‘Good..ahh..morning, Mrs. Ellis.’
The same greeting every morning. Not just the words. You might consider such an utterance hardly worthy of recognition otherwise. It is, after all, as greetings go, fairly standard. It was the ‘ahh’ she objected to. She had never quite understood the ‘ahh’. Surely he didn’t need time to think if it were, indeed, ‘morning’, as you might have to at half-past eleven say. It was only seven-thirty! It hadn’t bothered her at first, and she had expected it to disappear with time, but, alas, here it was, still in existence, six months later. Delyth Ellis had considered the possibility of Gwyn Davies’ having spoken just once into a Dictaphone, which somehow triggered upon entry into the building, such was the audibly-cloned reappearance of the rogue ‘ahh’. This morning she made sure she studied his mouth to see if it moved with the words.
Gwyn Davies shuffled across the lobby, half-tumbling as he balanced armfuls of files under both arms, like a bad (a really bad) circus tightrope act, and she felt a tinge of disappointment as the audio of his (possibly pre-recorded) greeting paralleled his moving lips. He accelerated quickly through the electric sliding doors. ‘Before they close on me’, the momentarily panicked sideways glance seemed to say, as if in anticipation of reliving a regretful past experience with sliding doors. He hadn’t seemed to understand the concept of sensors and the impossibility of his being seized in their jaws. She liked that about him. It made her smile. His quick half-shuffle, half-wobble (what Delyth Ellis had come to term ‘The Shobble’) never failed to make her grin. Dropping numerous private files over the immaculately polished marble floor, he looked up and smiled at her.
‘Morning to you too, Mr. Davies,’ she replied, (without the unnecessary ‘ahh’) whilst smiling inside at his uber-clumsiness; it seeped out of Gwyn Davies’ every pore, drenching him in a comic like-ability few could match, especially in this darned place. ‘Most of them’, she thought, ‘are as dull as the monotonous grey which lines the endless walls of this drab office-block’. More and more of these places were cropping up around town. ‘Faceless’, Mrs. Ellis thought. It seemed to be the vogue though, to build these silver-grey cloned monstrosities. Gwyn Davies didn’t seem to fit, like a red ant lost in a black ant colony.
If there was ever a spark of color to the grey mornings she spent mopping in Whitle, White and Altman’s, Gwyn Davies was it. He made her feel warm in a way that her grey-cotton fleece had failed to, especially in the presence of the biting winter-cold ‘top-of-the-range’ air-conditioning unit she had never understood the need for. It was Cardiff, not Texas! Gwyn’s luminous orange tie and lime braces brightened the dull backdrop of the other cloned, black and white penguined-paralegals, who moved methodically, like robots, almost camouflaged by the black leather sofas and Autumn-grey walls. They seemed to forever hide in the background, as if trying to avoid making idle, money-wasting chit-chat with a cleaner, she suspected. There were hours to bill after all and, as the company mantra on the stationary stated, ‘Time is Money’.
Gwyn Davies, on the contrary, stood in life’s foreground. On Gwyn, the bright pastel (frequently luminous) colors were often so loud that she felt, at times, like she might have to put her fingers in her ears. She smiled at his choice of attire today, lime braces and some orange, caricatured tie. ‘Oh dear,’ she smiled. It made this colorless place seem more alive though, despite his obvious (heinous) crimes against fashion. She felt a warm glow grow from the pit of her stomach as he stumbled, yet again, on the black and grey marbled floor, a pastel, multi-colored Bambi, and she momentarily stopped her mopping to watch the performance. Laughter was teetering at the back of her throat, but she supposed she could keep it there. She’d never laugh at him on the outside, not like others did.
She was calculating the odds of his getting to the elevator without tripping once more, when he almost made her decision odds-on – ‘a dead cert’ her father used to say – as he leaned over to pick up another dropped file. Gwyn shuffled past the water fountain, a potential hurdle, teetering from side to side, as if on a galleon in heavy, folding seas. From what Mrs. Ellis could see, the odds were now firmly stacked against him staying upright, yet, every day, he seemed to beat the odds.
‘Must not be late,’ he mouthed to another faceless paralegal, grinning widely.
She knew that today was an important one for him. He’d been telling her all week. She supposed he’d been telling everyone. He could never keep things under his hat. It was as important a day in Gwyn Davies’ life as he’d ever had, apparently. But then, he did tend to exaggerate a little. Today’s meeting would determine his future role in the company, he’d said. He was at, what he’d termed, ‘a vocational crossroads’. ‘I haven’t even found the road yet,’ Mrs. Ellis had told him jokingly, following her mop across the black marble. But, after he’d gone, the joke had seemed to sour as she looked to the grey furniture and grey apparel surrounding her and considered her own life.
