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Office Politics

It’s over a week since bil­lions of peo­ple died. In that time, mil­lions of them have risen up and are now walk­ing the streets, their bod­ies rot­ting. Every­thing has changed. Almost noth­ing is as it was. Almost nothing.

There are thir­ty-sev­en hous­es on Marsh­wood Road. Only one of them has a fresh­ly cut back lawn. Only one has had its dust­bins emp­tied and the rub­bish placed neat­ly in black plas­tic sacks at the end of the dri­ve, ready for col­lec­tion. Only one has had its cur­tains drawn each night and opened again each morn­ing since the infec­tion killed more than nine­ty-nine per cent of the population.

Dif­fer­ent peo­ple deal with stress, loss and oth­er emo­tion­al pres­sures in a wide range of ways. Some implode, some explode. Some shriv­el up and hide in the qui­etest, dark­est cor­ner they can find, oth­ers make as much noise as pos­si­ble. Some accept what was hap­pened, oth­ers deny everything.

Simon Wal­ters is han­dling the end of the world par­tic­u­lar­ly bad­ly. The arrival of the infec­tion and the sub­se­quent after-shocks have felt like triv­ial irri­ta­tions, fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing his already over-com­pli­cat­ed life. One of life’s peren­ni­al vic­tims, in his eyes no one has prob­lems as bad as his. Simon has failed to cope with what has hap­pened, and as a last ditch defence mech­a­nism, he has shut out all oth­er suf­fer­ing to con­cen­trate ful­ly on his own.

The sud­den clat­ter­ing of the bat­tery-pow­ered alarm clock shat­tered the ear­ly morn­ing qui­et. Simon groaned, rolled over and switched it off. It sound­ed loud­er than ever this morn­ing. How he hat­ed that damn grind­ing, whin­ing noise. No, he didn’t just hate it, he absolute­ly bloody loathed it. Espe­cial­ly today. When that unholy clang­ing began he knew it was time to get up and start anoth­er bloody day. The noise was mar­gin­al­ly more bear­able on Thurs­days and Fri­days as the week­end neared, but today was Mon­day, the begin­ning of yet anoth­er week, and the noise was worse than ever.

‘Morn­ing, love,’ he yawned as he rolled over onto his back and looked up at the ceil­ing. June, his wife, didn’t move. Lazy cow, he thought to him­self. Okay, so she only had to drop the kids off at school and work and they didn’t need to be there until around nine, but she could at least make an effort once in a while and get up with him. She’d been the same all week­end, hadn’t got out of bed once. Per­haps when he came home from work tonight he’d sit her down and force her to talk, try and get to the bot­tom of what was on her mind. God knows some­thing need­ed to be said. She hadn’t got up in days and her per­son­al hygiene stan­dards were slip­ping. Her once-silky, chest­nut brown hair was greasy and life­less and she was start­ing to smell. He won­dered whether she’d even been both­er­ing to wash? He’d tried to say some­thing to her about it yes­ter­day after­noon but it was a del­i­cate sub­ject and he found it dif­fi­cult to find the right words. He’d tried his hard­est to be tact­ful but he’d obvi­ous­ly screwed it up and upset her because she’d not said a word. She’d just stared into space and ignored him. She hadn’t even had the decen­cy to look at him. Late last night he’d brought her up a glass of wine and a slice of cake as a peace offer­ing but she hadn’t even touched them.

Simon rubbed his eyes and looked at the clock again. Five past sev­en. He couldn’t put it off any longer. There was no avoid­ing it, he had to get up. He want­ed just to curl up and pre­tend the day wasn’t hap­pen­ing, but he couldn’t. He had respon­si­bil­i­ties. He kicked off the cov­ers then yawned and stretched and stum­bled into the bathroom.

This coun­try is going to hell in a hand-bas­ket, he decid­ed as he stared at him­self in the mir­ror. No water again. The taps had been dry for almost two days now. There real­ly was no excuse. He paid his bills and he expect­ed bet­ter than this. The bloody water com­pa­ny hadn’t even had the decen­cy to answer the phone when he’d called the emer­gency number.

