Sunday, 28 January 2018

Dropping a clanger

The alarm dragged Toby out of his dream, and it had been one he was really enjoying. He groggily threw back the covers and plodded toward the freezing bathroom. He washed and dressed in silence before going to the tiny kitchen to boil the kettle. He turned on the radio to chase the emptiness from the apartment and wondered how he had called this place home for two years.

At ten to eight, he entered the drab office block and waited for the elevator. A second after the doors closed he got the lingering stink of a fart and tried to hold his breath for the five-floor ride. He failed on floor three and choked on the fumes. When the door opened a woman was waiting to get on. Toby hurried away knowing she would now think he was responsible for the horrible stench. It was a typical start to the daily grind in the life of an intern.

The offices of Phoenix International were an open-plan sea of desks, half hidden behind chest-high partitions. Despite the grandeur of the company name, it was nothing more than a telemarketing company. He and the rest of the minions spent all day, every day, calling unsuspecting people trying to get them to upgrade, switch or invest, in whatever company had hired their services. Toby paused at the clock in machine and rested his finger on the pad. The thing beeped and his soul was signed away for another nine hours.

Even though it was early over half the desks were already occupied. In his glass-fronted office, Mr Jefferies lounged in his leather executive chair. Toby started his computer and today’s list of victims appeared. He sighed and pulled forward his script to refresh his spiel. Upgrade to bill pay and get one-hundred free international minutes, it said.

Ten past nine the bell rang for the first time, that God-damn bell. It was one of Mr Jefferies motivational additions but in Toby's opinion it had the exact opposite effect. Every time you made a sale you had to go to the middle of the room and clang the stupid thing then endure the forced joy of your co-workers. Toby stood and joined the muted applause as a grinning redhead smiled bashfully. In his office Mr Jefferies looked like a demented seal, pounding his hands together. Here it comes, thought Toby. Any second now. On cue, Mr Jefferies mimed high-fiving the blushing woman. What ridiculous shite.

At that moment, Suzie scuttled into the cubicle across from Toby's. She powered up her computer, plopped her headset on and was already introducing herself to her first potential victim before she had her coat off. Toby liked Suzie but she always seemed to be in a wiz, with a thousand balls in the air and terrified of dropping even one. She was a mom you see, and one without a partner to help her. The poor girl was constantly exhausted.

Throughout the morning the bell clanged occasionally and everyone jumped to their feet like Pavlov’s dogs, but sales were not overly common. Most people told Toby to go f**k himself or some more polite version of that sentiment. That was tough, particularly when his wage was linked to the number of calls he made and the number of sales he achieved. In contrast to Mr Jefferies' celebration of sales, Philippa from accounts seemed to resent every cent that went into a pay-packet. The penny-pinching administrator paused as she passed Suzie desk and said, “Fifteen minutes late, again, Miss Granger.”
“I know, it was my son’s…”
“Excuses won’t cut any mustard with me, Miss Granger. A note will be added to your file,” the shrill woman said and began to walk away. As an afterthought, she added, “And the loss of your first hour of course.”
Toby bristled. He knew the note meant nothing, all Philippa cared about was getting forty-five free minutes work from an employee. It all transferred to the bottom line, pure profit. If Suzie was late every single day they would happily keep employing her and keep sucking her hours away. It was just another scam. Stuff like that got right on Toby's wick. Anyone could see that Suzie was doing her best and a hell of a lot better than most people were. Philippa should be helping make her life better not looking for every opportunity to turn the screw a bit tighter, but that would never happen. Philippa and Mr Jefferies were the same in that way. They knew when they had someone by the short and currlies and they loved twisting those bad-boys.

At twelve forty, Mr Jefferies appeared over Toby and said, “Brain-drain. My office. In five,” before sauntering away. Brain drain? The man was so steeped in management lingo he had lost the ability to use the English language. Toby looked at his watch and cursed the man. That was his lunch break done for and more importantly, he would miss out on seeing Joan. He gathered a pen and jotter then followed his boss. The brain-drain turned out to be a long-winded rant by Mr Jefferies bemoaning the new targets set by head office. Philippa chipped in with bolstering comments from time to time but Toby didn't speak even once. After a while, there was a knock at the door and the smiling face of Joan appeared.
                “Would anyone like to order something?” she asked, nodding toward the basket of sandwiches and buns slung over her arm. Toby felt his heart race and a blush sprang to his cheeks but Mr Jefferies beat him to the punch.
“We’re all good here,” he said and continued with his commentary. Joan slipped out and the only light in Toby’s life vanished for another day. The meeting ended at ten to two and Toby knew he would never make his call quota today. He would only take home sixty percent of his wage. He would be better off on the dole. Despite the pointlessness of it, he picked up his phone and dialled the next number on his list.

