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Verge 2017 – Chimera

9

Polyethylene Evergreen

Killian Donohoe

WINNER OF THE VERGE PRIZE FOR PROSE

Bob Geldof (the smug prick) and the Boomtown Rats (probably fine) were wrong. I don’t mind Mondays. Wednesdays are hard work.

Monday and Tuesday, we ask how the weekend was. Thursday and Friday, we ask what’s on for the weekend. But on Wednesday we’re unmoored and adrift—one weekend receded too far behind, the other impossibly far off— and there is nothing to talk about. Our disinterest is like an open fly.

Hump day, am I right? Fuck me.

***

On Friday mornings Marianne comes around our division with a lunchbox and an iPad. The lunchbox is for voluntary gold coin donations and the iPad is to record who’s given what.

She will come up behind my desk, chewing gum like it’s a chore, announcing her arrival with a rattle of the lunchbox. Every week I give her a pageant smile and ask how she is on this magical Friday morning and which segment of the community we’re enriching this week. Every week she rattles the lunchbox again and motions to the masking tape label with her big block letters indicating the lucky recipients of 236 dollars in gold coins.

Ask her another question and the children or the whales or whoever will go without your two bucks.

***

Once a month your Friday gold coin donation buys you the privilege of wearing casual clothes. Yeah, the same deal they ran on the last day of term when you were at primary school. On casual Fridays, the black R.M. Williams turn to brown, the collars soften and a diverse ecosystem of little animals from the zoo of the well-to-do sit stitched on our hearts.

If you were to ask what the ‘work/life balance’ slapped across the front page of their website means (which you wouldn’t), they’d probably talk about casual Friday. The work component is represented by the work that you have to do like any other day, and the life component is represented by the Christmas-present-from-Nan polo shirt that you only wear at work once a month.

***

Every second Friday night there are drinks in the boardroom from 4:30, where, fortified by clean skin wines and original flavour chips, we show face and barely feign interest in each other’s chat.

Geoff, a recently divorced partner, will try to bond with me over an assumed shared appreciation of the size of a coworker’s boobs (bloody massive, by his estimation).

Leanne will work the room like a great politician, entering conversations naturally, adding something funny or interesting and then moving on soon after. It took me a while to realise that between most of her moves she’ll swing past the boardroom table, filling her wine glass so it’s never less than half-full.

Hugh or someone like him will tell me about the theoretical bump in the value of the house he bought six months ago, which he’ll most likely die in. I’ll ask if his dick has grown proportionally with his return on investment, or some other half-joke, naked in my jealousy. Because what else are any of us really here for, if not to reach and then remain at that quaint old marker of Australian adulthood: Home Ownership.

When the drinks run out, those remaining—usually without friend or imagination—will wander to a nearby pub to continue the bonding.

We’ll end up at one of the standard Friday night pubs, with artfully exposed light bulbs, a marble bar and a great selection of craft beers. Prior to the change in management and subsequent refurbishment, these were the sorts of pubs where broken old men would piss themselves on their stools with sad frequency.

In half-shouted conversations I’ll bond with girls over our shared experiences working for financial behemoths. If all goes well I’ll have fairly satisfying sex in the missionary position with a girl called Steph, Soph or Bec. A quick scan of my LinkedIn profile the next day will reveal that I’m not an investment banker.

***

The non-stop thrill ride of Fridays aside, there are four other days prior to push through. In those days you look to whichever higher power you covet most, be it Jesus, drink or prescription meds.

Philip is my work Jesus.

He doesn’t attend work social events. He rarely speaks to anyone. He eats a rotating lunch of McDonalds, KFC, Nandos or Hungry Jacks alone in his office every day, with industrial metal music scraping out of his tinny computer speakers. And on each and every casual Friday, he wears a different Hawaiian shirt coupled with a pair of slacks and white New Balance walking shoes. He’s 29.

Committed by almost anyone else, such acts of rank subversion would be considered a terrorist threat to the vaunted corporate culture and punishable by interminable HR ‘catch-ups,’ and possibly even being sent down for re-education on ‘what we stand for.’ But Philip—and it’s Philip, not fucking Phil—is near unimpeachable by virtue of his beautiful gift for ugly work.