God, he thought, I look awful. He was bloody tired: tired of his job, tired of his fam­i­ly and their atti­tude, tired of being tak­en for grant­ed, and tired of him­self. He was forty-sev­en years of age and stuck in a rut with no obvi­ous way of get­ting out. The only way he could see him­self get­ting back in his family’s good books was to pan­der to them, and the only way he could afford to do that would be to get pro­mot­ed at work or find him­self a bet­ter job. Bloody hell, how he hat­ed his job. He’d worked for the bank for thir­ty years and in that time he’d seen huge changes. It was no longer the same job he’d walked into after leav­ing school at age six­teen. Back then it had been a career to be proud of, and work­ing for a bank had giv­en him some kind of sta­tus and stand­ing in the com­mu­ni­ty. These days his asso­ci­a­tion with the finan­cial indus­try made him a social lep­er. Peo­ple had once looked up to him but now it was as if he was per­son­al­ly being blamed for all the grief the banks had caused. In real­i­ty he was lit­tle more than a glo­ri­fied sales­man, left at the counter all day to sell loans, accounts and insur­ance poli­cies to peo­ple who either already had enough loans, accounts and poli­cies or who had only come into the branch to pay a bill. Maybe it was his own fault, he won­dered as he began shav­ing with his old elec­tric razor. He’d seen plen­ty of peo­ple join the bank after him, only to over­take him and be pro­mot­ed up through the ranks at speed. In fact, he’d trained three of the last five man­agers he’d worked for, teach­ing them how to cashier when they’d first joined the company.

The bank needs peo­ple like me, Simon told him­self as he tugged and pulled at a weekend’s worth of stub­ble with his razor. If it wasn’t for the folk at the bot­tom, the high-fly­ers and the peo­ple at the top wouldn’t be able to do their jobs and make their mas­sive prof­its. Some of his col­leagues laughed at him because he’d been in charge of the sta­tionery cup­board at his branch for longer than most of them had been in the bank, but they’d be laugh­ing on the oth­er side of their faces if he didn’t put in a sta­tionery order, wouldn’t they? How could they sell their loans and their accounts and their insur­ance poli­cies with­out the right brochures and forms? And how could they fill them out with­out any pens? He did more for his branch and the com­pa­ny over­all than any of them ever gave him cred­it for.

The bat­ter­ies in his razor ran out mid-shave. The left side of his face was most­ly clean shaven, the right still cov­ered with stub­ble. Bloody typical.

#

They were going to have to go shop­ping. The kitchen cup­boards were prac­ti­cal­ly emp­ty. He should have gone to the super­mar­ket at the week­end. More to the point, June should have. Why was every­thing left to him all of a sud­den? As he sat munch­ing dry cere­al, Simon scrib­bled out a gro­cery list. He’d leave it on the table for June. Hope­ful­ly she’d go out lat­er and get every­thing they need­ed so he could eat prop­er­ly tonight.

Simon shook his head deject­ed­ly. He wished he under­stood what was going on. He’d nev­er known any­thing like it. He was strug­gling to get on with his fam­i­ly, the house was in a state, and the water, gas and elec­tric­i­ty sup­plies had all failed or become inter­mit­tent. To lose one would have been bad enough, but all three at the same time? How could these util­i­ty com­pa­nies be allowed to oper­ate so shod­di­ly? Imag­ine the grief if I didn’t do my job prop­er­ly, he thought. There’d be hell to pay.

As ready for work as he was ever going to be, Simon got up and packed his lunch away into his brief­case. It wasn’t real­ly very much of a lunch, just a few dry crack­ers, some bis­cuits, a pack­et of crisps he’d found at the back of the cup­board, and a rub­bery apple. He jammed his food in amongst the hun­dreds of old cir­cu­lars, leaflets, hand­writ­ten notes and pho­to­copied pro­ce­dures that he car­ried to and from work every day. He nev­er looked at any of it (most of it was prob­a­bly out of date) but he felt safe when he car­ried a case full of papers to the office. It was a secu­ri­ty blan­ket; some­thing to hide behind.

