The Man Who Looked Busy [Short Fiction]

A portrait of something I’ve observed that I’m now trying to represent. It’s been through the blender on Reddit and I’m happy with how it’s come out.


The Man Who Looked Busy by Imran Lorgat.

Thomas had a problem: he had completed all of his work.
 	Unusual, and yet it could not be denied. Customer Complaints AC-161 through AC-218 had all been resolved, and even that report on the Authorised Car complaints system that his boss wanted by the end of the month had somehow managed to get itself done. When Thomas looked back later and tried to understand how exactly this had happened he came up blank. The only explanation that seemed to present itself was that he had somehow become so absorbed, so engaged by what he was doing that he must have reached a state of ‘flow’ where all things became possible. This presented a practical problem, because if it happened once then it could certainly happen again. And while Thomas was almost certain that   new customer complaints would appear on his desk first thing the next morning, at the time when Thomas completed his work it had only been 11:00 AM. This left some five hours (if one excluded lunch) that needed filling before Thomas could retreat back to his abode and await the next day’s tasks. But between now and that fateful five o’clock there awaited a desperate, desperate-
 	“What are ya doin?”
 	Thomas almost fell out of his chair.
 	“Woah, chill,” Curtis raised his hands, a universally accepted sign of non-aggression. Curtis was wearing his usual costume today: unkempt blond ponytail, unkempt spiky stubble, unkempt (and possibly unwashed) black jacket, just unkemptness all around.
 	“Dude, I just asked what you were doing,” Curtis paused to sip his water, “No need to get a gastroscopy.”
 	“Oh I was just...” answered Thomas, “I, I was just achieving operational efficiencies through innovation and the implementation of efficiencies and-”
 	“Listen,” said Curtis not listening, “There was actually something I wanted to talk to you about.”
 	“Well I’m really busy at the moment. You know how things get this time of the month,” Thomas casually switched off his screen, “But I think I can spare five minutes.”
 	“Ok cool. Well I was just over in Sales chatting to some of the guys over there and guess what?”
 	Thomas had no good guesses.
 	“Guess how much they earn?”
 	“I don’t know.”
 	“They take home 12k a month!”
     “Wow. That’s err-,” Thomas was not sure if he’s meant to be impressed.
 	“That’s like 20% more than we get! (it was 15% when Thomas did the calculation later) And get this: they have a coffee machine and they get commission for every car they sell.”
 	“I’m sure that must add up over time.”
 	“I’m telling you Thomas, we’ve got it rough here in Customer Service. I mean I’m sick of drinking water,” Curtis sips his water, “I mean I know this stuff is supposed to be good for you or whatever but give me a coffee over it any day. Heck I’ll even take tea.”
 	Thomas nodded, carefully closing his drawer. He brings his own teabags to work and it is for the best that Curtis does not see them.
 	“I mean I could be a salesman right, Thomas? I know sometimes I come here and I could tidy myself up a bit more but we’re backroom staff. I can clean up really good if I want to. And I’ve got the charisma for it.”
 	Thomas kept nodding.
 	“Maybe I should go speak to sales and ask if they have an opening. In fact, I think I’ll do that right now.”
 	“Good luck with it. Keep me in the loop.”
 	“Sure,” Curtis answered, “And I’ll ask them if they have something for you as well. See ya.”
     Sales probably did not have openings because Thomas later sighted Curtis sulking near the water-cooler, telling anyone who passed by that he was ‘on strike’. But at the time Curtis’s departure left Thomas free to continue his quest to appear busy until the day end. Fortunately Thomas had a plan: he opened the report that was due at the end of the month and then began systematically changing all the headings from blue to green, and then back from green to blue again. By repeating this process, if ever someone passed by and looked over Thomas’s shoulder it would appear that he was either changing the headings to green (to give the document an appearance of environmental friendliness) or changing the headings to blue (to give the document a semblance of professionalism). Of course, the plan was not fool-proof.If someone were to stand behind Thomas for an extended period of time, they would notice that he was changing the headings back, and while this could initially be attributed to indecisiveness, over the long-term a careful observer would realize what Thomas was doing and the ‘jig’ would be ‘up’, as the youngsters say. But at the time the plan seemed worth the risk and Thomas was certain that-
 	“How’s it going Tom?”
 	“Yes, yes! It’s going great, I mean it’s going busy, I mean can I help you with something?”