Five-forty-five that evening he was putting on his jacket when his phone rang. He picked it up and heard Mr Jefferies' voice on the end of a hand's free connection, road noises filled in the background.
“Glad I caught you, Toby. I need you to do a little job for me.”
Inside, Toby winced but heard himself say, “Sure.”
“There is a guy coming over to install an upgrade in the computer system but he's running late. Can you hang on for a few minutes till he gets there?”
“I was just on my way out,” Toby said and he thought it sounded like a whinge.
“The road to the top is a tough one, Toby. If you can’t put the needs of the company …”
“No. It’s fine, I can wait,” he said. This job was a shitty one but it was the only one he had.
“I knew I could count on you. See you in the morning. Oh, and one more thing. You better clock out to keep the rosters straight.” he said and hung up.
“Shit,” said Toby and slammed the handset into the cradle. His stomach growled and he knew it was going to be empty for a while more. He went to the fingerprint pad and pressed his digit to it. The machine beeped and he was off the clock, but still trapped.

              The office was empty by the time the computer guy turned up and Toby was starving.
“Sorry I’m late,” said the guy struggling under a tonne of cases.
“It’s fine. Let me take some of those,” said Toby.
“Cheers,” said the guy handing over a bag filled with tools then extended his hand saying, “I'm Moggs, nice to meet you.”
“Toby,” he replied and shook the man’s hand. Toby liked him already, he had a devilish twinkle in his eyes.
“Right. Point me in the direction of the server room and let’s get this over and done with. Moggs turned out to be as good as his word and worked like lightning. Soon he had the new programme loading and they had time to chat while the progression bar slowly ticked upward. It turned out they had a hell of a lot in common. They were both interns, they both were underpaid, underappreciated and overworked.
“I’ll let you in on a secret,” said Moggs at last.
“I’m all ears.”
“None of them really know what's going on.”
“None of who?”
“The bosses.”
“Yea. This little baby is the real power behind the wizard,” he said patting his laptop.
“How do you mean?”
“Look, every day this thing spits out a report and they all take it for gospel. Not one of them knows enough about the business or the way the programme works to know if the numbers are real or not. They are all blindly following along behind this digital Pied Piper.”
“So if the computer gets it wrong they would never know.”
“Not unless it goes completely insane. They never see the small things, which is why we have to do updates. To catch the glitches, you know.”
“It must be complicated.”
“Na, not at all. Do you want me to show you?”
“I’d love that if you don’t mind.”
“Sure but keep it to yourself, fair enough.”
“You can count on it.” For the next hour, Moggs showed him the ins and outs of the programme. The backdoor log in, how a few little tweaks here and there could change the whole thing, making fantasy become reality. When Toby eventually left the office, with an empty stomach and a full brain, he decided it was time to stick it to Mr Jefferies and his snivelling sidekick Philippa.

The next morning when the alarm went off, Toby sprang from the bed, eager to get to work for the first time in ages. His head buzzed with all the stuff he could do to show up his boss for the drooling idiot he was. He logged into the administrator section of the programme, as Moggs had shown him, but there he stalled, he couldn’t make himself do it. He didn't want to lower himself to the level of pettiness that Philippa enjoyed. Instead, he opened his call list and started working.
Suzie arrived in a panic, as always, and hurriedly began getting her workstation up and running. “Tough morning?” he asked.
“Terrible. The bus was late and I had to run all the way from dropping my little fella at the child-minder but I still didn’t make it on time. I know that witch is going to dock me another hour, and I can’t afford that. I have to make my quota this week or I don’t know what I will do.” Toby nodded and dialled his next number. While Suzie went about her work he opened the programme window and called up the payroll section. He selected Suzie timecard and changed her nine-twelve clock in to eight-fifty-nine. It wasn’t stealing, if anything it was stopping the company from robbing her. Deep inside he felt a glow of contentment as he went back to work.

