She is thin, sickly and pale: a wraith. She floats down the hallway by their rooms and after she has passed the younger and more anxious members of their office appear at their doors like scions awaiting the cut. Walking behind her are two men from security wearing fluorescent jackets. They seem entirely inappropriate but like all other parts of this ritual they must be prescribed. Behind these two burly men is the fourth horse of the apocalypse: the lady herself.
Fifty years old and perhaps pretty in other lights, her drab and sexless clothing seem fitting for the sombre shroud with which she has enveloped their place of work. Under her arm is a leather bound folder. In her hand is a phone. Held tight in front of her delicate white neck is a tiny, silver heart. Her blue eyes are small and they are hard.
Josh watches one of the young protégées in the seat opposite his desk. The boy is small, clean and shaven. His suit, his watch, his shoes are expensive. He makes Josh think of a young child trying hard to keep their colouring within the lines, its brow furrowing and eyes narrowing as it works. There is a reek of aftershave. It is not fair to say that this young man is everything wrong about their generation in one neat little package, but that is precisely how Josh feels in that moment.
“That’s them, is it?” The boy asks. He is incredulous. Fearful. The question is ridiculous as the answer is so obvious, but clearly the boy needs to talk. “Do they do it right here in the office?”
When the boy turns his eyes from the door to look at Josh, there are no words. Josh simply nods.
“I can’t even remember why I came in here,’ the boy says.
Josh looks over him with mild eyes. They are blue like the woman's leading the slaughter, and their mildness is deceptive. His face reveals nothing but behind his eyes the mind rattles and clicks and whirrs always. The boy waits for him to say something and after a long while Josh says this: “Every time it is like this. You’ll get used to it.”
“I’ll get used to it if I’m not one of the ones going!” The boy says anxiously, trying not to raise his voice. He leans forwards and knits his hands together. It is nearly comic.
“All of the people going are old guard. You have nothing to fear,” Josh tells him.
The sigh and the look of relief that wash over the boy are both appallingly distasteful. The hatred Josh feels for him is so strong that he can feel the bile rising up to the back of his throat. But still his face remains blank, his eyes remain passive.
“What should I do?” The boy says.
Josh shows the boy the palms of his hands as he says: “Just ignore it. Get on with your job. Everyone is confined to the office for the day. We’re all staying put to endure this process, so find yourself something to do. I suggest going over the rituals you’re weakest on and reading up case notes for the locations you’ll visit tomorrow, but do what you like.”
The boy continues to stare at him, and finally Josh waves his hand. He says: ‘Go on. Get out. Back to your office. And don’t watch.’
The boy rises to his feet, puffs himself up and hurries off through the door into the hallway. Josh shakes his head, checks his phone and looks out of the window. Sky of unbroken grey, tired prefab concrete buildings in the off-town centre, a tired old pub with boarded up windows and a jobcentre. In the distance is the reservoir, black and still.
‘Oh bollocks to it,’ Josh says, and stands up. He stalks out of his office and into the corridor. The wraith is hovering around one of the doors on the opposite side of the hall; the fourth horse, their slaughterer, watches Josh with her own mild, blue eyes. The office belongs to Jason, who has been here for six or seven years.
The wraith knocks, enters and says: ‘Jason Wood?’
‘Yes?’ Jason’s voice is small and quiet. It is like that anyway, Josh reminds himself, as he walks past. He doesn’t look at Jason or the wraith. He walks down to the end of the hall, pushes open the heavy fire door and takes the steps upstairs two at a time.
His boss’ door is closed but he knocks and opens it. Katie looks up from her screens and points to the seat in front of her.
‘Close the door,’ she says, after he has closed it.
‘Sit down,’ she says, after he has sat down in one of the two chairs opposite her desk. ‘And now’ she commands, ‘you may bitch.’
He smirks and she returns the smirk, but then their faces quickly return to the way they were before.
‘You look angry,’ she says.
‘I don’t,’ he replies.
‘You are angry,’ she points out.
‘This is fucking bullshit Katie,’ he says, jabbing his finger down. She nods. Says nothing.
