Along the corridor from the office where Ruby had spent her eventful morning hot desking was a small office with the vague title of ‘Room 19’ on the solid wooden door. Very few people had cause to enter the room. When Ben was being shown around the department on his first day, he was hurried past Room 19 with a muttered explanation that nothing much went on in there that he had to be bothered about.
He had been introduced to his new boss; Gavin Slime, and Gavin’s nice but not-very-bright secretary Joanna, had found him a desk, complete with a computer and the requisite peripherals. She arranged for Ben to get a security pass, a network user name so that he could log on to the central system and then informed him that there was no on-site parking but if he wanted to pay £3.00 per week, he could park a mile away and walk in. He was subsequently advised by the ever-helpful Peter, that most staff parked in the pub car park, had a drink there after work in the evening and tipped the manager an extra fiver every now and then. Senior management were not aware of this arrangement and would not have approved of staff frequenting such an establishment. This also meant that the pub was a management-free area which suited the rest of clientele as well.
Peter proved a valuable ally; he was missing his friend Mark, now working in the bowels of the building sorting out post. Having another male in the office – apart from Gavin Slime – was a blessed relief. By lunchtime Ben was au fait with the official and unofficial workings of the Human Resources department but even Peter was unable to shed any light on what went on in Room 19. Ben had yet to meet Mandy, the team manager and Gavin’s second in command, as she was on annual leave in Tenerife. He had heard Karen, Cheryl and Fiona screaming with laughter and reading out Mandy’s Facebook comments all morning however, and got a distinct feeling that he wasn’t going to warm to her when she returned. For Ben, coming from university and a more purist view of Human Resources, each new revelation he came across made his blood run cold and his irritation levels rise.
Gavin stayed in his office most of the time; the noise level reduced when he opened his door, and almost all the staff stopped what they were doing and hunched over their computer screens in an effort to look busy. Joanna sat at her workstation outside his glass panelled office, occasionally typing, but generally examining her immaculate nails and occasionally texting elegantly on her crystal encrusted mobile.
There was no canteen on the premises; Peter advised Ben that people usually got food from the nearby supermarket, sandwiches from across the road or, if finances permitted, went to the all-you-can-eat for a fiver Chinese restaurant next door. That was usually reserved for Fridays when early goes were the norm, and most managers indulged in a liquid lunch that ensured that very little work was done at the end of the week. As it was Monday, though not exactly a hive of activity, there was a little evidence of any work being done anyway; Fiona had actually managed to finish two contracts but had passed them to Peter for checking. He was only a few pages into the first contract but had found several errors already. He explained in an undertone to Ben, that he had to be careful about finding too many errors because Fiona was notorious for throwing temper tantrums, and it was one of these that had led to Mark’s anonymous complaint and subsequent demotion.
“I take a copy of what she sends me and file it.” Peter said quietly, “Then I make some changes and save a copy, then I send the original back to her with my suggested changes, then I go back to my version, make another copy and do the rest of the changes so that I’m in the clear. Fiona makes the changes, occasionally spots some further errors, sends it back to me with a terse note, I repeat the whole process with some further changes, and then she sends it to Mandy for checking. Mandy will be sending it to Gavin but we aren’t sure if he will consider it his responsibility to check it. It will end up in Joanna’s in-tray and as she can barely read, she will ignore it. Eventually the member of staff will start chasing up their contract, and it is found on Joanna’s desk covered in coffee rings. A new copy is generated and comes back to us only if the member of staff bothers to read the terms and disagree with them.”
“You seem to know a lot about Joanna?”
“Unfortunately. I worked in the same office as her when I did a stint in Margaret’s office. She gives the impression of being dim, but she knows how to work the systems. You would do well to keep on the right side of her. She is one of Margaret’s favourites.”
“For goodness sake!” said Ben. “This is a horrendous waste of time and resources! Do you not have any standard contracts that can be used as a template?”