 	It was Thomas’s manager: Mack. He wore a striped shirt (blue on white) with a striped tie (white on blue), the resulting combination of which made him appear very busy to the naked eye.
 	“You don’t mind if I call you Tom, do you?” Mack had been asking that same question for seven years.
 	“No sir, I don’t,” Thomas suspected the nickname had something to do with Mack’s rapacious need to shorten every proper noun he came across to one syllable. Thomas became ‘Tom’, Curtis became ‘Curt’, Rihanna became ‘Ri’; who even knew what ‘Mack’ stood for anymore? (Mackelroy? Mackerel?). Thomas decided to strike pre-emptively: “Sir I was actually just busy operationalizing that report you commissioned, and while it’s far from completion and I still need to make some substantial edits and possibly include a cost-benefit analysis, I just want to let you know that I’ve been doing the utmost -”
 	“Tom, Tom, Tom,” Mack held his head, “Ease up on the work talk would you? I just got in.”
 	Thomas checked the clock on the bottom right corner of his screen: 12:35 PM.
 	“And I’ve got a killer headache, I mean wow,” Thomas noticed that Mack was wearing sunglasses, “I had a bit of a late night, if you know what I mean.”
     Thomas didn’t. He slept before 11:00 PM most nights and woke up at 6:00 AM so that he could arrive at work by 6:45. While it was true that this only allowed him seven hours of sleep, if woke up any later he would be caught right in the thick of the morning traffic and only arrive at work past eight. It was, of course, possible for Thomas to sleep an hour earlier but as he usually needed the time for miscellaneous administrative tasks he preferred to catch up the sleep on the weekends.
 	“Last night was a bit crazy, if you know what I mean,” Mack continued, “I mean, you know how it goes: you start with ‘just one beer’ with that blonde who’s been flirting with you all night and before you know it you’re in someone else’s apartment with your pants down and some guy is trying to kiss you because he thinks you’re too drunk to resist.”
 	Thomas did not know about any of these things that Mack thought he knew about.
 	“I know what you mean,” Thomas nodded.
 	“Crazy Wednesdays hey?” said Mack, “I think I’m going to take an early lunch and then I’ll look at the proposal you sent me two weeks ago. But you know how it is when I look at proposals. I don’t want to be disturbed so if anyone comes looking for me tell them I’m ‘incognito’. Catch you later, player.”
 	“Of course, sir.”
 	“Good man.”
 	After Mack’s departure and lunch time’s arrival, Thomas was able to focus and he hit such an effective streak of non-productivity that he might have lasted the entire day. Thomas reordered his inbox, filed away forms and read through the company newsletters. Whatever the means, Thomas was desperate avoid the irrevocable label of  ‘slacker’. This meant leaving early was completely out of the question. And simply telling Mack that he was ahead of schedule would present further complications as an expectation would be created with regard to Thomas’s productivity. And if Thomas were not then able to meet that expectation in the future they would sooner consider Thomas disorganised than the expectation unrealistic . And of course-
 	“Oh my God! I’m so annoyed!”
 	Thomas jolted in his chair: Rihanna to the anti-rescue.
 	“You know that Sandra down in payroll? She’s such a bitch!”
 	“I was just reorganizing my workspace for improved workflow and- yes, I think I know her.”
 	“Well she’s a bitch! There! I said it, I put it out there. I’m tired of keeping quiet about this and covering it up and being like, ‘Oh Sandra, your hair looks so nice today’ and ‘oh Sandra, thank you so much for your help’, when I wouldn’t even need her help if she didn’t screw everything up in the first place. And that’s not even her real hair! She’s wearing extensions. But all the guys around here drool at her and her low-cut top and they forget that she’s so incompetent that-”
 	To be honest: Thomas did not really know why Rihanna always spoke to him about her social issues. He tried to ask her once in a rather roundabout way and Rihanna replied that all the women in Authorised Cars were ‘bitches’ and all the men ‘couldn’t stop staring at her ass’. Thomas had begun to believe that she saw him the only non-threatening masculine presence at her disposal, so unsexualized in her mind that he must have seemed a fellow female. Which placed him out of the line of direct competition. Curiously enough, Rihanna had also previously mentioned the ‘hot guy in Costing’ on more than one occasion with a wink (and even offered to introduce them), so perhaps she believed Thomas was gay. Thomas was not gay, at least not as far as he knew, and while he had to admit that the ‘hot guy in Costing’ was well-groomed, Thomas found himself more attracted to the ‘shy lady at Reception’.