Lunchtime rolled around and Joan appeared with her basket of goodies. She stopped at desks asking people if they wanted to buy something and Toby's eyes tracked her like a fox watching a chicken. When she reached his desk she gave him a magical smile and asked, "Would you like anything?"
"A ham roll and a muffin if you have one," he said with a hitch in his voice. It must have been his heart clogging up his throat.
"Sure, Honey," she said and popped them on his desk. She took his money and moved on.
"She called me, Honey," he said to himself and felt a flutter in his chest. She might call everyone honey, but he didn't care. He never enjoyed a meal so much.

The rest of the day passed without incident and it was the first time in ages he felt motivated. Even the clanging of the bell and the pantomime they had to perform with each ring failed to annoy him. Before leaving he logged back into the administrator programme and looked at Suzie’s calls for the day. She'd nearly made it, only twenty short and she had skipped her lunch. In Toby’s mind, she had worked hard enough to deserve her full day's wage so with a click of his mouse he added thirty-five calls to her total and closed out the programme. Toby walked home on cloud nine.

Over the coming weeks, he continued to make little adjustments here and there as people deserved them. He helped Suzie keep on track of her attendance, so long as she wasn’t too late. He added a sale here and there to people who worked hard but rarely got the credit. He adjusted a few customer feedback forms to mention particular staff so they would be recognised and praised for work they had already done. They were all only tiny little things and not one of them were done to damage the company. Actually, he began to notice something unusual. People started getting happier. The bell rang more often and people started believing that the impossible targets were possible after all. They all started to approach their customers with a genuine warmth, and it showed. Mr Jefferies even eased up on them. After all, he believed this new upward trend in sales was all down to him. But all that ended the day the email arrived.

Mr Jefferies came out of his office like a raging bull and stormed up to accounts in search of Philippa. He reappeared with a trail of worried looking managers in tow and the shouting began. The words E-mail and Head Office were repeated often and loudly. Deep in Toby's gut, he knew this was something to do with him so he logged into the server and opened up Mr Jefferies E mails. In glaring black and white, all his nightmares became reality. There was an inspection team on their way from the US to investigate unexplainable irregularities. Toby knew that meant one thing, they were coming to find him. He kept his head down until five thirty and left the office. His stomach churned with worry and no matter what way he looked at things, trouble lay ahead.

That night he didn't sleep a wink and when he turned up the following day, a cloud of gloom hung over the office. He kept his head down as manager after manager filed in and out of Mr Jefferies' sanctum. The two strangers looming about the place were clearly the American henchmen and their stony glares did nothing to dispel that notion. Around eleven, a girl from accounts fled Mr Jefferies' office in tears. Toby left his cubicle to follow her as he just had to know what was going on. 
"Are you, OK?" he asked the girl as she stopped to wipe away her running mascara.
"No, I'm not. They're saying someone interfered with the accounts and they're trying to pin it on me."
"That's crazy!"
"I know but they don't care. They said I had access codes and they wouldn't believe that I've never used them."
"Don't worry too much. I'm sure it will work itself out," said Toby earning himself a stony glare from the girl.
"And how would you know?" she snapped before storming away.

Toby turned back to the office and knew he had to face the music. He never imagined that someone else could get in trouble for what he'd done. Toby went to Mr Jefferies door, knocked and went in. His boss looked up and barked, "Can't you see I'm busy, Toby. I'm sure whatever it is can wait."
"I don't think it can, Sir."
"Well spit it out then," snapped his boss as the two American's talked among themselves.
"I know who interfered with the computer." That got the attention of the strangers and shocked Mr Jefferies into silence.
"I think you better come in," said one of the Americans.
Once he was seated Mr Jefferies said, "Well, who was it then?"
"Don't talk rubbish, you couldn't possibly have done that." Toby sighed and began telling his story. He told them everything but left out Moggs. He said he saw the password and figured out the rest himself. When he came to an end Mr Jefferies jumped to his feet and roared, "You're finished here! You'll never work in this town again! I'm calling the police!" His boss looked to the strangers but their faces gave nothing away.
"What's your name again?" asked one of the men.
"This is a very serious situation," the man said severely. "You're suspended pending investigation. I must ask you to leave the office and not return until you’re contacted, is that clear?"
"I'll get my coat," said Toby, his words crushed under his doom.
"I'll walk you to the door," said the American. Toby felt like a criminal and for the first time he worried that he might have actually broken the law. Could he end up behind bars for this? As Toby was escorted from the office, every eye was on him, including Joan's, who was in the middle of her lunch round.