Katie is in her late thirties. She looks tired and stressed always. Although apparently a plain woman at first glance, Josh found her intensely interesting. She was incredibly smart, quick and driven. In his ten years of supposed adulthood, Josh had never met anyone more suited to managing people. Their relationship, developed over four years of working together, was a peculiar one. The night before he had woken from a dream where they were having dinner together: mussels in white wine sauce, by the Mediterranean. Even though Katie is vegetarian. The dream was pleasant: couples exchanging conversation in French, in Spanish, in Italian; young children rushing around between the tables; tanned waiters bright and quick as finches; boats bobbing in a glorious, nameless bay.
‘Take a minute to think about what you’re going to say,’ Katie says to him softly.
Josh obliges. He thinks he sees Katie’s eyes twinkle with amusement when she adds: ‘Are you here to ask if you’re on the chopping block?’
He has a brief chuckle and is a little disarmed. If he came in bearing two pistols, she has taken one away. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘you’re very sure of your place here, aren’t you?’
His eyebrows raise, he smiles. He realises he is leaning forward in his seat and knitting his hands together like the boy did. He sits back, locks eyes with his superior. He has had time to think about what he will say and now he will say it: ‘If a ship is rocking in the storm, you don’t throw the best sailors into the fucking sea.’
‘It’s the culling, Joshua. It happens every year.’
‘This isn’t a culling, it’s a massacre. I mean: who’s going?’ He is talking quickly and quietly. Fury bleeds into every word he utters, whether he is trying to prevent it or not.
‘No actually,’ he continues, ‘let me guess: Michael Carrington, Bob, Rachel, Phil, Gary…’ He is counting them off on one hand.
‘Gary’s not going,’ Katie interrupts. ‘Rhonda is going instead.’
‘Rhonda’s going?’ He practically spits. His voice raises a little and with it Katie’s eyebrows raise. She puts out her hands to calm him and he nods, putting his own hand up by way of an apology.
‘And obviously nobody knows yet so keep quiet.’
Josh shakes his head in disbelief. Now it is only Katie and him, Josh’s face is much more open and animated. His eyes are narrow. His genuine rage is displayed for her to see.
‘That’s not even the worst of it,’ she says. ‘It’s not just those five.’
Josh’s brow furrows. ‘Who?’ he asks. ‘It’s obviously not you so is it the other Michael or is it Hannah?’
Katie says nothing for a while. She fidgets with a stack of papers and folders on her desk, pokes a pen with her finger, taps a few keys on her keyboard. That irritating pinging notification of emails streaming into her inbox sounds every few moments.
‘How do you know it’s not me?’ Katie says quietly.
‘Because if it was you,’ Josh replies, ‘I’d give us about seven days until the world fucking ends.’
‘Oh, you’re such a charmer!’ She says, smirking. Josh does not return the smirk.
‘Who is it Katie?’ He asks, and his face is hard set.
‘I really can’t tell you,’ she replies.
‘Fuck. It’s a senior. Why would they get rid of an S. I. C.?’
She offers him a tight smile. ‘It’s a numbers game, Josh. And our numbers aren’t good. Clearance rate is everything. There’s another thirty or forty per cent cut to the budget coming and this is the way things are now. This is the way things are going to be.’
‘We’re so screwed,’ Josh says.
‘Don’t you think I’ve said these things?’ Katie asks him.
Josh rubs his face with the palm of his hands. ‘To who?’
It is Katie’s turn to count things off using her hand. ‘The big boss. The District Commander. The Area Commander… Anyone who’ll listen really.’
‘Your fish need cleaning.’
‘What?’ She says, a smile breaking out over her face. She follows Josh’s gaze to her fish tank perched on the long worktop that runs the length of her room. Now there is silence for a while as they both listen to the faint whirr of the pump and the tinkling of water bubbling. They watch the two goldfish bobbing around near the surface of the tank. Their eyes wander to the plastic skull at the bottom and the blood red beads lining the bottom. Ugly brown smears have formed on the edges of the hexagonal tank.
‘That would make me want to piss. All the time,’ Josh says, pointing upwards. ‘That tinkling sound.’
‘It doesn’t really seem like the right day to clean my fish tank,’ Katie points out.
‘I don’t know,’ Josh says. ‘It would show you have a different way of approaching things. Thinking outside the box, resourcefulness, calm under pressure, tenacity… In fact, I think the fish improve the overall synergy of your office.’