But she’d been taking steps, she reminded herself. Even if they were pigeon steps, she was sure she was getting closer. To what she didn’t know, but she knew it was there, somewhere in the thinning mists in front of her. Since Graham had walked out on her, she had been balancing her time between her evening IT classes at the college in The Square, the one they called ‘@ Aber Valley’ (she still couldn’t understand why they used ‘@’ these days instead of ‘at’; maybe she was just getting old), her cleaning job at Whitle, White and Altman’s, and listening to a strop-expert fourteen-year-old complain how he hated ‘these bloody steamed vegetables’ and asking why she hadn’t stopped for chips on her way out of ‘that college building’.
Mrs. Ellis was sure that Gwyn Davies had spent all night fretting – god he looked like a fretter – over today’s judgment calling. He told her he’d spent months collecting ‘the data’, he’d ‘collated it all’ he’d boasted, which sounded impressive (even more so the way he rolled the l’s). Finally, the company would benefit from Gwyn Davies it appeared. He would show them that he was ‘management material’ he’d smiled. It seemed that these files were his ‘Magnum Opus’, the same ones he was dropping all over the floor she’d just mopped. ‘I mustn’t screw this up!‘ he’d said to her the previous day, perhaps fishing for a confirmatory ‘Of course you won’t’ from her. All he needed now was to produce the final report and he’d be home dry.
Gwyn had always had a way, Delyth had come to witness, of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It was a flaw that seemed intent on ruining him. Nothing was ever easy for Gwyn. ‘Simple’ and straightforward’ were not terms in Gwyn Davies’ vocabulary. Delyth Ellis had seen him fluff his lines before. Today she prayed that he could break the mold and change for an hour or two. He needed everything to go without hitch today, and she hoped he had taken every precaution to make sure that it did this time. Delyth had her fingers crossed for him. She prayed that this time he’d learnt his lines for the big stage.
The files continued to drop from his cumbersome grip as he continued down the grey corridor to his office. Any would-be pursuer would only had to pick up the trail of paperwork spilling over the floor; he was unavoidable. Tuts filled the air as paralegals shook their heads at his undignified passing; a symphony of sighs drifted down the grey corridor, an invisible concierge accompanying Gwyn to his office door. They would never be so careless! It was not the Whittle, White and Altman way!
Gwyn stacked the files, the ones he still had left, on his desk and retraced his steps, picking up all the dropped files lining the marble floors Delyth had spent this morning mopping; luckily marble dried quickly. The cartooned caricature on his orange tie seemed to line-dance as he rose and fell for each file.
All Gwyn had to do now was write up his final report. He’d told Delyth as much the previous morning. It was ‘fool-proof’, he’d said, whilst kicking over her plastic, yellow ‘Slippery Surface’ sign. She saw the irony and smiled. Another hour to finalize things this morning and he would be home dry. The ‘darned final report’ was the last part, or so he’d said. It was this ‘report’, along with ‘the files’ (presumably the recently retrieved files) which would make his contract renewal ‘a formality’. If he lost any, ‘Well, it doesn’t bear thinking about’, he’d puffed-out whilst rolling his eyes to show the extent of its not being worth even considering. At Whittle, White and Altman things were always completed on time! There were no ifs and buts.
Gwyn, finally fishing up all the files, opened his office door, leaving it ajar as always (every other office door was closed, but never his), plopped himself down at his desk, and flicked his computer into life once more. Waiting for it to load, he turned on the coffee-maker and the radio. Bill Withers was in the middle of singing about there being no sunshine. Gwyn leaned back and clicked his knuckles. His mother had warned him that this annoying habit would give him arthritis if he didn’t stop, but he found it hard to kick the habit.
‘Right. Must concentrate,‘ he reminded himself.
Opening a new page, Gwyn started typing, his fingers clicking the black keys rapidly, he was ‘a fifty words per minute man’ he’d told Delyth Ellis recently. A Microsoft Mozart. Words and statistics flowed, like rushing water from a burst dam. His final report spilled onto pages and pages. He was amazed at how easily the final report came to him. He hummed television theme tunes to himself as he worked, seemingly able to drown out the music drifting from the radio. It always baffled Delyth Ellis that he always chose to hum along to a different song to the ones that played from his radio, even the catchy ones. For once, he hadn’t seemed to overlook anything. Maybe today Gwyn would avoid the routine oversight which had always seemed to plague him. Today was different. Perhaps Bill Withers had been right with his melodic prediction that filled the office: it might just be a ‘lovely day’. Gwyn had known as much when he’d risen this morning and seen the bright, early-morning sun, like a luminous coffee-stain on his usually impenetrable brown curtains. A grin began to break on his face before he had even finished the final section of the report.
With the final sentence written, he scrolled back through the document, checking it over with a fine tooth comb. It seemed perfect. He checked the clock; his meeting was in little over ten minutes. He’d even timed it right. He clicked his knuckles.
