Des telling her to make sure he leaves, to make sure he takes nothing that is not his; it’s not her fault, he knows. But, like a wounded animal, he feels the need to snarl. Or shrug his rejection.

Given time, he might have made a move on Pat. He liked her from the moment he met her. He knows she likes him, too. If the company had been prospering he might, eventually, have made a pass at her, and she might, indeed, have reacted favourably. It is just one more reason, a very minor reason, for Philip to stoke his growing hatred of Des. Des, the destroyer of dreams.

Pat knows that it is just that Philip is hurt. She moves in again

until her hip is against his shoulder, her hand resting on the side of his head. This time he doesn’t shrug her off, as she knew he wouldn’t. In fact, he leans his head against her, and she moves her fingers in a caress. His shaking slowly subsides. They remain like this for a few minutes. Philip is finally getting his breathing under control. His body is slowly relaxing. He opens his eyes.

Where is he?

Gone. He won’t be back for a while.

Philip nestles his head closer into her body, and Pat accepts this as a return caress. In the outer office the answering machine clicks into action, and Pat listens to the message with a distant part of her mind: it is nothing. Routine. She’ll deal with it later. She is far more interested in Philip right now. The business can go hang. She, too, is very cross with Des, though this will fade in time. Everybody knows what Des is like.

Jess, one of the designers, wanders in with a large cover spread in her hand, looking at it while tapping on the door with her knuckles. She stops dead as she sees the tableau in Des’ office. She turns and hurries out, casting a Sorry! over her shoulder. Despite herself, Pat smiles. That’ll set the cat amongst the pigeons, she thinks.

But Philip has got himself under control now, and he stands with difficulty, crowded by Pat. He turns to her and smiles shame-facedly, embarrassed. Thanks, Pat he says and puts his arm around her shoulders and hugs her. She hugs him back, though she knows she has to protect the business from any reprisals he might take. He’s not like that, though, is he?

The hug lasts much longer than it ought to, but Pat is reluctant to break away. If none of this had happened she might have tried to seduce him, despite her friendship with Suzie. Now, this is probably the end of that, silly, impractical dream that it might have been. It is not the only silly, impractical dream she has had about some of her male colleagues over the years. Ah well.

The hug subsides as these things do, and gradually they break apart with shy smiles to each other. What might have been, eh!

She follows him to his office, and stands in the doorway. He tries to think what might be his of the untidy paraphernalia that crowds his office. In his mind there has never been a separation between his private life and his life with the company: they have melded imperceptibly into one. It is the same at home… he has quite a bit of

company property there, not stolen but simply worked on in his own time. Suzie has complained about it frequently enough.

He looks around. His diary, he supposes, though it was provided by the company and contains a mass of information about the workings of the business. But it is his, and he is going to take it. Bugger the clients: Des can work it out for himself, if he thinks he can get along without Philip.

He opens the drawers of his desk, and rummages through them. Nothing there, really. Nothing he wants to claim, anyway. He slams them closed. There’s a big poster on the wall, a photograph of the Red Baron standing beside his famous Fokker triplane. Philip can’t remember what drove him to buy the poster and put it on his wall, but he’s not going to leave it there. He climbs onto his desk and gently teases the blutack from the wall, rolling it from the back of the poster. Pat stands back and watches, smiling to herself despite everything, at the stupidity of men. Philip rolls the poster and jumps down from the desk, then picks up his briefcase. That’s it, he says.

Sure?

Yeah. Better just poke my nose in the studio.

He said not.

Bugger him. Philip walks to the studio door and opens it, leaning in. He can see that Jess has already spread the word, but he’s willing to bet that she’s got the wrong end of the stick. Des has sacked me, he tells them, and holds his hand up to stop the chorus of alarm. There are five of them, all smart young things full of hope and as keen as mustard. They won’t understand. Probably a good thing. They’ll find out in time.

Ask Des, he suggests. He hasn’t told me. Perhaps he’ll tell you.

Again the protests, the alarm, the surprise. Philip has always been the popular one, the one to go to with problems, the one to offer good advice. Anyway, good luck to you all. You know where to find me. They fall silent as they realise that this really is the end for Philip, and they smile sadly.

Philip backs out and closes the door. Pat is still beside him. I want you to know… he starts, then pauses. No good will come of this. … Well, anyway, thanks and goodbye. He leans towards her and kisses her cheek, and this time it is her eyes brimming with tears.

I’ll send you the stuff. You know, tax and everything. A cheque. Only a couple of weeks, I think. I’ll get him to write a good reference.

Philip laughs. Fat chance, he says, but he is suddenly cheerful as he swings out of the glass doors and heads to the stairs. He really doesn’t want to bump into Des in the lift.

He skips down three steps at a time, lightly.