Are any of you out of bed yet?’ he called up from the bot­tom of the stairs. Was he real­ly the only one who could be both­ered any­more? Agi­tat­ed and ner­vous (he always felt that way before work) Simon left his brief­case at the foot of the stairs and stormed back up to try and moti­vate his lazy fam­i­ly. He could hear some­thing hap­pen­ing in Matthew’s bed­room. At least he was mak­ing an effort.

‘Ready for school, Matt?’

What was left of Matthew was on the oth­er side of the door, try­ing to claw his way out, react­ing to his father’s voice. Simon shoved the door open and sent his son’s wast­ed body trip­ping back­wards. ‘Sor­ry about that,’ he said, watch­ing the corpse regain its foot­ing and lurch for­ward again. The dead boy crashed into him. ‘Steady on,’ Simon laughed, ‘take it easy!’ Matthew grabbed at him with bare­ly coor­di­nat­ed hands. ‘I haven’t got time to muck about now,’ Simon said. ‘I’ve got to get to work. I’ll see you tonight, okay?’

Still laugh­ing, Simon picked up his son’s ema­ci­at­ed body, car­ried him across the room and dumped him on the bed. Matthew imme­di­ate­ly rolled off again and stag­gered back towards the door.

‘Make sure you change your sweat­shirt before you go to school, okay?’ Simon point­ed a dis­ap­prov­ing fin­ger at the drib­bles of blood and oth­er emis­sions which had seeped down the front of his dead son’s beige jumper. He left the room and shut the door behind him, hold­ing onto the han­dle for a moment as the remains of his child clat­tered against the oth­er side.

She’s just like her moth­er, Simon thought as he peeled back the bed­clothes to reveal his daugh­ter Hannah’s decay­ing face. She’d just turned sev­en­teen when she’d died last week. He shook her shoul­der, try­ing to wake her. She’d been work­ing in a hairdresser’s salon for just over a month and he didn’t want her being late. Jobs were hard enough to come by as it was; she need­ed to make a good impres­sion. Her dead eyes stared through him unblinking.

‘Make sure you’re not late,’ he told her. No response. Simon leant down and kissed his daughter’s dis­coloured, room-tem­per­a­ture cheek. There was a spi­der crawl­ing in her hair, spin­ning a web between her ear lobe and her skull. He flicked it across the room. ‘I’ll see you tonight, love. Have a good day.’

Hav­ing checked the chil­dren, Simon took a deep breath before going back into the bed­room he shared with June. ‘I’m off to work now, love,’ he said qui­et­ly. ‘I’ll see you tonight. Maybe we could talk lat­er? I’d like to know what it is I’m sup­posed to have done to upset you.’

For a sec­ond longer he stood and stared sad­ly at the body in the bed. June didn’t move. Eigh­teen years of mar­riage (a few of them had been pret­ty good years too) and yet she couldn’t even bring her­self to look at him. How had every­thing gone so wrong, so quickly?

#

Simon pushed through the grow­ing crowd of rot­ting bod­ies at his front gate and began the short walk to work. He didn’t know what these peo­ple want­ed, but they’d been loi­ter­ing here for days now. Didn’t they have homes to go to? More to the point, didn’t they have jobs? Was he sole­ly respon­si­ble for keep­ing the coun­try run­ning? It was begin­ning to feel that way. There wasn’t a sin­gle car out on the roads again and he couldn’t see any of the usu­al faces he used to see head­ing off to work or tak­ing the chil­dren to school or walk­ing the dog. All he could see today were more of these dirty, ragged peo­ple. Some of them tried to grab at him and pull his clothes, and he couldn’t under­stand why. What did they want from him? What had he done to them? He ran to the end of the road, hop­ing they’d be gone by the time he got back tonight.