All that night, and most of the next day, he expected a knock on his door and the feel of handcuffs on his wrists but neither arrived. What did arrive was a text saying, Please attend the office for a meeting in the morning, eleven am. After reading it Toby wondered should he pack a bag. He might not see his flat again for six to twelve months.
When he arrived at work he was shown into Mr Jefferies' office where a full welcoming committee waited, thankfully none of them were police. Present were Mr Jefferies, Philippa, the two Americans and an empty chair for him.
"Have a seat," said the American who had done all the talking on the first day. Toby thought he was more likely to faint than sit but he managed to keep upright in the chair. "I want to start by saying that we have spoken with all the members of staff who you...assisted, and they all confirm they were completely in the dark about what you had done." Toby looked around and noted the glare Philippa was sending his way and Mr Jefferies' smug look. Whatever was coming his way was going to be very very bad. The American continued talking.
"We have made a full assessment of the changes you made and found that you didn't improve your own sales calls, time card, or any other aspect of your personal record. Can you tell us why?"
"It was never about making more money or anything like that. I just wanted people to be treated a bit more fairly."
"That is completely out..." shouted Mr Jefferies but the American held up his hand and silenced him.
"Do you believe people were being treated unfairly?" asked the American.
"Well, unfairly might be overly strong, but not very well." Mr Jefferies looked like he was about to explode.
"Strangely, it seems that even after reversing your influence, this office showed a marked improvement in productivity over the last weeks. Record-breaking even," said the American as if Mr Jefferies were invisible.
"Purely coincidental," snipped Philippa.
"I beg to differ," said the American who had not yet spoken. Toby noticed the first man sit back, this was clearly the big boss speaking. "This young man has done something very stupid but in doing so he has unearthed an even more glaring mistake on our behalf," said the man glowering at Philippa and Mr Jefferies.
"Mistake," snorted Mr Jefferies.
"We, and by extension you, forgot we are an industry dependent on people, run by people and all of them deserve to be treated with dignity. He has also shown us just how ignorant we are of our own success and failings. Having said that... Toby's actions cannot go unanswered. What I'm suggesting is a period away from the office for this young man."
"Please don't send me to prison," sobbed Toby and he failed to hold back his tears.
"I'm suggesting nothing of the sort," said the American, his tone softening.
"Then what are you suggesting," snorted Mr Jefferies pushing his chair back from the desk and stapling his hands behind his head.
"I'm suggesting he comes to the States and works with us in head office for three months then he returns here as office controller." Toby couldn't believe his ears.
"You're rewarding criminality!" yelled Mr Jefferies.
"I'm rewarding ingenuity and he didn't steal anything from us, he made our company stronger!" yelled the American slamming his fist on the table. The sound was still reverberating off the walls when Mr Jefferies snapped his mouth closed. The American turned to Toby and asked with a smile, "You ready to go back to work?"
"Am I ever!" said Toby standing to shake the man's hand, delighted he was not going to jail.

As Toby opened the door of Mr Jefferies' office he could see eyes peering at him from everywhere. Slowly, Suzie stood up, smiled, and began applauding. One by one, every one of his workmates joined in until the noise was thunderous. That was when the cheering started. Toby couldn't help himself he snatched a scissors from a desk and walked to the bell in the middle of the room. With one snip the clanger fell into his hand and he held it aloft like a victorious warrior.

In the midst of the hoots and hollers, he saw Joan walking away from his desk. When he got there he found a muffin and a ham roll waiting for him. On the blotter was a note. It said, "I love a rebel. Call me." Beside it was her number, and for Toby, this great day became legendary. 

I hope you enjoyed the story. If you did, why not give my new book a go, I promise you wont be sorry. Squid

Thirty Pieces of Silver - Click here to get the book.

Thirty Pieces of Silver by [McFinnigan, Squid]

Customer review.
January 25, 2018
Format: Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase