Prologue: The End

Ian entered his office compliantly.  He could see the inevitability of the events that would unfold before him and decided he had no choice other than calmly to accept his fate.  So many other people had mustered the necessary courage and dignity to look down at the precipice which lay before him and take the next step – and untold numbers of others would, at some point, follow.  It was, he rather mawkishly thought, a far, far better thing than he had ever done.

He wasn’t sure if it was the case that he really hadn’t seen this coming until it was too late or that he’d been in denial about it for too long.  Whether or not his subconscious was to blame for not sharing any possible misgivings with his res cogitans was a point made moot by the fact that his time to confront the matter had run out, either way.

Even then, time was not his enemy.  Today, that particular status was enjoyed by Smash-It plc, as represented by Sunday Ambrose from Human Resources, a tall woman who managed to perform the daily task of persuading her not inconsiderate frame into a neat, if rather bland, business suit.  She sheepishly bade him forward as she positioned herself behind his desk and, with a level of amiability that was clearly professionally-forced and wholly unbecoming of the moment, she gathered herself and broke the awkward silence.

“Please.  Do take a seat, Ian.”

Ian sat obediently, ignoring her plastered-on smile, trying to remember when he’d last sat in the ‘guest’ chair in his own office.  In the twelve years he’d called it ‘his’ office, he decided he couldn’t recall a single occasion.  He casually drank in the unfamiliar angle of a room he spent most of his waking hours in and considered his opening line.

“You, er, wanted to see me”, he dead-panned and watched his words fly harmlessly over Sunday’s neatly-coiffured head.  In his usual unthreatening way, Ian found himself unable to let pass an opportunity for gentle subversiveness.  He’d have been noted for his sardonic genius, if it weren’t for the fact that very few people with whom he interacted had the level of awareness required to spot it.

“Yes, that’s right, Ian. I did”, enthused Sunday, ploughing on regardless, with her rictus grin and her list of conversation objectives.  Instinctively, she scrabbled to return the compliment in order to orientate the meeting towards her next milestone: “Thank you for coming to see me, today…”

“Well, technically, you came to see me, didn’t you?”  Ian interrupted, overtly sweeping his gaze across their surroundings, attempting to re-calibrate Sunday with his reality.

Sunday shifted uneasily.  She was aware that this encounter was already not going according to plan and it threatened to unsettle her.  Such deviations from her script were not supposed to happen until later on in the conversation and she suddenly found herself ill-prepared for such premature off-road navigation.

“Quite”, she fumbled, her smile becoming more watery by the second, her poise under serious assault from her personal purgatory of unpredictability.  She decided that the best defence was to speak quickly and permit no interruption.  “Anyway, there’s something I’d like to speak with you about. As you know, we’ve entered a period of rationalisation and you’ll be aware of the recent emails in which the business stated that it may be necessary for certain departments to review their levels of human resource, going forwards, which may impact yourself.  To that end, I should like to advise you that…”

“Okay.”

“Pardon?”

“I said ‘okay’.”

Her professional smile returned, suddenly recharged by the jolt of further uncertainty.

“I’m sorry, Ian, I don’t under-“

Ian exhaled heavily and let his words tumble out quickly, as if he was merely acting as a medium for another, more courageous entity.

“Sunday, let me help you with this: I’m sorry, I can’t stand your discomfort any longer.  You’re committing serial crimes against grammar, you’re lapsing into management-speak and you’re effectively blocking me out of this conversation by talking at me about my future while doing your very best to feign sincerity.  I just want to let you know where this is going and, do you know what, I’m okay with it – redundancy, I mean.”

Not for the first time, Sunday struggled to retain her composure.  As performance reviews go, not only had she never received anything like it but, infinitely more dispiritingly, it was more scathing than anything she’d ever meted out to anyone in her professional capacity.  She wrestled to maintain her veneer of affability as she inwardly bristled at the logical-conclusion unfavourable comparison with the most inept colleagues she’d ever taken to task.  The smile fell from her face and was replaced by an expression that Ian could see was more akin to that of a normal person.  Briefly, she searched for a face-saving response and, in the absence of any, decided to resort instead to denial as a means of getting back on track.

“You’re saying you’re okay with redundancy?”

“Yes, I am, Sunday. I know jobs are being cut and I have an idea how much redundancy would be in my case, after twelve years.  Of course I’d miss all this but if you’re offering me that amount of money…”

“We’re not offering you redundancy.”

“Excuse me.”

“I’m sorry.  We’re not offering you redundancy, Ian.”

“Well, why are having this meeting, then?  Perhaps you’re offering me a promotion.”

“Er, no, Ian.  The business is looking to let you go but we don’t want to be associated with any redundancies, what with all the recent…negative publicity.”

In an instant, the mood shifted diametrically.  Ian had been emboldened by his certainty of a tidy pay-out to recognise the length of his service, Sunday was reticent to confirm Smash-It plc’s intention to remove Ian from its employ.  Now, Ian was on the back foot and Sunday sensed the opportunity to take back the initiative.

“We’re looking to negotiate a mutually-acceptable severance with you, if you’ll waive your right to redundancy.”

“If I’ll what?” Ian blurted, his words aired in a loud crescendo before he’d even realised he’d uttered them.

Ian had made a career out of being unruffled and presenting a detached, even distant front, however testing the circumstances.  Since university, he’d worked in the Internal reporting team at Smash-It plc, the well-known, occasionally infamous discount retailer run by its maverick owner James Wallace.  In that time, he’d navigated his way through countless missed deadlines for various weekly, periodic, quarterly and even annual reports.  He’d seen chicanery and subterfuge employed by almost every other department with something to hide, Director-level arguments that threatened to descend into fist-fights when figures were poor and outright deception to massage the numbers if the truth was deemed to be unsuitable for the City.  He’d lost count of the number of all-nighters he’d been asked to participate in, in order to put the figures out on time after yet another late inter-departmental submission and he’d borne the status as the figurehead of the company’s Least Popular Department for most of his tenure.  In short, Ian was not easily given to losing his cool.  Had he been, he wouldn’t have survived there for so long.  Now, in his unfamiliar chair he found himself in the unfamiliar position of struggling to contain his mounting anger.

Sunday leant back slightly in Ian’s chair and surveyed him across his desk.  This was more like it: a predictable response.  She’d never particularly looked forward to the confrontation inherent with this part of her job but, having reached that low water-mark, she’d learned that it signalled the point in the conversation that served as a cue for the next stage, resigned pragmatism.  She hoped it wouldn’t take long to arrive.

“If I’ll waive my rights, you mean!”  thundered Ian.  “Do you lot even know what the word ‘rights’ means?  Why should I negotiate back from what I’m legally entitled to, just to save this massive cash cow a few quid?  And don’t give me that bollocks about negative publicity – like that’s ever stopped anyone here from all the ridiculous stunts they’ve pulled, over the years!”

“I’m sorry, Ian.  We both know it’s the way they work these things.  Of course you’re entitled to the full amount but you know you’ll end up chasing it through the courts – and it could take years”, the merest betrayal of a West Indian lilt had begun to embroider her standard diction as she relaxed slightly, having reached her key conversation objective.

It wasn’t the tenor of Sunday’s words that softened Ian’s resolve, it was her unexpected transition from corporate automaton to reasonable human being – a metamorphosis so quick and efficient that he even wondered if this was part of the ‘process’ that this situation demanded of her.  Combined with the impeccable logic she presented, Ian could feel his position slipping rapidly.

“How much?” he hardly dared ask.

“Half”.  Sunday grimaced.  ‘Here come more fireworks’, she thought.

“Bastards”, Ian hissed, his mind involuntarily calculating how much this conversation was costing him.  Belatedly, a weak thought occurred to him.  “Three quarters?”

“No.  Sorry, non-negotiable.”

“You just said ‘negotiate a mutually-acceptable severance’.”

“Did I? Well, I can’t go any further than half.  Sorry, my hands are tied – but it’ll be in your bank account by close of play.”

Ian duly noted the ‘act now’ attempt to close the deal, recognising it as the tactic of the shyster and considered his options.  “What if I don’t accept it?”

“Officially, I have no idea but off the record, you’ll probably be performance-managed out”,  Sunday resumed the act momentarily and deployed a bargaining chip so well-worn, it would have made Ian wince – if hadn’t been wincing already: “What do you want, Ian?  Half of something or a hundred percent of nothing?”

She was right and he knew it.  Smash-It plc had plenty of experience of these situations and enough legal resource to know how to avoid all the pitfalls.  The cards were stacked against him and he had no doubt that her artifice had now slipped completely – the question may have been little more than a rhetorical device from a company mouthpiece but the words could just as easily have been genuine advice from a fellow employee.

“Right  What do I have to do?”

“Just sign here and we’ll give you half an hour to gather up your things”, Sunday replied, as apologetically as she could.