After Pete McIntyre had been found dead in the office, the firm gave us all a day off.
‘This was an appalling event,’ our CEO wrote in his email. ‘We want you to honour Pete with this personal day. Spend it well. Share it with your loved ones. But most importantly, do something you wouldn’t normally do. We, in Management, will take some time to reflect and review procedures.’
I didn’t always agree with The Boss, but on this he was right. It was an appalling event. Although Pete had died Monday lunchtime, nobody had noticed until late Tuesday morning when his phone kept ringing even though Pete was sitting right in front of it.
Twenty-two hours, was the estimate whispered around the office. Somebody had heard the paramedics mention it as they carried Pete into the lift on a stretcher while we stood up in our cubicles, incredulous co-workers, silently asking ourselves: How many times?
Well, Pete’s booth was six rows from mine, between the printer room and the exit. Counting loo breaks and trips to the canteen, I reckoned I was guilty of having passed him approximately twenty times since his soul had departed this world. It felt uncomfortable, called for a gesture of sorts, and I welcomed the extra day off, particularly the nudge to do something I wouldn’t normally do. It also settled my long-held suspicion that all was not well with the overnight cleaning staff’s attention to detail. Even before last night’s colossal oversight, the signs had been plentiful: A layer of solid grease at the back of my screen, a dried coffee stain behind my lamp, dust gathering on the rows of miniature toiletries lining my desk.
I was about to unscrew the lid on a rhubarb-pink shower gel when Helen opposite knocked on the partition.
‘How are you doing in there?’ she whispered. ‘You looked upset before.’
I popped my head deep into the cubicle to catch her eye through the gap in the corner. Having forgotten that I was wearing my reading glasses, I was taken aback when Helen’s nose appeared in close-up, revealing pores and tiny black hairs on the tip. ‘I just wondered about the paramedics,’ I said, withdrawing a couple of inches. ‘I mean, what must they be thinking of us?’
‘I wouldn’t worry about that,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing people in those sorts of jobs haven’t seen before.’
An hour later, #deadmanworking was trending on Twitter. By lunchtime, reporters had gathered in front of the fountain outside our building and by three o’clock, Corporate Communications had stopped answering their phones. Although somebody in HR helpfully let slip that the deceased (59) enjoyed cigarettes and hard liquor and that, when asked his family’s medical history, he had simply written: ‘We don’t have lupus’, there was broad agreement that such information missed the point.
Fearing a public relations scandal, Management decided to address the matter head on, and in the evening, our line manager, Caroline, now with an extra layer of Chanel Rouge Noir, faced the London News in front of the trickling fountain.
‘First, I would like to say that our thoughts and prayers are with Peter and his family and friends,’ she told the young male reporter. ‘Everyone in our company is deeply affected by this tragedy.’ She continued without a blink: ‘Peter lived alone so nobody would have missed him in the evening, unless he’d had an engagement and-‘
‘That’s hardly the story here,’ said the reporter. ‘According to the press release, Mr McIntyre died in the office yesterday without anybody realising-‘
‘I was getting to that,’ said Caroline. ‘As I understand it, the colleagues Peter used to lunch with were on a staff development course this Monday. Had they been in the office, they would have found out that Peter was deceased when they stopped by his cubicle to pick him up on their way to the canteen.’
‘But what about the other staff?’ The reporter raised his voice. ‘We’re told that over two hundred people work on the floor, right next to Mr McIntyre.’
‘Most of our employees work out of individual cubicles,’ said Caroline. ‘We find this provides much desired privacy although, in this case, it was obviously a factor in the tragedy remaining undiscovered. Now, as I understand it, Peter was finalising his input for the monthly report at the time of his… when he passed on. Colleagues are likely to have noticed the spreadsheets on his computer and one plausible explanation is that Peter’s position – I understand that his head was leaning against the cubicle wall – caused colleagues to assume he was simply resting.’
As soon as Caroline had disappeared off screen, my Dad called. ‘Poor fellow,’ he said. ‘And nobody waiting for him at home… It’s not right so many people living alone these days.’
‘I know… I wouldn’t dream of telling you what to do, but Michael wasn’t a bad chap.’
‘Dad,’ I said.
Wednesday morning, the communications team arrived with dark circles under their eyes. The world still had questions: Did the firm need to rethink its values? Were there fundamental issues to be confronted, such as the impersonal dynamics of large-scale offices? Was it true, as research had shown, that 85% of global white-collar workers were ‘actively disengaged’?
For the first time in my twenty years with the firm, I felt no jealousy towards the PRs. My own role as Travel Co-ordinator was a support function with limited scope for promotion, but no reporter was ever going to ask me if I believed it literally was possible to die from boredom, and my job had many other perks such as regular hours, airline discounts, and, once a year, a Eurostar holiday to Paris or Bruges.
Most days, however, it was the records of other people’s travels that passed through my hands: sustenance bills, hotel reservations and enough air miles to send numerous executive families to Barbados and back every January. I knew the room lay-outs of the world’s best hotels and the menus of the most famous restaurants, and over the years, the space around my cubicle had become a travel information hub. ‘How was Singapore, mate?’ Somebody would ask above my head, waiting to hand me a pile of stapled receipts. ‘Raffles is not what it used to be,’ the colleague would reply. ‘Judith, love, please tell everyone staying at The Waldorf to ask for the Towers’, or ‘The other half and I took the weekend to explore Malibu. We’re thinking of Big Sur next year.’