Katie snorts with laughter. ‘That’s not how that word works, Josh.’
‘I know. I used to be an English teacher too, remember.’
‘I’d pay good money to see that,’ she says. ‘Are you really going to be sad to see Rhonda go?’
‘She’s fairly good at her job,’ Josh points out.
‘She’s a lunatic!’
‘Most of us are,’ Josh says. ‘Especially you. And you’re in charge of fucking training. Anyway, you just don’t like Rhonda because she asked you if you were pregnant that one time.’
‘If you don’t stop bringing that up who stays or goes will be the least of your worries. I’ll throw you out of the fucking window. I could have punched her! Bloody cow!’
‘I could be forgiven for thinking that you had a sensitive side,’ Josh says, raising his eyebrows.
‘Why don’t you piss off and do some work?’
‘We’re confined to the office while they get on with this. And from how many people they’re sending home, it’s probably going to take all day. I’ve got nothing to do.’
‘Why don’t you go and write one of the many overdo reports?’ She says, putting on her sternest look.
‘Nah, we’ve got lackeys knocking about for that now. I think I’ll just go downstairs, lock my door, have a cry, have a wank and then have a nap.’
She shakes her head in mock disgust. ‘Go away.’
He smiles, waves at her, gets up and heads for the door.
‘Josh,’ Kate says, and her tone has grown serious. ‘Have you read the overnights yet?’
He turns. ‘No.’
‘Go and read them. Look at Derbyshire first.’
‘Okay,’ he says and walks out.
Here is the conversation Josh imagines they are having behind the closed door of meeting room two.
The wraith is saying: Obviously, I’m sorry that we’re here today having this discussion but, as you know, these are very difficult times.
Michael Carringtion is blustering because he is the polar opposite of Jason Wood. Carrignton is big, tattooed and muscular. He’s a fan of swimming, the gym, pints with the lads, rugby. He is saying something like: the number of cases is going up day by day. I can’t see how cutting experienced staff like myself is a good idea.
This isn’t personal, the fourth horse of the apocalypse replies, her white hair bobbing as she talks. The majority of people in this office are being let go today. Here, on this form, is what Prism are willing to offer you.
The wraith takes over: it’s half of your salary for the next six months. As per company policy, that is calculated as being one month of severance pay for each full year of service. You will be recommended for a variety of public sector jobs and, undoubtedly, you will be reemployed within twelve months somewhere else. You have 48 hours from the end of this meeting to take this offer or it will be revoked. You can speak to the HR team during office hours if you require any additional information. Do you understand?
Yes, Carrington will reply, after a long pause.
Obviously, because of the nature of our work here at Prism, we will have to take certain measures for security reasons that may seem severe. Hopefully, in light of your six years of service to Prism and the excellent job you have done here, we hope you will not feel these measures are in any way a reflection of Prism’s feelings towards your performance in the role you have undertaken as a caseworker.
Now Carrington will be blustering again because he doesn’t understand.
The fourth horse will say: she is apologising for what’s coming next.
The wraith delivers the final cuts, sharp and swift. Your email account, your access to our servers, access to Prism buildings and your company phone service will be cancelled as of this meeting. You will have 24 hours from the moment you agree to this deal to return your company car or you will be in breach of the terms of this agreement and your severance pay may be affected. You will be prohibited from contacting all members of staff outside the HR team.
She raises her voice slightly: gentlemen! The men in the fluorescent jackets enter the room and close the door behind them. These two gentlemen will escort you to your office so you can clean out your personal belongings.
Michael, we wish you all the best, the wraith says and then they wait for him to leave.
Carrington looks between the two women opposite him. He looks down at the form they have pushed in front of him. Likely, the text will be blurry. He will focus on the tags they have attached showing him where to sign his consent to the end of this part of his life. One of the men in the fluorescent jackets will ask him if he’s ready. A few moments later they will ask him again.
Josh walks past the meeting room as one of the men in fluorescent opens the door. Carrington has turned to the wraith and the fourth horse and he asks: ‘Will I be made to forget?’
This is what they always ask, and the answer is all the same. ‘Yes,’ the wraith replies. Josh has walked down the hall and whatever else she says is lost amongst the quiet rumblings of an office almost never this full. She will have said something like: everyone is made to forget.
Merci pour la lecture!
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