Should you, by divine gift or by your own design, have cause to go to his office, he won’t acknowledge you until he reaches a natural end to the stanza of the balance sheet he’s currently working on. Only then will he look up from his three monitor set-up (standard issue is two). But in those gorgeous moments between entry and acknowledgment, you are in an audience of one with a maestro at the height of his powers. Fingers fly and data dances. The hands move with the ferocious precision of an expert lover. I imagine a fine film of dust on his delete key—its existence a wry joke between the good people of Hewlett Packard and the accounting gods.

He does this all day. Then at 5:15, he leaves and the rest of us don’t.

To be clear, I have little to no adulation to spare for accountants or accounting as a species and a dark art, respectively. But Philip, whether he cares to think about it or not, is one of the very few in this place whose proficiency for the work allows him to sell it alone. He trades his labour and not so much as a smile more.

Those of us, most of us, possessed of lesser talents are forced to throw in various added extras to retain the privilege of bathing in the halogen glow for 60 hours a week. We show up to networking events, ask after the family and agree to participate in corporate triathlons alongside hundreds of old suits that lycra was simply not intended for.

So I suppose woe is me, the financial proletariat, doing wrist straining work day in, day out for a bit less than 100k a year. But then again, if an accountant doesn’t have at least some claim to existentialism, who the fuck does?

***

Inspired by Philip’s conscientious objection from all but the specific dictates of his contract, but not quite good enough at my job to do the same, I devise my own white collar rebellion.

We work on the upper floors of a glass tower you’ve seen but wouldn’t recognise. The temperature is room temperature, never rising or falling from 20 degrees Celsius. The tinted windows prevent the sun from disturbing the white neon light I used to only know from the dentist’s chair. The little bin next to my desk is always empty when I arrive in the morning, the disposable coffee cup and few stray post-it notes I put in there yesterday disappear overnight. We will be here forever, consistent in light, temperature and considered financial judgment.

The only sign of life beyond Phillip’s Hawaiian metal parties is the big potted tree at the end of the reception desk in the lobby. But then that too, is plastic—a more reliable form of life.

Each evening after the receptionists have left for the day, I pass through the lobby, yank a handful of leaves from alternating parts of the tree, pocket them and leave.

I chip away from the trunk outward, maintaining an even level of surface foliage and gutting the inside. After four months of disciplined pruning, all that remains is the outer facade of leaves.

Look, Rosa Parks I am not. But it’s a worthy physical reminder of a truth excluded—that real life is barred from this place as much as death. And if that vaguely pathetic little claim to honesty lets me stay here, then so be it, because I can’t play guitar and I’m far too precious for manual labour.

I don’t know where else to go.

***

I work late on a Thursday, after a day of conspicuous complaints about how flat chat I am.

At about 11:00, when I’m confident I’m the last one here, I get a beer from the fridge on the meeting room floor and head to the lobby. I take a second to behold the leaf facade I’ve engineered, perfectly hollow beneath a lush outer layer. I briefly wonder how much an arborist makes, before setting upon the tree to finish the job.

After months of considered pruning there’s a satisfying crudeness in ripping fistful after fistful from the tree, exposing the plastic branches beneath. I fill a plastic shopping bag with the leaves and it’s done.

I sit on the leather and foam block they call a couch and take in the scene while I finish my beer.

It’s all white marble, black leather and stainless steel, angular and oppressively bright, as though the pearly gates were actually in a stockbroker’s loft in downtown New York. And at the end of the marble slab reception desk is a massive matte black pot holding up the thin brown skeleton of a plastic tree that couldn’t survive here.

***

I get to work at 7:30 the next day to get another look at my handiwork and hopefully catch some of the early birds in their confusion, disgust or, more likely, disinterest.

What I find is a lush plastic tree in a massive matte black pot.

***

That night I bury my hand inside the tree, break off a handful of leaves, pocket them and leave.

Verge 2017 – Chimera

   by Bonnie Reid, Aisling Smith and Gavin Yates