His first port of call (as it was every morn­ing) was the newsagents on the cor­ner of Marsh­wood Road and Hamp­ton Street. The shop was qui­et. Simon picked up his paper (last Tuesday’s again — bloody annoy­ing — he’d bought the same paper sev­en times now) and dug deep in his pock­et for change. There was no one about to serve him, and in tem­per he slammed the coins down on the counter (next to the coins he’d left there on Fri­day) and stormed out the shop, cursing.

More bod­ies up ahead. He asked them to move but they ignored him. Sick of being treat­ed like a sec­ond class cit­i­zen, he pushed them out of the way and marched on towards the high street, a man on a mission.

#

Simon hat­ed his job. He felt his guts churn and his bow­els loosen as he neared the bank. A tra­di­tion­al and impos­ing, late-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry build­ing, its archi­tec­tur­al beau­ty had been com­pro­mised by the ever-expand­ing array of Per­spex signs hung above and around its sol­id wood­en doors, and the gaudy adver­tis­ing hoard­ings plas­tered across the inside of its large, arched win­dows. An ATM had been crow-barred into what had once been a street-lev­el win­dow. Ignor­ing the unwant­ed atten­tions of yet anoth­er ran­cid, drib­bling man who came at him repeat­ed­ly, he checked the screen of the machine. Bloody thing was down again, and no doubt he’d get the blame. Noth­ing short of 99.85% uptime was good enough for the bank. Anoth­er tar­get missed, and he hadn’t even made it through the front door yet.

The staff door at the side of the build­ing was already open, com­plete­ly against pol­i­cy. Which idiot had left it like that? Didn’t they know there was a strict secu­ri­ty pro­ce­dure to be fol­lowed each morn­ing before any­one could go inside? He entered the build­ing and slammed and bolt­ed the door shut behind him. He’d let him­self out last thing on Fri­day evening and he’d assumed that one of the oth­ers would have locked up after him. Christ, could the bank have been left open all weekend?

#

By quar­ter past nine only three oth­er mem­bers of staff had arrived for work. The branch man­ag­er (Bri­an Statham, ten years Simon’s junior) had already been in his office when Simon had arrived. Statham obvi­ous­ly wasn’t hap­py. He was pac­ing about the room furi­ous­ly, slam­ming into the door and occa­sion­al­ly bang­ing against the glass, mak­ing a heck of a din. Two clerks — Jan­ice Phelps and Tom Comp­ton — were dead at their desks. Jan­ice was slumped over her com­put­er whilst Tom had fall­en off his chair and lay spread-eagled on the car­pet. Simon was appalled by the lack of work being done in the branch. He knocked on Statham’s door to voice his con­cerns but his man­ag­er wasn’t inter­est­ed. He was only mar­gin­al­ly more respon­sive than the oth­ers and Simon took it upon him­self to address the sit­u­a­tion because there was no way the branch could run with a skele­ton staff like this. He dug out the tele­phone num­bers of some of the miss­ing staff from their per­son­nel files and tried to call them to find out where they were, but none of the phones were work­ing. The damn lines were still down.

Let’s just get on with it, Simon decid­ed. It was half-past nine, time to open to the pub­lic, and it was all down to him as usu­al. He walked the length of the bank­ing hall, unlocked the heavy wood­en doors and pulled them open.

Noth­ing hap­pened. A few ran­dom fig­ures in the street stopped and turned to see what the noise was but, oth­er than that, noth­ing. Simon remem­bered a time when the bank­ing hall would have been filled with an end­less queue of cus­tomers all day every Mon­day, and how that queue would have been hang­ing out of the door first thing. How things had changed.

He wan­dered back behind the secu­ri­ty screen and took up his posi­tion behind his till.

