Tuesday, 11 July 2017

RE-ENTRY: It's Five O'Clock Nowhere


Here's a quick story for you. I know I usually only do these once a month, but it seems most appropriate to post this now because it forms the perfect bridge between my last post, My Top Ten Five a.m. Songs and the next one... My Top Ten Five p.m. Songs. Its title was based on one of the songs in that countdown... well, this one:

Alan Jackson & Jimmy Buffet - It's Five O'Clock Somewhere

I love this song, even though I'm not the biggest Alan Jackson fan. A bit too Stetson-country, even for me, usually. But this is a great working man's hymn, made one hundred times better by the arrival of slacker king and Florida-country icon Jimmy Buffet. If you're one of those people who sits in the office all day waiting for the hands of the clock to hit five... or five thirty... this is the song for you.

What would Jimmy Buffet do?





It's Five O'Clock Nowhere



Sometimes it felt like even the second hand was fighting a losing battle. Karl spent much of his working day scrutinising the clock on the wall opposite his desk, and the more he watched it, the more it seemed like every single tick was a struggle against the inevitable, some wild Canutian battle to continue the forward progress of time when all around them – the clock, and Karl - everything else was trapped in amber.

Now every day was indistinguishable from the ones that surrounded it. The same unremitting routine. For Karl, it always began with email. Five minutes for work (he deleted many of the office memos without reading them, he’d been here long enough now to have read them all before), at least half an hour for his own private hotmail account. A few games of solitaire to get him in the mood, then, if he really felt like it, he might breeze through a couple of reports. He took regular breaks to check certain websites, monitor his eBay bidding, and to see if anyone new had poked him on Facebook, then went for a stroll around the building on the pretext of doing some photocopying or delivering a wrongly sorted item of mail or retrieving an important document from the archive room in the basement. He liked it down there in the archives, though the building work that was going on in adjacent rooms meant it wasn’t as peaceful as it’d once been. Still, he liked the snowflake pattern on the grill outside the windows, and how, if he got up on a box, he could stare out into the street, a feet-level view of the carefree world beyond. He liked to watch the people and wonder why they weren’t in work. Disregarding the kids, pensioners, and housewives, many of the passers-by remained unaccounted for. Deliverymen, council workers, window cleaners – people whose jobs involved moving about the city from one place to another – they made up another percentage, sure, but still not enough to answer for all of them. Some of them, Karl realised, just didn’t have an excuse. They were free, and that was all. Independently wealthy or dole-sponging layabouts, they were one and the same in Karl’s mind. The lucky ones.

After lunch (eaten at his desk because Head Office frowned on employees leaving the building in their lunch hour: what if there was a rush and no-one was around to deal with it?), Karl’s afternoon began with a brief spate of internal correspondence (some of it work-related, much of that deleted unopened, though mostly it was gossip, and the forwarded jokes, pictures and film clips that his colleagues had chanced upon over their sandwiches) before he set into the internet proper. He usually left his favourite worksafe websites ‘til the afternoon sag, the longest part of the day, when Karl needed all the distraction he could get. But even after scanning through all his various bookmarks – news sites, shops, blogs and games; even after downloading and burning another CD’s worth of not-strictly-legal mp3s he’d probably never get time to listen to; even after voting for all the new Hot Or Not girls and wondering for the five hundred and seventy fifth consecutive workday just why the plainer ones put themselves up for it (though he did always take this into account when voting, marking up the mooses, and downgrading the dolly birds)… even after all that: by 3pm, he still hit the flats. 

The flats were when Karl had exhausted every possible diversion the office had to offer, but there were still two hours left to kill. By this point in the afternoon his biorhythms and blood sugar were low, his exasperation and listlessness were high, and if Karl wasn’t careful, moribundity could set in. Sometimes, if absolutely necessary, he’d do a little work to distract himself. Take his mind off the incessant stain of his life, the chronic howl of it all. Other times, if there wasn’t any work that couldn’t be put off, he’d go back down to the archive room and stare out into the street. Wish himself out there, among the foot-loose and fancy-free. A man of means, or a man of no means. From this point in the afternoon, either seemed an occupation devoutly to be wished for. 

By four, he’d be back at his desk – and that was when the serious clock-watching began. With only an hour to go, the atmosphere in the office changed to an unusual mix of electricity and ennui. Postures slumped, eyes drooped then blinked violently alert, but conversations turned to the evening ahead. The drinks, the friends, the bars, the lovers. Films and music and life. Release. By ten to the hour, Karl had his things packed and ready. His final emails sent and websites browsed, he powered down his computer and made ready for escape. This part of the day always reminded him of being back at school, of waiting for the bell that launched everybody from their desks and spewed them out into reality. The tougher teachers always made you wait. Made you sit back down ‘til they’d finished their sentence, checked that you understood the homework, drew out your pain as far as their power could reach. But there were no teachers here, and middle management was just as eager to blow this joint come five o’clock as everybody else. Most days, they were the first ones out the door and into the carpark (unless somebody from Head Office was visiting, in which case they’d mock up devotion and switch on their desk lamps like there was a long night ahead).