As if in disapproval, the luminescent bulb above him suddenly crackled and flashed in an electric fit, before giving-in and cutting out completely. The windowless office was plunged into darkness. The computer screen, the coffee machine and the fax machine all faded into the rapid darkness and Frankie Goes to Hollywood were cut off mid-melody. The ceiling fan above was going from one continuous buzz to second-long ‘thwp’ sounds, a sure sign it was slowing-up. Gwyn sat in the darkness, momentarily bewildered.
Outside in the hall, Delyth Ellis stopped mopping as her black bucket disappeared from sight below her. ‘Another bloody power surge,’ she sighed. The whole area had suffered them recently. It was becoming an irritation as she was forced to strand still in order to avoid kicking over the soapy water, but she supposed it was even more of an irritation to the company big-wigs who billed by the minute. She wondered how much money the company might lose in thirty seconds of lost power as she stood in the darkness.
Twenty seconds later (if even that; it always seemed longer in the dark) the luminous lights flickered back to life, seeming far brighter than they had moments earlier as the penguined paralegals all seemed to squint in unison. Mrs. Ellis’ bucket and mop-head became visible once more. The appliances in Gwyn’s office also fired up again.
Delyth Ellis popped her head round the half-open door, just as Gwyn’s computer was buzzing back to life. ‘Just another power-surge Mr. Davies,’ she said, thinking he’d be the sort to get confused and bewildered by it (despite the fact there were more than two power-cuts a month here).
A bright white screen flickered in front of the pale-faced Gwyn Davies.
The blank screen sent a shuddering surge of panic down his spine. He was almost sick on the spot. His all-important report had vanished and had been replaced by this pale, blank screen, just firing up before the welcome screen. The save button smiled intrusively at him as he stared at it speechlessly, falling into an immediate cold sweat. He hadn’t saved it.
‘Of all the…! I don’t…! Blo..ody..! Jeez…!’
He could feel tears welling behind his eyes. He stared at Mrs. Ellis, eyes almost popping out of his ghost-like head, a look of incomprehensible horror pasted on his face, coughing out disbelieving monosyllables.
‘You OK Mr. Davies?’ Delyth Ellis asked.
‘Gone….gone…..’ was all Gwyn could choke.
‘Oh dear. You sure?’
He shook his head, as if in a judicial dock remonstrating fitfully against certain guilt, and stared beyond her, through her, into space. He ran a shaking hand over his brow and through his thinning hair, pulling it up into a spike her teenage son might have been proud of, and rose to his trembling legs. He needed to throw-up and barged past his cleaner without answering.
Delyth Ellis leaned her mop against the filing cabinet, leaned over the villainous computer, and popped herself down in the black leather seat. She reached for the keyboard and started typing.
Five minutes later, a red-faced and bag-eyed, Gwyn Davies staggered back into his empty office a beaten man. Trying to make sense of his unforgivable error, he looked at the screen once more.
‘No! Wh? How?’
His stomach turned over again. His work was back on the screen. The apologetic figures were staring back at him once more. He scrolled up. It was all there. He moved closer, his nose an inch from the screen. He was sure that he must be imagining this. He was utterly confused, dumbfounded. ‘Divine intervention’, he thought. He pressed the save button, almost falling over himself in the process, and thanked the ceiling tiles.
‘How?’ he choked again.
Gwyn let out a little yelp of ecstasy which sounded more like a pained groan as he fell into his black leather seat. He couldn’t understand what had happened.
Partner Robin Whittle popped his head around Gwyn’s office door.
‘Darned power shortages, hey? Are you ready for the debriefing Mr. Davies?’
‘Y…yes sir,’ Gwyn replied.
‘Then we’ll see you in the office in five,’ Mr. Whittle smiled.
Gwyn reached for the ‘p’ key, for print, his finger still shaking and hitting the ‘o’ and ‘[‘ buttons on either side. He collected the printed papers of the report as they buzzed triumphantly out of the printer and smiled a goofy, disbelieving smile.
Gwyn Davies, still coughing out disbelieving monosyllables, walked out of the office and headed towards the conference room. His report and files were in immaculate order. He would, surely, impress. Even the caricature on his hideous tie smiled as if in triumph.
Mrs. Ellis looked on from the cleaning cupboard door, grinning. Her day’s cleaning was done and she tossed today’s mop with the others and locked the door. As much as she wanted to stay and hear about Gwyn’s success, she looked once more at her fast-moving watch, turned, and hurried through the same doors that Gwyn feared might seize him. She’d be late for her ‘Computing’ class in The College @ Aber Valley if she didn’t leave now. She was learning fast it seemed.
Andy Mee is a teacher of English Literature working and living in the Welsh valleys with his wife and young daughter. Occasionally, when finding time away from analyzing other authors’ writing in the classroom, he likes to dabble with language and spin a yarn of his own. Andy has written short stories and poetry for a number of small press publications, including The Horror Zine, Big Pulp and 365 Tomorrows.