#

Simon didn’t mind hard work. He could cope with an in-tray piled high with papers and a huge queue of cus­tomers; none of that both­ered him just as long as every­one was pulling his or her weight. He’d hap­pi­ly work until mid­night if every­one else worked that late too. But today that just wasn’t hap­pen­ing. He was already annoyed by the num­ber of staff who hadn’t shown for work, but what real­ly both­ered him was he was the only one actu­al­ly doing anything.

It was almost mid­day. The bank had been slow­ly fill­ing with cus­tomers for the last half-hour. After wait­ing until almost eleven o’clock before the first cus­tomer of the day had appeared, a scruffy bunch of pun­ters had now dragged them­selves up the con­crete wheel­chair access ramp and through the swing­ing doors. Unsavoury look­ing types, they hadn’t actu­al­ly seemed to want any­thing, and had just wan­dered up and down on the oth­er side of the glass pan­el which sep­a­rat­ed the back-office from the pub­lic area. Simon had shout­ed for them to come to his till. They’d crowd­ed around his posi­tion when they heard his voice and had slammed their hands and faces against the glass, but he still didn’t know what it was they actu­al­ly wanted.

Behind the counter, absolute­ly noth­ing was hap­pen­ing. Simon glanced back over his shoul­der occa­sion­al­ly and shook his head with despair. What a bunch of lazy bas­tards. There he was, try­ing his best to deal with the pub­lic, while they all just sat there and did noth­ing. Jan­ice hadn’t moved from her com­put­er and Tom was still on the floor. Statham — inex­pe­ri­enced, over­paid and bloody use­less in Simon’s opin­ion — was still pac­ing up and down in his office. None of them had lift­ed a damn fin­ger to help him all morning.

Usu­al­ly he could take it. Usu­al­ly he would just stand at his till and stew in silence or find a rea­son to dis­ap­pear off to the sta­tionery room and hide there for as long as he could, but today was dif­fer­ent. Today it wasn’t that the oth­ers were doing very lit­tle, they were doing absolute­ly noth­ing. Simon wasn’t going to let them take advan­tage of him any longer. He’d had enough. Maybe it was the way his fam­i­ly had been treat­ing him which pushed him over the edge? Or the dete­ri­o­rat­ing state of the coun­try? Or was it the fact that even the cus­tomers in the bank­ing hall (and there were many more of them now) were ignor­ing him too? He couldn’t go on like this: no heat or light, no com­put­ers or tele­phone, and not even any mon­ey in his bloody till. The bal­ance had been tipped and it was time to do some­thing about the sit­u­a­tion, once and for all. For the first time in as long as he could remem­ber he was ready to stand up for him­self and speak his mind.

‘Staff meet­ing,’ he announced. The bod­ies in the bank­ing hall respond­ed to his voice and pushed them­selves against the glass, des­per­ate­ly inquis­i­tive. A short dis­tance away, Bri­an Statham’s body also threw itself against the door of its office. Unper­turbed, Simon slid his ‘till closed’ sign into posi­tion and locked his draw­ers. ‘I want a staff meet­ing right now,’ he demand­ed. ‘I’ve had enough of this.’

Ignor­ing the rot­ting clien­tele on the oth­er side of the counter Simon flung open the door of the manager’s office. Statham’s body lurched towards him.

‘We need to talk, Bri­an,’ he said as he shoved the decay­ing bank man­ag­er back into the room and blocked the way out with a desk. ‘Things just can’t go on like this. I’ll get the others.’

Feel­ing strange­ly empow­ered, Simon went back out into the main office. He grabbed Jan­ice Phelps’ shoul­der and peeled her off her com­put­er, then tipped her back on her swiv­el chair and wheeled her through to the manager’s room. Tom Comp­ton was heav­ier and a lit­tle more awk­ward. He put his arms under the dead man’s shoul­ders, dragged him along the floor, and dumped him into one of the padded cus­tomer chairs on the oth­er side of the office. He was bloody heavy. Simon had to use all his strength to get him in and sit him down.

