Meeting With A Misanthrope

By Bart Meehan

sfgenreFirsts are always tough. First day at school, first dates, first job out of university.

Smith had filled out all the forms and been allocated his "new boy" desk, as far from the window as it was possible to be in in an open plan office. He'd been introduced to everyone, a wave of names that crashed over him, then he was handed a company mug and directed to the lunch room with a friendly suggestion that he get himself some of the “world’s worst” coffee.

He followed the instructions to a small kitchenette, in desperate need of an update, and found walls with scalded paint bubbling up over the hot water urn, greasy posters offering instructions on everything from safety to teamwork, an aged fridge with the door swung open and clearly in the early stages of defrosting, and in the middle of the room, a table holding a couple of half full plates of quartered sandwiches, obviously the remnants of working lunch. Hovering over them was an older man dressed in suit and tie (in contrast to the casual linen sports jacket and open-necked shirt Smith was wearing).

The man, who was shaking his head over the curling crusts, turned to face Smith as he entered the room.

"Who are you?" he snapped.

Taken a little off guard by the brusque manner, Smith stuttered out his name and then offered his hand. The man looked at it but turned back to the sandwiches.

"Cunningham," he said, picking up a quarter for closer examination "Vegetarian! There's only ever eggplant or avocado left after a meeting these days. Do you want one?"

Smith let his unrequited hand drop awkwardly to his side and shook his head. Cunningham smiled, obviously pleased by the response and threw the stale reject back on the plate.

"Smart man," he said. "Eat meat. Impossible to make good decisions unless you have iron in your blood. You're new?"

Smith nodded. "I started today."

The older man positively beamed at the information. "Lucky fellow. I wish I was a new starter. Beginning it all again. Nothing like the excitement of starting a career. "

Smith was feeling unsettled, lost in a conversation with a stranger where he didn't know what questions to ask or answers to give. So, he nodded again and gave the stock response. "Everyone has been very nice so far."

Cunningham waved it away. "Don't worry about the people, Smith. They come and go. It's the company that matters," he said, then suddenly looked at him, suspicious. "You're not in HR are you?"

"No, I'm an architect.’

"Good. Good. Someone who works for a living. All HR is worried about is whether the workplace is pleasant. " The disgust at the thought played across his face. "Pleasant! If you want that go home."

More discomfort. What is the right response here? "I suppose they're just trying to make sure it's productive?" Smith said, trying to find a way out of the conversation, but Cunningham waved again, clearly unwilling to let him escape, "Productive? You know how you make it productive? Do the job. Do the bloody job. These days it's all meetings about budgets and occupational safety. Hours of discussion about avoiding paper cuts."

Now that demanded a stronger position. "I think you may be a bit harsh. There's risks in every work place. I read that five people die every year from filing cabinets falling on them. They open the top drawer and it topples over."

"Darwinism in action! Thinning out the stupid." The older man looked at him intently. "Architect, you said?"

"Yes. I'm part of the new government capital works team."

Cunningham nodded in a way that suggested his interest in the answer had waned. "Couldn't get into Engineering?"

Smith was offended but uncertain about how to formulate his defence. After all he was the new boy and he had no idea where Cunningham fitted into the organisation. So instead he walked across to the percolator and half-filled his mug with a dark syrup, then noting the fridge was in no condition to hold anything, asked: "Is there any milk?"

Cunningham shrugged.

"I suppose black will do." Smith sipped the coffee which sat in his mouth long enough to allow warning messages to be sent to his brain about continuing. He put the mug down on the table and made another attempt at a normal conversation with a colleague. "So you're an engineer?"

Cunningham ignored the question. "You know when I first started here, there were twice as many people, then they brought in the consultants." He almost spat the word out. "Time management, total quality management, business process re-engineering. Process re-engineering! Is that even a real thing?" He stopped in mid-rant and looked at coffee mug. "You're not going to drink it?"

Smith self-consciously moved the mug closer. "A little strong. I'll bring in my own milk tomorrow."

The older man nodded as if this revealed some sad truth.

"There use to be a tea lady here. She’d come around morning and afternoon and deliver a cup and bun to your desk." He waved his hand around, taking in all corners of the room. "No need for gossiping in here. If there was anything worth knowing she told you right there and moved on."

He paused for a moment, apparently retrieving his memories of better times. "There use to be a typing pool as well," he said finally, "but then computers came along and they got rid of it. We all had to waste time typing our own reports. How is that more efficient?"

“Didn't you have to write them anyway?" Smith asked and immediately regretted it in the awkward silence that followed. To recover he conceded that a lot had changed over the years.

It was like firing a starter’s gun. Cunningham stood straighter and his voice rose several decibels. "We had our own offices. Not this open plan rubbish. How do they expect you to concentrate with pictures of other people's children staring at you. All rosy cheeks and missing teeth." He shook his head. "My father use to say never take your work home or your home to work. Two separate lives. "

Who could possibly do that? Smith thought but instead asked: "Do you have family?"

Cunningham stopped and a look passed over his face. “Family?” His voice lost its authority for a moment, fading to a whisper meant only for him to hear, but then he shook away whatever memories the word retrieved and returned to the present.

"Why can't people just be happy doing their job? That's what they're paid for, isn't it?" He leaned forward, raising his hands as if he was about to impart some profound truth. "When I was a boy we lived in a house that didn't have an indoor toilet. We had an outhouse at the bottom of the garden. The thunderbox we called it. And every week a fellow came to replace the drum. Sometimes I'd wake up early and see him walking across the yard and he'd be whistling. Ten gallons of shit splashing next to his ear and he was whistling. Now there was a man who was happy in the workplace."

Smith started to laugh, then cut it short when Cunningham's look clearly indicated he was making a serious point.

"You're not one of those fellows who’s only here for five minutes to get a line on his resume, are you?" he asked, but before Smith could answer, he shook his head and lamented. "No loyalty these days. No such thing as a company man any more."

For a moment, it felt like they were observing a minute’s silence. Then Cunningham brightened. "Anyway, enough chatting. Need to get back to it," he said starting to leave but stopping at the door long enough to add: “Welcome aboard.”

Smith stood still for a minute re-running the conversation in his head. He was still standing there when another colleague walked in and asked if he was okay.

What was his name? Jim, George? Gil? That's it. Gil. "I'm fine."

Gil made his way to the table and picked up a sandwich. "I love these eggplant ones," he said, popping it whole into his mouth, then asking in a vegetarian muffle: "Are you ready?"

"For what?"

Gil tapped his watch. "Departmental meeting."

Smith nodded absently. “Sure," he said, and then with more conviction: "By the way, who is this Cunningham guy?"

"Who?" Gil looked confused before the name registered. "Oh, Cunningham! What makes you bring him up?"

Smith shrugged and chose his words carefully. "He seems very … dedicated."

Gil picked up another sandwich which hovered momentarily before being consumed. "Seemed," he said, swallowing in the pause. "Dropped dead at his desk years ago."

Smith felt a wobble in his legs. "What?"

"They found him face down in the out-tray one morning. Which seemed appropriate. The man had been here forty years and refused to retire. Dying was the only way to get him out of the place." Gil looked at his watch again. "Okay to go? Do you want a sandwich?"

Smith shook his head and ordered his legs to move towards the door.

"What's this meeting about?" He tried to hide the tremble in his voice.

"The new toner," Gil said. " Apparently the smell is making some people sick."

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About The Author

Bart Meehan

Bart Meehan lives in Canberra, ACT. He has published several stories in magazines and e-zines, including AurealisMattoid and Alien Skin.


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