At 4:38pm on the 31st of June, Colin Doring entered the elevator at the fifteenth floor, pressed twenty-two and, immediately after, held down the button to close the doors.
When he heard the click from the elevator shaft that meant that the doors were fully closed, he held the rectangular folder before him and inspected it. His hand spidered over the folder’s milky plastic; down the heat-pressed seams, over the sharp corners and came to rest on the reassuring bulge of the underside.
Seven floors to go.
Everything had been printed, proof-read and double-checked for numerical and grammatical inaccuracies. The edges had rested flush against the pine surface of his dining table and he’d disposed of overhanging corners with meticulous snips of his nail scissors. Finally, after attaching the slivers of felt to the binding clips, he was ready. By the time he’d recounted the pages one last time (177), removed his disposable gloves and sealed the folder, the green eyes of his digital clock shone a belligerent 3:34am: a twenty-two hour day.
A sneeze gripped the back of his sinuses. When had he taken his last anti-histamine? He closed his eyes and held the folder close to his chest just as the spasm rushed at him. Sealing his eyes and mouth and scrunching his body inwards, he managed to absorb most of the explosion; but in the aftershock, a string of mucus whipped from his nostril onto his top lip. This he wiped it away with the back of his finger, spread it on the bottom of his shoe and twisted it into the carpet.
Twice he’d forgotten to collect his dry cleaning. By the time he’d snaked through the night’s crowds, around the brown tiled pylons, (280 tiles, two cracked, three graffitied) and into the belly of the train station, Mrs Ling had already locked the doors and extinguished the neon sign. The rapping and yelling had upset her and she’d thrown him his suit ($1,299) and dismissed him without even looking once at his receipt. If she only understood how exciting the month of June was, how one succession of thirty days represented the culmination of an entire year’s work; how, for only a few weeks, hundreds of people, who were unrelated in any way except by their place of work, toiled together towards a single, unifying goal. Perhaps then she might have been more accommodating. Of course, if Mrs Ling had had the chance to meet Mr Fenton, he would have been able to convince her of the importance of her contribution.
Mr Fenton. Colin loved to repeat the name and marvel at its simple refinement: two syllables, two vowels, the silent friction of the ‘F’; sometimes he would merely bite down on his lower lip and sustain that first ‘F’, allowing it to drain his lungs. At his best, he could hold a steady stream of air for two minutes and five seconds.
The numbers were good. They were too good. The quarterly results had comfortably offset the rise in directors’ remuneration (page 80) and the pre-tax acquisition of European assets (page 61); the statement on corporate responsibility (page 22) lent the entire report a certain coherent probity; even the–
Colin stopped himself. There was nothing to be gained in reviewing the report again. The shock of discovering he’d missed something, even a comma, would surely trigger another debilitating wave of nausea. They would have to carry him out on the demountable table again and monitor him until Nurse Jonathon arrived. This would make Mr Fenton very upset. No, he had to trust himself. He had spent every day for the preceding month scouring every pixel of every number of every sum. And even when his calculations did make sense, the doubter’s hand shot up like a fire cracker and he forced himself to check them once more until the numbers felt positive again – until they were bold and true. During some longer sessions, he’d revised the numbers so many times they no longer resembled numerals, but the random strokes of some foreign script.
The twentieth floor was a circus of unaccountable eccentrics – human resources, recruitment, marketing – people with conspicuously engrossing social lives and dedicated dentists. Every year these types organised the Christmas party, and every year they feigned interest in their colleagues’ opinions. Last year’s theme was ‘white’. What that was supposed to mean, Colin did not know. How did one dress as every wavelength of the visible spectrum? What if he slipped into a state of discernible refraction? Jenny Parvey, the Singaporean intern, had explained to him that white was an ‘awesome’ theme, because it implied ‘like, really, anything at all’. This only made Colin more nervous and the day before the party he booked a train and left the city for the weekend.