With Statham trapped behind his desk and the oth­er two now in posi­tion, Simon took the floor. ‘You all know me pret­ty well,’ he began, trem­bling with nerves and hop­ing the oth­ers couldn’t tell. ‘I’m a rea­son­able man and I’ll do whatever’s expect­ed of me.’ He paused and looked at the life­less faces sur­round­ing him. The igno­rant bas­tards weren’t even lis­ten­ing. He con­tin­ued regard­less. ‘We’ve all got a role to play here. Now in the past you might have thought you were bet­ter than me and that your jobs were more impor­tant than mine, but I want to put things straight. We’re all small cogs in a much big­ger machine.’ He paused again, pleased with the cliché he’d just used. ‘With­out me none of you would be able to do your jobs prop­er­ly. With­out me this branch wouldn’t function.’

Simon paused for a moment to let the oth­ers ful­ly absorb the impor­tance of what he was say­ing. Almost on cue Tom’s body slid off its chair, its head thud­ding against the wall on the way down. Simon, thrown off his stride momen­tar­i­ly, seethed with anger. He picked up the corpse and shoved it back onto its seat.

‘You see,’ he yelled, find­ing it hard to keep his tem­per in check, ‘that’s exact­ly the kind of thing I’m talk­ing about. You all think it’s fun­ny, don’t you? You think you can all have a good laugh at my expense. Well you can’t, not any more. I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of being the butt of all your stu­pid bloody jokes and hav­ing to do all the don­key work. It’s not fair, and it’s going to stop.’

Statham’s corpse became increas­ing ani­mat­ed as Simon raised his voice. The oth­ers failed to respond, how­ev­er. Their lack of reac­tion incensed him.

‘How dare you?’ he screamed. ‘How dare you treat me like this? Show some respect, will you? I’ve been work­ing flat out all morn­ing while you’ve been sat on your back­sides doing noth­ing. If I stopped work­ing, this place would grind to a halt. Well, things are going to change round here. I’m not going to car­ry you any­more, do you hear me? From now on you’re on your own.’

Still noth­ing.

Simon grabbed Jan­ice Phelps by the scruff of her neck and screamed into her green-tinged face. ‘Are you even lis­ten­ing to me?’

Jan­ice wasn’t, but the oth­er bod­ies in the bank­ing hall clear­ly were. The dead hordes began to beat their rot­ting fists against the walls, dri­ven wild by the des­per­ate man’s voice. Simon ignored them as best he could. ‘There’s not a lot that any of us can do today, not until the pow­er comes back on,’ he con­tin­ued, his voice now frac­tion­al­ly calmer. ‘I’m going to shut the branch and I sug­gest we all go home. We’ll come back tomor­row morn­ing and try again, okay?’

He looked around the room but no one said any­thing. The ham­mer­ing on the wall behind him con­tin­ued unabated.

Simon remained stand­ing in the mid­dle of the manager’s office for a moment, sur­round­ed by his dead col­leagues, and he realised he actu­al­ly felt a lit­tle bet­ter. The oth­ers hadn’t agreed with him but, unusu­al­ly, they hadn’t band­ed togeth­er and turned against him either. More impor­tant­ly, he’d just tak­en a man­age­r­i­al deci­sion and no one had argued. Could it be that he was about to be shown some respect? Had the rest of them final­ly realised just how impor­tant he was to this branch and to the com­pa­ny? Bloody hell, he thought, maybe he should try the same approach when he got back home tonight? Maybe he could make his fam­i­ly lis­ten too?

‘I’m going to lock up,’ he said, his voice sud­den­ly cock­sure and unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly strong.

Simon still had the key in his pock­et from when he’d opened up hours ear­li­er. Brim­ming with unex­pect­ed con­fi­dence he stepped over the out­stretched feet of Tom’s body (which had slid off the chair again) and left the manager’s room. He walked through the back-office to the secu­ri­ty door which sep­a­rat­ed the staff area from the cus­tomers. Secu­ri­ty con­scious and pro­ce­dure-dri­ven as always, he peered through the fish-eye lens view­ing hole before going through.

