Joe burst out of the building, into the small dark lane, the sun not yet high enough to pierce the deep gullies between the office buildings. His scuffed black leather boots, the closest thing he had to business shoes, slapped loudly on the cobbled lane way. One, two, three steps, his legs unsteady, he stopped. He needed to get away from here, but his legs would not work. He steadied himself, resting his left hand on the grimy red brick wall.
The lane was like any of hundreds of others in the heart of the city, interlinking the real roads like invisible cobwebs, ancient and unmaintained, only known to the delivery drivers, drunkards and detectives. People don’t walk down the back lanes of Sydney unless they already know where the lanes go. And they don’t know where the lanes go unless…
I didn’t even like the job.
He lent his back against the wall and tried to control his breathing. The door he had just exited slammed shut, the loud sound echoed in the lane and made him jump, his breathing out of control again. He tried to count to ten, but kept getting flustered and couldn’t remember what came after five.
He looked at the shops backdoor, it seemed blurry, he was glad he would never need to walk through it again, blurry doors were hard to walk through. He rubbed the palms of his hands to his eyes and sniffled.
Don’t cry, not for this, they don’t deserve it.
The job had been two months of stocktake hell, and four months of sales hell before that. He was glad to be clear of it.
Don’t stay here you idiot. If they see you they will want to ‘talk’.
He heaved himself off the soothing cold wall, the back of his cheap white business shirt damp from sweat and dark from dust, he turned and stumbled off down the lane. His boots catching on the old cobbles as he walked, scuffing the black polish more.
He grabbed at the bright yellow tie that was around his neck, part of his uniform, it had always felt like a leash, now it felt like is was choking him, he pulled it loose and tugged it free. Each step away from the shop felt better than the last, as if the physical distance was linked to the nausea, it started to fade. He wanted to throw the tie away, just toss it on the ground and leave it, forget about it and everything it represented, but some inner ‘no littering’ part of his brain wouldn’t let him. Instead he folded the 100% polyester yellow strip up without looking at it and stuffed it into his trousers pocket.
He stepped though a low sandstone archway and into a real street. The heat and noise of Sydney hit him in the face. Morning peak hour was over, the work day had begun, but it was not yet lunch time, the quite morning lull. There were only hundreds of people rushing around to their next appointment, instead of the thousands that would be bustling the streets in a few hours, all trying to get lunch.
He stood on the street uncertainly. He had no idea what to do with himself. If he went home he would have to explain what had happened to his flatmates. He didn’t even understand it himself yet. Everyone else he knew was at work and not being fired. He needed to sit down and shake off the nerves that were still threatening to trip him over.
Just keep walking.
Despite their unsteadiness, his feet seemed to know the way and ten minutes later he found himself an acceptable four blocks away, standing at the counter of an almost empty McDonald’s. He ordered a large Big Mac meal without even thinking about it and carried his tray to an empty booth upstairs.
As his butt touched the red faux-leather padded chair his legs gave way, he collapsed into the booth. The strain of keeping himself upright and moving was one less thing to worry about.
What the fuck do I do now?
He picked up a fry and chewed on it slowly as he stared through the back of the chair opposite him.
Six months ago he had sent his résumé in for a sales job at a ‘Naught Games’ computer shop. He had never done sales and had never wanted to, but anything was better than the dole. At least that’s what people always said. Surprisingly they had hired him and with very little effort he was the newest ‘Account Manager’ at one of their many suburban stores. The title of ‘manager’ had surprised him until he had learnt that everyone in the company was a ‘manager’ of one thing or another. It should have been his first red flag. He hadn’t known the company was desperate, hadn’t known they would hire anyone that applied.
He had tried, he really had, but he just couldn’t bring himself to use the required high-pressure sales tricks, or up-sell something that the customer clearly had no interest in. So while the customers were always happy with his assistance, his manager and the CEO were unhappy with his sales figures. Not that they told him at the time.
He reached for another fry and his hand went into the empty carton. He looked down at the tray and realised that the food was gone, the burger wrapper scrunched up and the soda cup empty.
Who ate my food?
The answer came with a stifled belch tasting of cola and burger. He looked at his watch, 10.54 am.
Now what? Can’t sit in McDonald’s all day.
Back into the streets, walking without direction. He tried very very hard not to think about his financial situation.