The elevator doors slid open and man entered. 185 centimetres, familiar face. With him came the smell of toilet freshener and coffee. On the loosened knot of his tie was red and white striped pin which, judging by the distribution of red and white, Colin recognised to be the official flag of Monaco. He shifted his weight and stole a glance at the report in his hands. The man leaned against the mirrored wall and bunched his lips in a gesture that was not so much of a greeting, but rather an acknowledgement of Colin’s existence.
Colin bowed his head and scrutinised the reflection of the man – dark, mustard skin, broad shoulders, angular forehead that collapsed into a beetling nose. He followed the creases of the man’s jacket. There were three loose threads at the elbow. The man wore unironed bone chinos (no belt) and blue training shoes, whose faded plastic trims were covered in black scrapes. Yes, now he recognised him. One of the newer names at the end of the list – Woolnough, Account manager, Asia-Pacific or something similar. One of the banal functionaries who wafted through the company leaving little or no trace of productivity. Hardly any relationship to Europe let alone Monaco, Colin surmised. Wedged under Woolnough’s armpit was an opaque plastic folder filled with shuffled papers, not a cover sheet in sight.
The door hushed and the elevator squeezed upwards. Woolnough caught Colin’s gaze.
“Twenty-second?” he asked with no trace of an accent.
Colin pushed himself off the wall with his elbow.
“Fenton?” Woolnough pressed.
“About that time of year, I guess. The guy is a machine.”
“He has an important job to do. We all do right now.” Colin couldn’t say with any certainty what exactly Woolnough’s responsibilities entailed, but it was safe to forecast that his contribution was at best negligible. Still, he wasn’t naive – these people had a way of talking over and under and around the details, embellishing clearly established facts and convincing a docile listener of non-existent competency. Mr Fenton had no time for such sycophants. Yet for some strange reason, a sense of urgency overcame him: a throbbing impulse to seize the man, thrust him backwards, kick him in the shins, take possession of his folder – anything to prevent him from beating him to Mr Fenton’s door. At the thought of the door, panic welled in Colin like foam from a clogged drain. At a normal walking speed, he would require fifty-six paces from the elevator door to arrive at Mr Fenton’s office. Woolnough’s longer legs would make it in forty-five. If Colin was to arrive before him, he would have to take an alternative route and run more than twenty-five percent of the way – right out of the elevator, through the photocopy room, then left past the plastic fern.
Colin gestured at Woolnough’s pin. “Monaco?”
Woolnough pulled his collar out and rolled his eyeballs downwards.
“Indonesia actually. My father was born there. I thought it was appropriate.”
“I’ll think you’ll find it’s the national flag of Monaco. They’re undoubtedly similar, however not exactly alike.”
“It can’t be,” Woolnough said and laughed. “I even bought it on a trip to Bali. Forgotten most things about that trip, but I do remember that.” But Colin was sure to the millimetre. If Woolnough was capable of committing such a critical error in relation to his own (professed) cultural background, then why had Mr Fenton trusted him to contribute to the report? How could a man who had no notion of the place from where he came, possibly be expected to know where he was going? Someone had to alert Mr Fenton to this imposter.
Colin held his folder out flat and balanced his weight on both feet like a diver about to launch from a board.
The twenty-second floor.
The doors opened revealing a wide hall of brown carpet. Women and men in smart, dark suits strode between oak-patterned dividers. Colin jostled forward and, before Woolnough could take a step, twisted his body sideways and scuttled past.
“Hey, watch it!” Woolnough complained.
“Sorry,” he said. “In a rush.” He raced down the corridor and turned left into the photocopying room. The way was clear. He steamed through, opened the door and made his second left. As Colin passed the fern, the plastic fronds swished at his legs. Fenton’s door was now directly in front of him.
“Can I help you?” A woman seated at a desk behind him asked.
“No, thank you.”
“Mr Fenton’s very busy.”
“I have a report,” Colin said and raised his watch. “He’s expecting it.”
The woman reached for an intercom.