Then finally, the silent bell rang. The notional whistle blew. And for a few short hours, this irrelevant enterprise relinquished its hold upon them. Time was no longer for frittering: it was for filling. That most of them went straight home and zombied in front of a flickering box was not the issue - the issue was that had they so wished it, they could have done or gone or been anything else they pleased. At least until the second hand (cracked from its amber, getting only green lights ‘til dawn)
double-quicked back to the 9am capture, where it all started over again. Until then, they were free.

And then one Monday, on the twenty-third of a month like most others, something changed. Karl noticed it first around lunchtime (potted beef, Monster Munch, and a can of Diet Pepsi from the machine), a hiccough in the daily routine of his workmates that became ever more pronounced as the afternoon went on. He tried to distract himself with the usual medley of myspace and minesweeper, but by three o’clock he could feel it in his guts and his water and his chest, in a heartburn those chalky pocket Rennies couldn’t assuage and an urgency in his bladder that usually only came in the middle of the night, when sleep was disturbed by apprehension of the coming grind. Something was different, and by correlation, something was wrong. Four o’clock came and by now it was unquestionable, though part of him was too scared to ask. Part of him didn’t want to know. Why everyone was behaving so strangely, like it was still 10am or 2pm, not nearly 5. Why today there was no late afternoon buzz, no pre-release expectancy, no excitement at all. The electric was off, and the whole place was running on emergency generators only.

Then finally it happened. Or rather, it didn’t. Five o’clock came and nobody moved. Karl, who’d been ready to spring for the last half hour, picked up his things and looked around the office. Still nobody moved. Mice clicked and eyes stared and feet shuffled and everything maintained. Karl didn’t understand. He tapped his watch, but it told the same story as the clock across from his desk, and he’d been watching that tick (like a lame man wading through mud) through the hour. It couldn’t have stopped. He didn’t understand. But neither did he care. He had places to go, even if they didn’t. He had people to see, he had—

“Where’re you going?” asked Lena, looking up from her Mah-jong with a curious pout.

“It’s five,” said Karl, with a tone that added, ‘where do you think I’m going’.

“What?” said Lena. “Didn’t you get the memo? Don’t you watch the news?”

And so she explained it. The new company policy. “In line with recent government legislation, to help make us a more competitive force in the international marketplace post-Brexit, and stave off the tide of outsourcing that’s driving so much of our industry and so many of our jobs overseas, Head Office has instituted a new twenty-four hour working day, commencing this morning at 9am. They’re calculating a projected increase in productivity across the week of… I think they said twenty-five per cent. I can’t quite remember now. God, Karl, where have you been?”

“But, that’s… We can’t… I mean, when do we sleep?”

“Well, obviously, that’s been taken into account. If you need more than a catnap at your desk, the company’s provided us with a comfortable new dormitory in the basement. Though they are asking us to sign up to a rota so that everybody isn’t trying to get in there at the same time – surely you got that email?”

“But…”

“Look, if you don’t like it, you’re allowed to opt for voluntary redundancy if you so… Go and take it up with Michael from HR. Just… I’m very busy!”

Karl left her to her Mah-jong and returned to his desk. He switched his computer back on and waited for it to boot up. He couldn’t just quit – how would he pay off his mortgage? His car? His three grand overdraft and five grand credit cards? Getting another job wouldn’t be that easy. Not one as relaxed as this, with as much freedom to do as he pleased, with no-one breathing down his neck, without the pressure of deadlines and paperwork and… well, work. Sometimes it takes the threat of losing it to make you realise how much of a good thing you’ve got going.

Back down in the archives, after filling in his name on the dormitory rota, Karl climbed up on a box and stared out into the world. Late evening sunlight fell through the grill, the pattern of the snowflakes warming his skin. And though it was almost six o’clock, the street wasn’t any busier now than it had been at eleven, or three. The rush hour was off. People just carried on about their day as though the clock no longer held any dominion over them. And in that respect, at least, now Karl was just as free as everybody else.


2 comments:

  1. Thank you for another superb piece of writing... full of observations which feel just a little too close to the truth for comfort, a twist which perhaps isn't as much of a twist from reality as we'd like to think. Long time since I worked in an office, but I was there for the transition from DOS to Windows and then the pivotal internet connection. From that moment, everything changed, yet compared to now... well, I've no idea how we ever managed to get as much work done then as we did, what with the new distractions of email jokes and Solitaire. I wouldn't cope now, that's for sure.

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  2. Well, as C said, a little too close for comfort but another great short story from you.

    It's a long time now since I looked at the clock except to have a massive panic at how much work there is still to do, and how little time is left to do it in! The 24 hour working of course would solve that whole problem but with laptops now taken home that has kind of happened anyway. Good point made though about the whole clock-watching thing - No end time, no clock-watching, freedom, of sorts.

    As for Karl's realisation that the job, albeit boring, brings with it the ability to pay the bills - Yes, a large proportion of us probably feel the same way but I do get grumpy with some of my colleagues at times when they take the monthly salary for-granted. My other half has been self-employed most of his life and it's like finding a new job every single month, with no sick pay or holiday pay. BUT, it's never boring, which I suppose is the trade-off. Lucky he's got an understanding wife!

    You are supposed to be on holiday - hope it's going well but thanks for sharing the story.

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