They were thoughtful colleagues, always remembering that I collected hotel toiletries, and with time I had built up a large collection of miniature shampoos, shower gels and clothing care products. (My favourites were the Neom bath salt sachets and the Etro shoe polish kit that came in tiny, striped boxes). But in the days following Pete’s death, these treasures failed to give me the usual thrill, despite the arrival of the new L’Occitane Cherry Blossom line.
It wasn’t a question. Helen had started in the department the same day as me and on that basis decided we should lunch together forever, possibly even in the after-life.
A silent lift-ride later, we settled at the usual window table high above the City of London. Outside, everything was grey. Inside, the abstract wall decorations failed to lift the mood of employees who spoke in muffled voices, walked with muted steps.
‘I am taking my parents to see Hamilton,’ said Helen, scraping brown avocado onto the edge of her plate.
‘But you hate musicals,’ I said.
‘That’s true,’ she nodded, ‘but my parents love them.’
For once, I left lunch having settled an important matter.
‘The Zoo,’ said Dad later as we talked while I swallowed a Marks and Spencer chicken korma over the sink. ‘That’s where we should go. I’ve been thinking that I would like to see a tiger one final time.’
‘Oh Dad,’ I said, ‘aside from the arthritis, you’re not even ill.’
‘I was referring to the tigers,’ he replied.
And so it came to be that in homage to Pete McIntyre, my Dad and I found ourselves in The London Zoo one warm Thursday afternoon in October, watching an enormous cat take a nap in the sun. Having feared that I was going to be confronted with caged, unhappy animals, I was pleasantly surprised to see the size of the tigers’ quarters and told Dad as much.
‘Oh yes, they’re happy here’, said Dad, ‘and, what people always forget is that the animals are much safer in a zoo than out in the wild.’
I wasn’t sure I agreed entirely, but as we strolled through the park, admiring rare butterflies, birds and wildlife, my spirits lifted further, culminating in a giggle when a monkey ran a finger across the glass that separated her from spectators. She soon got bored and turned around, sticking her red bottom in their gormless faces.
Our final destination was Penguin Beach, a glittering glass enclosure with a deep, turquoise pool, surrounded by rocks, bushes and wooden penguin-huts. The animals had just had their lunch break and were diving and swimming or waddling on the shore, sunning their little bellies. A few had retreated to the shade under a tree where they appeared to be having a meeting.
‘What do you think they’re saying?’ I asked Dad.
‘I imagine they’re chatting about how marvellous life is’, he said, turning towards me, ‘you must remember, they don’t know anything different.’
I had almost come to accept this when a lone figure near the periphery of the enclosure caught my eye. He looked like the others – penguins do until you get to know them. But where his peers had clearly surrendered to their role as entertainers, this one had withdrawn from the crowd to study the fence behind a small, wooden shed. As he tilted his head, I wondered if he was contemplating an escape over the fence and across the pond. Presumably not an impossible feat if you are of a species that regularly travels hundreds of miles on foot.
Careful to avoid sudden movements, I edged closer, step by step, until the penguin and I were merely a few feet apart – so close I could have touched him had it not been for the glass partition between us.
He turned his head to look at me with one eye before waddling back towards the huts. When he tilted his head sideways, his gaze alternating between his flippers and the fence, I felt his despair.
Back home, I closed the curtains so the neighbours wouldn’t see me gulp the firm’s Christmas bottle of Möet & Chandon that I had saved for a special occasion. Typing the two short paragraphs took less than five minutes.
Afterwards, I placed the letter in an envelope and raised my champagne coupe. ‘Pete McIntyre,’ I said, ‘may you rest in peace.’
On Friday morning, I went to see Caroline in her glass-walled office. She offered me a seat and closed the door, scanning the letter as she sat down behind her desk.
‘Now,’ she said, moving back in her chair ‘this is a surprise.’
‘Well, I guess-‘
‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but are you sure you’ve thought it through? We’re all still shocked at the Peter… episode…and if you need to take a few days, that’s absolutely fine.‘
‘I’ve thought it through,’ I said.
I worked the month out, visiting the penguin enclosure every Saturday morning. He was always there, in the same spot after feeding time, watching the fence. Tilting his head. Once, when the sun was in his eyes, he raised his little hand while focusing his right eye on the partition.
On my last day, Caroline had organised leaving drinks at The Crown and Anchor. Everyone said my departure would be a loss to the firm and I received many gifts, including luggage vouchers and a handwritten note signed by my contacts at the travel agency: ‘Dearest Judith. Thank you for many years of excellent cooperation. It has been our pleasure to assist and we wish you all the best for your upcoming adventure.’
I smiled and tried to listen to the speeches. Helen was last, unsurprisingly ending on a request: ‘And now, you can finally tell us where you’re off to,’ she said, pouring Pinot Grigio to the rim of her glass. ‘You’ve been so secretive.’
‘Yes,’ said Caroline. ‘Time to release us from our misery. Which of our competitors will be benefiting from your considerable experience?’
Everyone was looking at me, smiles wide, eyebrows raised, lighters ready for an escape to the courtyard.
‘I’m not going to the competition,’ I said, sipping my Long Island Iced Tea.
‘But where are you going then?’ asked Helen.
‘To The South Pole,’ I said. ‘I’m taking a friend home.’
Mette Jolly is co-editor of Funny Pearls.