Antoine clicked on his bulging in-box and let out a heavy sigh. There they were, another horde of emails he would have to answer. It was exhausting being a technical manager and his job was beginning to get to him. It just took up so much of his day. Once he had tippy-toed his way around the puddles and pavement cracks from his building to the tram stop, the ride into the office took him fully half an hour. And then once at his place of work he had to take the lift to the twentyfirst floor. The dizzying ascent made him quite weak, even when he indulged in the distraction of staring at other peoples’ shoes. All told his journey to work was about forty minutes, and then at five o’clock on the dot, he had to do it all again in reverse. In reverse! And in between 09:30 and five he had to be there at his desk answering idiots and fools, explaining the obvious. It was endless and his lunchbreak was a joke. Sitting in his favourite café he barely had enough time to recover from the quease-inducing lift ride from his office floor to the pavement, before he had to repeat it to get back to his desk in time. The tedium of it was all becoming just too much. His nerves were shot and his carefully manicured fingernails at risk of splitting. It was so much easier during Covid when he could stay in bed with Charmaine to do his work. But now very often it was hard not to weep. He needed more coffee to even think about tackling the emails.
Antoine was conveniently placed near the office coffee station. His coffee breaks were not so much breaks as a caffeine continuum. In readiness for the next shot he organised the inbox messages into alphabetical order. Then he noted how many there were yet to answer in neat Roman numerals on his notepad. Antoine then rose carefully turning his head from side to side to note who was appreciating the view, and took several mincing steps towards his salvation. He moved with slow deliberation, gently pulling his trousers up and his sweater down.
Back at his desk, Antoine steeled himself and avoided looking at the little clock on the computer screen. Instead he gave himself a shake, brushed an imaginary stray hair from his brow and reminded himself that he is a professional. Narrow shoulders squared he adjusted his mouse and keyboard into positions of perfect alignment. He forced his work into sharp focus, at the very forefront of his mind.
Momentarily distracted by nothing in particular, Antoine pursed his generous lips and sipped his slowly chilling coffee. Staring at the list of emails and the number of unopened ones, Antoine compared what was left with his list of descending Roman numerals. He was working hard and pondering whether it might be wise to go for a short walk around the office, much as his colleagues were doing. Short perambulations are a good way to clear the mind and avoid excess work stress, he considered. And he could see what other people were doing, overhear conversations that are none of his business, Zoom bomb and so on. It would take care of those few untidy minutes before the big hand stretched up to reach the very top of the clock and Antoine could fully enjoy the moment. Or should he simply stay put, finish his coffee and open the next message in the list.
Leaning forwards to avoid the noise of laughter coming from the vicinity of the coffee machine he noted that this message was from yesterday evening. It had arrived after Antoine had left for the day, at a time when his work day was done. He felt the familiar and well-honed annoyance at these people. Why can’t they just respect professional working hours and send their emails in a timely manner? Don’t they have homes and loved ones to go to. Don’t they have lives? He wasn’t entirely comfortable with this cliché but he understood that people liked to say it, so he said it too. But Antoine had no loved ones, not after that incident in the early 2000s. Ever since he had lived alone with a series of cats. The latest is Charmaine, a long haired and profoundly overweight Persian too lazy to do much more than purr and drape herself on Antoine’s lap. Besides Charmaine, Antoine did have the gym and his very many friends on social media, most of whom he knew rather too much about. He was close to people from all over the world, people who loved his precise and slightly opaque witticisms. People who recognised Antoine’s greatness, enthused endlessly and sincerely about his posts, and even told him they loved him from time to time. At least that’s what their emojis said, possibly.
Antoine sniffed, slightly irritated that his reply to this message could not be within his target response time parameters. It wasn’t his fault of course, because the email had been sent out of hours. Technically the mail was sent when it was possibly still a working day in Portugal, but that wasn’t the point. In Geneva the day was over when that message arrived, and the sender should have thought about that. It really was too poor. All this agonising over time and responses was exhausting and his cold coffee now finished, Antoine’s attention was turning to lunch.
But he’s a professional so he knuckles down and stares at the computer screen some more. His hand hovered over the mouse and as his delicate fingers clicked on send, a dreadful bang and the hiss and clang of an awful explosion enveloped him. Sudden, vicious, terrifying, an assault reverberating in his dainty ears, throwing muscles into spasm and his body into inadvertent convulsions and unfamiliar shapes. Within nanoseconds Antoine was crouched quivering in horror under his desk, seeing the castors on his swivel chair spinning in an entirely unexpected orbit.
This is what it sounds like. This is it, his terrified brain screams. This is the end of my life, I can see flashing images, I can see darkness, I can see strange and unidentifiable colours cascading before my eyes in endless strobing arrays. Shaking, Antoine crumpled and shaking has tears streaming from his tightly shut eyes, strands of snot trailing his face. One fist is clenched and rammed between his perfect teeth and the other hand holds it in place.
A few moments passed before Antoine became aware of a curious and unexpected silence rising around him. Shouldn’t there be noise he wondered, slightly loosening his vicelike hold on his fist and removing it from his drooling mouth. Shouldn’t there be alarms and screaming and sirens he wondered. Am I deaf? Am I dead? Where am
I? Was this what happened when you die? Does it all just seem to continue, except that you’re dead? And then with relief he noted a tingling sensation as the blood returned to his hand. And then he could hear murmuring voices and screams, and they were not screams of terror, but of laughter. How could that be? If he had not survived, was he in some sort of office hell? Was hell a place where the carpets and the furniture were the same, but there was no coffee or views of the river and where people mocked you?
“Antoine, are you alright” he heard a familiar voice, and cautiously opening his squeezed tight eyes he saw before him a shiney black shoe and an elegantly bent knee. And Antoine’s response breathless and high pitched, “Davide, is that you? Where am I?”. Davide reached under the desk and linked a sympathetic hand around his co-worker’s rigid upper arm. “It’s OK, you’re fine, let’s get you out of there.” As he stood up, unsteady and awkward, Antoine saw that on his desk was still a neat array of pens, notepad, dirty coffee cup. His keyboard and mouse, and his favourite flowery mousepad were still in perfect alignment. How can this be? As he turned away from his desk, Davide helping him to his seat, he saw that he and Davide were not alone. There were several of his colleagues, all peering at him with expressions of amusement, disbelief and inquisitive fascination.
“Davide, what happened?” Antoine said his voice broken with relief at still being alive. “Where did that awful bomb come from? Who is hurt? How many are dead?” Davide replied that there was no bomb and that no on was hurt or dead. “Are you OK now? Can we get you anything?” “A coffee would be nice, if you don’t mind” Antoine sniffed pathetically. Davide smiled an indulgent smile. “Sorry Antoine, it was the coffee machine that blew up. There is no coffee until it gets fixed.” Antoine felt the blush rising hot and sudden from his neck to his hairline. Wiping his wet face with a proffered tissue, he turned his back on the audience. Antoine ignored their sniggers and shifted in his chair to face his screen, where he saw that there were eleven new emails to answer. He sniffed a resentful sniff into his soggy tissue, before sighing and slowly reaching for his mouse.
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