 	“-so, like, this month, I go to see Sandra again about my raise and she’s screwed up my payroll, again. And so now my tax payments are all messed up and I have to get a signed affidavit from the tax department and-”
 	It continued in this manner for some time.
 	“-and I think Sandra does this to me on purpose because she’s jealous and… breathe in, breathe out. Ok, now I’m calm. Wow, I really needed to get that off my chest. Thank you so much for listening, Thomas. You’re a real angel, you know that?”
 	There was a lot that other people believed that Thomas knew, it seemed. And then Rihanna vanished.
 	Fortuitously, Rihanna’s tirade had had the effect of passing the time and when Thomas returned to his desk after a hurried lunch at the salad bar it was closing on 3 o’clock. And with the afternoon hours passing more swiftly than the morning ones, Thomas was certain he could occupy himself until closing with a steadily-paced reorganization of the files in this month’s complaint summary (beginning on next month’s one this early wasn’t even considered), if Gerald had not appeared at his desk with a scowl.
 	“I have some information that may be of interest to you.”
 	Gerald rarely began conversations with a greeting. The ‘office wierdo’, Curtis called him. Curtis also claimed that Gerald kept coming to discuss with Thomas various intrigues because Thomas ‘entertained’ him.
 	“I’m really busy with implementing efficiency procedures, but sure, I’ve got a minute.”
 	Gerald looked around suspiciously before speaking, “Mack Daniels arrived at work today at approximately 12:29 PM. Were you aware of this?”
 	“He mentioned something about coming in late, I guess.”
 	“This is not an uncommon occurrence. I have been noting his times of arrival and departure over the course of the last six months to find that he has a mean arrival time of around 11:48 AM with a median of 11:43. Given that his times of departure are no less flattering there is little doubt in my mind that he works fewer than his requisite eight hours for which he is contractually obligated. The data from my model suggests that his actual working hours are closer to four. This is, of course, making the unrealistic assumption that during those four he is working at full productive capacity.”
 	“I see.”
 	“I have been in contact with Mr Daniels’s manager with regard to his tardiness, a Mr Devan or Derek or something of that regard, and will be meeting him in about half an hour to discuss the full extent of my findings. Mr Daniels’s disciplinary meeting was due to take place last week sometime but as he was absent on that day. it was postponed.”
 	“This sounds quite serious.”
 	“The reason I am telling you this is because the consequences may materially impact your work duties going forward. I have no doubt in my mind that Mack Daniels will be unceremoniously dismissed and there is talk that a Mr Bruce Howard is to be promoted to take his place. Mr Devan is only planning to tell me this in the meeting to follow but I have my ways of finding out what the current state of affairs are.”
 	“How this affects you is that the report that you have been working on for Mr Daniels will no longer be necessary. Mr Devan was vexed to hear that Mr Daniels had commissioned such a report seeing as he was never intended to be involved in the restructuring process to begin with. The matter has been chalked down to incompetence on his part. As you have not completed it, I believe I have shown you benevolence by sparing you the exertion of pointless effort.”
 	“Also, you might be interested to know that the Complaints department is expecting a new member of staff next month. A Mr Naveed, I believe. I’ve done a background check and no anomalies present themselves at present.”
 	“Also, I would like to request a personal favour, if I may. Would you please be so kind as to tell Curtis to look up the word ‘gastroscopy’ on the internet? He has been going around telling people to either have one, or not to have one, and I do not believe that he truly knows what it means. I would tell him myself but the two of us do not have the rapport that you and he share.”
 	“I’ll tell him…”
 	“The meeting with Mr Devan is to begin in some fifteen minutes. I must leave you now.”
	Thomas barely noticed Gerald leaving, barely even waved as he left. The news that his report was no longer necessary struck him as a hard blow, a cruel slap from a cruel world. He did not ponder about the hours wasted collecting data or the having meetings. He did not think of the overtime he put in the previous Sunday to get ahead on the report. He did not think. He merely sat in his chair, with his head down, the suspicion of a frown barely visible across his face. When he finally awoke from his miasmic stupor, he looked at his watch and noted that it was 5:05PM. He had survived the day at last.
 	As he sat in his car, and his car sat in the traffic, and the traffic sat on the highway, and the highway sat half an hour away from his flat, his mind got up off its seat and took a leisurely stroll through the events of the day. His reaching the end of it should have felt like a victory, but it was more of a defeat.

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