Bloody hell, the bank­ing hall was full of cus­tomers now. Now this was how it should be on a Mon­day. With no com­put­ers work­ing and no cash in his till he couldn’t serve any of them of course, so he’d just have to go out and make an announce­ment. He’d tell the cus­tomers what was going to hap­pen in exact­ly the same way he’d just told the staff. He was get­ting pret­ty damn good at tak­ing charge.

A deep breath and he opened the door. A huge mass of rot­ting flesh imme­di­ate­ly surged towards him. Obliv­i­ous to the dan­ger, Simon pushed deep­er into the crowd, wad­ing through, fight­ing to keep mov­ing for­ward as the dead pushed against him.

‘If I could have your atten­tion for a sec­ond please, ladies and gen­tle­men,’ he shout­ed, strug­gling to stay upright. Anoth­er wave of decay­ing corpses from the gen­er­al direc­tion of the main entrance knocked him off-bal­ance. He was being pushed fur­ther back into the build­ing and he reached out to try and steady him­self. The move­ment of the bod­ies shoved him back against the wood­en counter. He climbed up onto the oth­er side of his till posi­tion and stood tall above the crowd. Before try­ing to speak again he brushed him­self down. He was cov­ered in stains from the cus­tomers. He picked bits of them off his shirt and tie.

‘Now look,’ he shout­ed, ‘I’m sor­ry but we’ve got some prob­lems here today. Our com­put­er sys­tems are down and staff short­ages mean that we’ve not been able to get into the safe. I apol­o­gise for any incon­ve­nience, but I’m going to have to ask you all to leave. If you’d like to come back tomor­row morn­ing I’m sure we’ll be able to …’

Anoth­er for­ward surge from the crowd dis­tract­ed him. The sound of his voice seemed to be gen­er­at­ing plen­ty of inter­est and the bank was fill­ing up now instead of emp­ty­ing. More and more cus­tomers were try­ing to get inside. The sit­u­a­tion was get­ting out of hand.

‘Please lis­ten. I realise this is unusu­al and I under­stand you’ve all been incon­ve­nienced, but I do need your coop­er­a­tion. There real­ly is noth­ing more I can do for you today. Come back tomor­row when I’ll be more than hap­py to help …’

But they still weren’t lis­ten­ing. Even more peo­ple were com­ing into the build­ing. Simon couldn’t stand it when peo­ple didn’t lis­ten to him.

‘Let’s have some respect here,’ he yelled, shout­ing at the top of his voice again to make sure even the peo­ple still strug­gling to get inside could hear him. ‘A lit­tle com­mon-sense, please …’

Simon had grad­u­al­ly edged fur­ther and fur­ther along the counter. He now found him­self at the far end of the bank­ing hall, oppo­site the doors he’d orig­i­nal­ly come out here to close. Between him and the oth­er end of the long, nar­row space was a mass of at least a hun­dred furi­ous cus­tomers. He looked down into the faces of the near­est few. Christ, they looked riled. If he wasn’t care­ful this sit­u­a­tion might turn nasty. He banged on the wall behind him, hop­ing one of the oth­ers in the manager’s room would come and help. None of them did. The staff meet­ing which he’d called seemed now to be con­tin­u­ing in his absence.

‘Could I have a hand out here please,’ he shout­ed, watch­ing anx­ious­ly as anoth­er wave of bod­ies attempt­ed to cram them­selves into the already tight­ly-packed build­ing. ‘Tom, Bri­an … could one of you come and—’