“We used to, but there was a rumour that there were going to be cuts, so erm … Mandy deconstructed the whole contract template system and gave bits of it to Fiona, Karen and Cheryl to rewrite. That was two years ago. We were hoping that Gavin will reinstate the original system but there’s some kind of secret project he’s involved in as well – very hush-hush and mysterious.”
This sounded more interesting to Ben; Sally had been dismissed just over nine months ago, and there was a possibility that Gavin’s work was linked to her appeal and tribunal. Looking up he caught Janna’s eye; she gave him a vague but fairly warm smile and he wondered if she was the key to it all. Ben knew all too well the charming power of his large brown eyes, short but curly dark hair, and body that he kept fit at the gym. He had already received several admiring looks from his new office mates – both male and female – since he’d walked in to the building.
Fiona had informed Ben that he would be on first lunch with Peter, so that she and her two colleagues could have a shopping lunch. Peter explained quietly that this meant the three of them would be gone for at least two hours, and that they would inevitably have to leave early in order to return most of their purchases after spending the afternoon comparing and criticising them.
Peter led the way down the corridor, past the mysterious Room 19, and the grim-faced receptionist who tutted when Ben’s security fob failed to let him out of the building. Luckily Peter’s fob was working and their progress up the road to the sandwich shop had no further hindrance. Ben looked back at their office building when they reached the top of the precinct. It was definitely imposing; five stories high and an ugly grey seventies blot on the landscape with dead-eyed mirrored windows, and the occasional covered walkway. The only relief from the concrete face was a red banner draped outside the Indian restaurant on the ground floor. Half of its fastenings had come loose and it flapped apathetically with each passing breeze. It did not look an impressive place to work, and Ben had already heard from Sally that it was rumoured to have ‘sick building syndrome’. Given that part of Ben’s new role was to look into the rising rates of sickness in the building, he wondered if the rumour was actually true. Sally had also mentioned that the heating and air conditioning were monitored by the owners of the building. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but the owners were based much further north, and the temperature there was the yardstick used to control the temperature in this office building miles away, and often subject to completely different weather conditions.
Peter looked nervously at his watch and hustled Ben into the nearest sandwich shop. Ben also looked at his watch.
“We’ve only been out for ten minutes. It can’t be time to go back already?”
“It really wouldn’t be a good idea to upset Fiona today.” Peter said, looking over his shoulder in the direction of their office, “She’ll be waiting for us to get back so that she can go out with Cheryl and Karen.”
“But early lunch is from twelve till one! They are on late lunch which is from one till two.”
Peter shook his head, raised his eyebrows, and paid for his sandwiches all in one jerky move.
“You don’t understand Ben. Those are the official times for lunches but Fiona and the others will be expecting to go as soon as we get back. If we don’t return till one o’clock, they’ll only get an hour for lunch.”
“And? They clock on and off the same as everyone else, don’t they?”
Ben handed over the money for his own sandwiches and followed Peter in what could only be described as a trot.
“So, explain to me then? Whilst we’re outside and no one can hear us.”
“They use the clocking on system the same as all of us but they do it in retrospect,” said Peter. “When they come back from shopping, they will record that they went out at one o’clock and came back at two but in reality, they’ll be waiting with their coats on for us to return.”
Ben was astounded.
“But that’s cheating the system, and the authority! More to the point it’s cheating everyone in the office. You’re supposed to have at least half an hour away from your desk, we’ll barely have been away fifteen minutes by the time we get back.”
“We have to make sure that we don’t clock back on till twelve-thirty so that it looks like we’ve been away at least half an hour. I don’t know why you look so shocked Ben. It goes on throughout the council.”
“This goes against everything I learned at Uni; what about Gavin? You can’t tell me he actually approves of these arrangements?”
Peter shrugged his shoulders again. “We had hopes that he might sort things out a bit – new broom and all that but this is Mandy ‘s responsibility, and she is so totally under Fiona’s thumb that she’ll let anything go. You’re on six months’ probation remember. Don’t make waves or we’ll all suffer.”
Ben sat down at his desk and unwrapped his sandwiches. The bread tasted like sawdust in his mouth. The future didn’t look bright at all. He was beginning to think that he should have listened to Sally.