He walked past men in dark business suit pants and bright white business shirts. He walked past women in high-heels and coloured summer dresses. His hands in his pockets, his head down, not looking where he was going, he didn’t see any of them. When he occasionally glanced up all he saw were hundreds of people all of them still employed. The glimpses he got of their faces confirmed his fear.
Everyone knows I’m a loser.
While waiting at a pedestrian crossing he absently pulled his mobile out of his pocket. He dialled Matt, his ‘very bestest friend’, as he waited for the lights and tried not to notice that the city was full of successful people.
The crossing light went green, and he stepped out into the road with the other people, a forty legged beast crossing the road as one.
“What’s up Joe?” asked the voice in his ear.
“What are you doing? I need to talk. I got fired.”
“Sucks to be you.”
“Busy here,” Matt cut him off, “got things to do, later.”
The phone line cut off. That had actually gone better than he had expected. At least Matt had answered the call.
Two months ago the regional manager had promoted him from the sales role in his suburban store, to the stock role in the city store. Everyone was a manager, the city store had 19 account managers, a stock manager, a finance manager and a store manager. However the job was simple enough, all he had to do was monitor every piece of stock that entered and left the store and do daily, weekly and monthly stock-takes to make sure all the books balanced. He hadn’t known he was being set up.
He blinked and looked up at the sun as it climbed towards its zenith, the bright warmth doing nothing to improve his mood. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his sun glasses. Shielding his eyes was easy, shielding his fears, not so much. He lowered his gaze and took in the man-made nature of Hyde Park. The trees swaying softly in the wind and soaking up the sun. On any other day the sight of the swaying green would have warmed his soul. Today it just reminded him of money and his pending lack of any.
Do I dare even look?
He stopped on the foot path and looked around, the first time he had really taken in the view of the city around him, his eyes looking for any one of 28 different symbols or signs that all meant the same thing. Three shops further along a small yellow ATM sign hung out of a connivance store, like a hustler trying to con people to look inside.
He had to know.
He walked into the compact shop and tried to act like someone who still had a job, finding the teller machine tucked away at the back of the store, forcing him to make his walk past all the candy and chocolate. He punched the numbers and waited for the machine to spit out the receipt. He glanced at it and shuddered. If he cut back on his food then he might last four weeks… maybe five if he really pushed it. After that it would be back to Centrelink.
He brought a bottle of coke just so the small Indian man behind the counter wouldn’t think he was an unemployed bum, and walked back out into the sunny street.
Too many people. I can’t think with all these people around.
He turned slowly on the spot, hoping his feet would just start walking again as soon as he was facing the right direction, but when he spun back around to the start he guessed his autopilot had given up. He looked to the right, into the now bustling streets of the city, he looked left, towards the park. At least there were less people in the park.
Half-way across the park he sat down on the cold grey stone steps of the War Memorial, not seeing the ‘do not sit on steps’ sign. He drank some of the cola as he stared at the reflection pool, the water rippling slightly in the wind.
The first full stocktake had gone smoothly, the previous stocktake manager had stayed on to help. The second full stocktake a month later had turned up a few problems, but the store manager offered to help, and the problems went away. A few days later the store manager quit.
His bum was numb so he got up and continued across the park. He followed the left hand path around the large artillery gun that stood at Whitlam Square, the military grey weapon pointed straight down Oxford Street.
Incase the gays invade.
He smiled for a second at the thought of scantily clad gay marching boys trying to do anything more complex than dance in step. He walked down the three steps that returned him to street level, the exact spot that only a few yeas ago he had waited to meet his first ever date. That made him smile a little too. Finally his mood starting to lift.
He unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt as he crossed the road. He rolled up his sleeves as he walked up Oxford Street. Trying to fake a more casual attitude.
An instinctive need raised in his brain, a longing, an undeniable desire.
He stopped walking and looked up, standing directly outside his favourite coffee shop, or at least the closets thing he had to a favourite. He went into the narrow shop and ordered a strong black, not his usual drink.
Sitting at a table on the sidewalk, he sipped his drink. The coffee was hot, too hot, it burnt his tongue and the roof of his mouth. He swallowed it down fast just to get ride of the discomfort, the damage already done. The skin on the roof on his mouth already forming a heat blister and dying.