“He just called me, about a minute ago.” This was a lie, but a necessary one. Important business, Colin decided, could not be left to the lower ranks and those of limited capacity.
“I don’t remember a call going through, Mr-”
“Doring. Colin Doring.”
As Colin said this, Woolnough appeared and casually approached Mr Fenton’s door. “Hi, Joanne,” he said.
The secretary smiled and waved Woolnough through, staring after him. When the door to Mr Fenton’s office closed, her gaze returned boredly to Colin.
“Mr Doring. All calls go through me.”
“He always calls me with his mobile,” Colin said and attempted a conspiratorial chuckle.
“He’s in a meeting. Would you like me to give him the documents?”
“No,” Colin said. “He said it was quite urgent that I see him. It won’t take long.”
But before the secretary could protest further Colin advanced on the door, drew a deep breath and knocked.
“Yes?” said a muted voice. His voice.
Red wood. The subtle glow of bronze. Blue poles looming from the rear wall down on the 2 x 1.64 metre mahogany desk. Mr Fenton sat in a plush leather chair and looked over the rim of his glasses. He was holding a pen in his right hand like a conductor. Woolnough was already stretched out on the leather couch opposite, like a man sunning himself on the quarterdeck, the report lay opened before him on the glass coffee table. Colin’s mouth filled with a watery saliva.
“Yes?” Mr Fenton said again.
“Ah, my friend from the lift,” Woolnough said. “Doesn’t know his flags from his face.”
Colin’s tie strangled him.
“Can I help you?” Fenton removed his glasses and pinched his nose.
“The report, sir.”
“What about it?”
“It’s done. Double-checked. No errors.”
“Let’s see,” Mr Fenton said. “Mr-”
“Doring. Colin Doring. Level seventeen.” Colin shuffled forwards and laid the report face-up on the mahogany. He noticed Woolnough sit up in his seat and peer over the marble bust of Napolean on Mr Fenton’s desk.
“Ah yes, Mr Doring. Let’s see shall we? We may as well, since you’re here.” Colin’s heart sprung to his mouth as Mr Fenton said his name.
As Mr Fenton thumbed through the pages, Colin studied the measured rise and fall of his shoulders; he marvelled at the stillness of the CEO’s eyebrows, the flex and tempo of his jaw muscles – they all seemed to be working as one. Colin let his empty hands hang loosely by his sides and listened to the wash of the air vents. He let them swing a while. They felt light; he felt light – as if a great gust of wind was surging beneath his feet ready to lift him upwards.
“I do appreciate your enthusiasm and dedication,” Mr Fenton said at last. “Yet, I must say-”
“Thank you, sir.” Colin floated back down into the room and rolled on the balls of his feet. He offered Woolnough a consolatory wink.
“But I think we discussed this last year.”
“About the work,” Mr Fenton slapped the report on the desk.
“Is something missing?”
“You might say that.”
“The numbers, the investment figures, the pre-tax acqui-”
“Monaco,” Woolnough repeated and snickered into his hand.
“All from our operations in Monaco,” Mr Fenton and paused to regard the report once more. “We’re focussing on Indonesia this year.”
Colin’s shoulders fell. “Indonesia?”
“Didn’t you read the memo Mr-”
“Doring,” Woolnough offered this time.
“Yes, Doring, that’s right,” Mr Fenton said. “Didn’t you read the memo, Mr Doring? The one with the big, bright Indonesian flag on the cover? No matter. Look, I’ll just hang onto this and someone will get back to you soon with an update on the changes, okay?”
“Yes, sir,” Colin made a half bow.
“If you need any help with it, just give me a shout,” Woolnough said. “Twentieth floor.”
Colin left the office, ignoring Woolnough’s toothy grin. As he walked passed the fern he thought of kicking it into the secretary’s desk, but judged it to be several kilograms too heavy. Instead, he marched straight down the hall towards the elevator.
“Go to hell,” he muttered to himself and hurriedly pressed the down button.