His words were abrupt­ly cut short when sev­er­al of the corpses, with nowhere else to go, reached up for him. One of them man­aged to catch hold of his bank uni­form trousers. He tried to pull away but lost his foot­ing and slipped down from the counter, falling into the bod­ies like a bizarre mid­dle-aged crowd surfer at a con­cert. Fear­ing for his safe­ty, he cov­ered his head with his hands and curled him­self up into a ball. Then, crawl­ing on his hands and knees across the heav­i­ly stained ter­ra­cot­ta car­pet, he began to move, weav­ing between the decom­pos­ing feet which sur­round­ed him. For a frac­tion of a sec­ond he won­dered if he should try to help get the oth­ers out, but he knew he couldn’t go back. It was too late. The momen­tary flick­er­ing flame of defi­ance which had burned briefly today had been extin­guished just as quick­ly as it had been lit. Ter­ri­fied, he closed his eyes and kept push­ing for­ward, work­ing his way around the bod­ies. He acci­den­tal­ly knocked a hand­ful of them down and they fell into each oth­er like domi­nos, only to be tram­pled by oth­ers. He kept on mov­ing, forc­ing him­self for­ward inch by painful­ly slow inch until he was lev­el with the front door of the bank. Should he try and stand up to close and lock it? Hat­ing him­self for being so weak, Simon instead kept on crawl­ing until he was out of the build­ing, and had made it down the ramp and onto the street. The crowd slight­ly thin­ner there, he picked him­self up and start­ed to run, glanc­ing back at the over­run bank before sprint­ing home.

#

Ten o’clock. A half-eat­en can of cold baked beans and three-quar­ters of a bot­tle of whiskey later.

The house was silent, save for the occa­sion­al thump from Matthew, who real­ly should have been in bed by now. Simon sat alone in dark­ness at the kitchen table, his head in his hands. He couldn’t stop think­ing about the events of the day now end­ing. It was bad enough that he’d left the bank wide open and aban­doned his col­leagues, but that wasn’t the worst of it. For a moment back there, he’d actu­al­ly felt like some­body. It had felt good. It had felt damn good. But he’d been brought back down to earth with a bang. The real­i­ty was he was still a nobody. A forty-sev­en year old sta­tionery clerk and cashier with no prospects, a fam­i­ly that had vir­tu­al­ly dis­owned him, and an increas­ing­ly uncer­tain future. Maybe he should accept the hand that had been dealt him and just get on with it? Stick with what you know, that had always been one of his late father’s favourite say­ings. Don’t take risks and don’t take chances. We’re not all made for great things. The world will always need the lit­tle men too. Stick with what you know.

Simon got up and walked out into the hall­way, drag­ging his feet. He paused to look out at the dark crowd of bod­ies at the end of his dri­ve before climb­ing the stairs to bed, a final gen­er­ous tum­bler of whiskey in his hand. He undressed, put his dirty shirt in the wash­ing bas­ket with all the oth­ers, then put on his pyja­mas. He could still hear Matthew bang­ing around in his bed­room. Bloody teenagers. He should be rest­ing or study­ing. One day my son, he thought, all these prob­lems will be yours. If only he knew what he had to put up with every day. His atti­tude would soon change if he was the one who had to face the dai­ly indig­ni­ties and humil­i­a­tions of office pol­i­tics. Christ, he hoped Matthew didn’t make the same mis­takes he had. If he’d worked hard­er at school and not just tak­en the first job he’d been offered after leaving …

No point dwelling on all that now, he thought as he climbed into bed beside June. She had her back to him, still in the same posi­tion as he’d left her this morn­ing. She hadn’t done the wash­ing or the shop­ping. In fact, it looked like she’d spent anoth­er day in bed. Bloody hell, she didn’t know how easy she had it.

He wrapped his arm around his wife’s rapid­ly putre­fy­ing tor­so and pulled her close. He wished she’d talk to him. He didn’t want to go to sleep yet. He want­ed some­one to lis­ten to his prob­lems and tell him he was doing his best, that it was the rest of them who’d got it wrong. But June wasn’t inter­est­ed, and the silence was deafening.

Simon felt humil­i­at­ed and let down by every­one, even those clos­est to him. He’d tried so hard today but, ulti­mate­ly, all he’d done was make mat­ters worse. Christ, how was he going to face them all at work tomorrow?

THE AUTUMN SERIES