Thursday, 25 October 2012

Night watchman

   Professor Milner’s death weighed upon me as a frightened secretary ushered me down into the Chairman’s office: too late now to drive my permitted car like hell for the coast with Annie and Jasmine and sail Sea Princess to the Safety Zones of Europe. Jutland, perhaps; or Corsica.

   In earlier decades the Chairman’s moonlike hail-fellow-well-met countenance would have sported a monocle and cigar. Tonight the clubbable face smiled above an open collared casual shirt; his light bulb head fringed by a toilet seat crescent of thinning hair. If they could truly read minds I’d be dead by now, I thought. Or worse.
  “Come in Robbins, old boy. You don’t need an invitation,” Naughtie growled across a desk bereft of the previous chairman’s Newton’s Cradle and adorned instead with a Rubik’s cube like some literary land-mine. Cute. “Sorry to call you in from annual leave old chap but this Milner business needs putting to bed double quick. See here - oh, do sit down man. “Sit” I said. I don’t… Well, of course I do, but I mean to say I intend you no harm. We’re all in this together and have our duties and it’s really just the same as it always was. We put in a day’s work, take the pay and go home safe and sound to our families.”
   Consider the alternatives if you don’t, Robbins, ‘old boy’, I interpreted. Damn him.
   Too late for that, too. The banter was all Battle of Britain fighter pilot’s safely returned from stonking the Hun but this thing was Twenty-First Century managerialism incarnate. We on the Lunatic Fringe had believed and blogged endlessly that (motto: “Exceeding beyond belief”)was a communist front importing Marxism into the newsrooms, schools and town halls of Britain via influence peddling and entryism: leveraging European Union health-and-safety directives and environmentalism as the vectors of the disease of unfreedom; English ACORNs. We had been dead wrong. Now most of us weren’t even wrong.
  “See here Brian,” the Chairman went on, waving an ostentatiously ceramic paperknife over a Security report into the Professor’s death, “We have a huge hole in the T.O. because of the Professor’s suicide. Injecting haemotoxin into one’s Nobel Laureate arteries: such a waste. His talent will be missed. The shareholders coveted his research long before its publication forced us to scrap our timetable. Milner is chiefly responsible for where we are today; all at sixes and sevens, rushing around half a century ahead of schedule. What I need to know now is if you or anyone else in Human Resources had any inkling about the Professor’s state of mind or his intentions.” It had been called Personnel Management back when I took my degree. I hate the new title and beleive it’s one of theirs; a part of the drip, drip, drip subversion of hitherto free peoples towards Mankind’s newfound status as property.
   Be careful, lad, it’s not England any more. These days the phrase ‘human rights’ refers to cargo manifests, auctioneers’ lists and bills of sale. “Mister Naughtie, we had no idea. Our records have been kept current and thoroughly cross-referenced since 9/11 when the Company took on more defence contracts. The scientists just don’t impinge into HR territory very much. Mostly it’s squabbles about parking spaces or when employment law obliges us to order them on statutory leave. But then they simply log on from home and work the centrifuges remotely.” The Company had constructed automated laboratories under the new Administration Wing. If Al-Qaeda  or a revanchist Russia had bombed it the probability was high that the filtration plants would have continued unhindered – which was probably why our secret owners had instructed their puppet powers-that-be to design the factory back in 2003.
   “I’m placing a great deal of trust in you Brian, and hold you personally responsible for the welfare of our research staff. Observe carefully and if anyone shows the slightest sign of trouble report him immediately. The switchboard’s manned 24/7 and emails to treason@ go straight to Security here in the Basement. We’ll respond without delay.” They can’t phone or Skype but they can operate keyboards. “Don’t be so glum. This is promotion to Non-executive Director. You’re respected by the Shareholders, our partners and other stakeholders. So much so that we’re contemplating freelancing you to work the day shift permanently and see your lovely daughter at seven o’clock every evening.” Which meant she’d soon be attending an Academy where the hostage children of the janissary caste learn to administrate their fellow humans’ lives as valuable, replaceable chattels.
  “Oh, and Robbins. You haven’t seen your ruffian brother lately, have you? Such talent squandered by going into the former army. We need chaps like him minding Africa now the aid budget’s been rationalised.”
   “No, sir. I haven’t seen him since before…Before.”
   “Very well then, off you go. You have much to do.”

   Outside it almost resembled the country of my birth; moonlit walls bordering asymmetrical Norman fields. Limestone houses with high roofs. Cricket pitches and pubs and the occasional origami fuselage of a downed helicopter. Burned churches and scorched and poisoned riverbanks. Gallows everywhere.
   They’d always owned the Internet but hedges make perfect dead letterboxes and three brief blue LED flashes confirmed that my family was safely evacuated. While Yorkshire is no Himalayan sanctuary or Appalachian militia camp, it is big. As I scattered a flask of garlic pollen into the air conditioning and pulled on cricketer’s body protection and high-impact polymer helmet I glimpsed the Management car park where dark-windowed BMWs stood in oil from the auxiliary generator tanks leaking towards time delay fuses.
   I handed traditional ash wood cricket stumps to each of the others drifting in through the Company gym: we’d give Naughtie stakeholders indeed.
   I hefted a steel-tipped stump and prayed (without truly hoping) that I wasn’t promoting myself from Management’s Flavour of the Month straight to Chef’s Special.


Steve Green said...

Corporate politics, skulduggery, whatever changes the world sees, nothing ever really changes, does it?

Nicely written.

I love the expression "Clubbable face" BTW. :)

AB Singer said...

Thank you, Steve- you're very kind.
Plus it's set in Yorkshire in a nice way, which was a bit of a stretch for me, dwelling as I do in the other place ;-)

I just hope the real doesn't come after me. Vampires I can handle, but They are truly scary. another reason to write under a pseudonym.
'Clubbable,'- I like to fit in one Victorianism per story if I can. Next stop, 'disreputable old pipe.'