He added another spoon of sugar to the hot coffee, knowing it would neither improve the gritty flavour nor make the brown liquid cool enough to drink. A justification, a reason to delay having another sip. He added yet more sugar, giving the beverage more time to cool off on its own.
He procrastinated another spoonful of sugar into the coffee. While listening to the high pitched tick of the spoon hitting the hot white ceramic as he stirred the sugar in, he wondered if it was fair to sum up his personality as an active procrastinator.
After the new store manager started at the shop it was time to do another stocktake. The problems turned up again. The exact same problems. Only this time they didn’t go away. That had been yesterday.
His phone rang and he pulled it out of his pocket. The caller ID on the screen read. “Matt.”
He hit the ‘ignore’ button and stuffed the phone back into his pocket.
He watched the people walking along the street, this was better than the city, the people here were more real, less judgemental. Creative types that knew what it was to struggle with a vision. Horny types that were after only one thing. Downtrodden types that couldn’t see a way out of the gutter.
$252,900.04 of stock was missing. Over a quarter of a million dollars. More than five years of his wage. And whose responsibility was it? He had to admit that as the stock manager for the store, it really was his problem. The CEO agreed with him.
The sun started to drop slowly, moving from the harsh mid-day, to the long summer afternoon.
The waiter walked over and put his new coffee down on his table.
Joe blinked in surprise, looked up and just nodded.
“Want to tell me about it?”
“No, not really.”
Why was this guy being so friendly?
The waiter shrugged his shoulders.
“Suit yourself mate.” And picked up the empty dirty cup and went off to his other duties.
As he sipped the second coffee, more carefully than the first, he noticed the surface of the drink ripple slightly. He put the cup down and held his hand out before his face, the muscles in his hand twitched a little, the caffeine and the stress getting to him. He shrugged and sipped at the coffee anyway.
The conversation had been brief. The CEO wanted answers. Joe didn’t have answers. The best he had were suspicions, guesses, but no proof. It would just look like he was pointing the finger, shifting the blame. So he said he had no explanation. So the CEO said he was fired.
He looked at the empty coffee cup and then at his watch. 3.05pm. Peak hour would hit soon, the buses would be crowded with the hot smelly cranky people on their way home.
No way I’m putting up with that, not anymore.
He went to the counter to pay. The waiter took his money.
“Cheer up. It could be a lot worse you know.”
He frowned as he took his change.
“I guess. Could be a lot better too.” He shrugged and left the coffee shop.
He walked back towards the city, walking a little lighter now, his unease caused by too much caffeine now rather than the adrenaline from before. He had been unemployed before. He could do it again. Back to baked beans on toast for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He would make do.
The bus trip home was long and dull. He rested his head against the window, feeling the vibrations of the bus rattle around in his skull. It was strangely comforting.
He had been shaking a little as the CEO hung up on him. He put down the phone. There was no way he was going to make a scene. So he wrote a short, but polite, email and addressed it to everyone in the company. He pressed send. A message appeared on the screen:
“Not able to send email. You do not have permission.”
Stunned at how quickly he had been frozen out of the system, he set his computer to secure erase all his personal files, picked up his sun glasses and his iPod and walked out the back door of the shop before anyone could stop him.
Three months and still unemployed.
The fortnightly trip to the local Centrelink office was once again part of his routine. The Centrelink office felt like it was deliberately designed to make you feel unwelcome. From the ‘Welcome to Centrelink’ sign written in a sharp harsh font and half hidden behind a potted plant, to the pinky-grey synthetic carpet that was puke and blood proof.
He stood in the queue with the dole-bludgers, the chronically unemployable and those just unfortunately on the wrong side of 50. He waited to hand in his form and get the judgmental acceptance of his Government.
In the corner of the barren office space was a television, mounted from the ceiling so no one could break it. His attention was draw to a familiar face. The caption read “CEO - Naught Games”.
What the hell is he doing on TV?
The sound was muted on the tele, so all he could go by was the captions as they changed.
“Naught Games liquidated.”
The queue moved forward slowly as the people ahead of him had their issues dealt with.
“Millions in unpaid salaries.”
Jonathan, the man behind the counter gave him a weary smile as Joe handed over his form. Jonathan looked the form over, one side and then the other, stamped it and added it to the pile.
“CEO flees country.”
Maybe being unemployed isn’t too bad.
Story first written for Uni Class in November 2011