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Here’s a short story I wrote sometime ago …

It was my first job after university. I had worked hard for three years. And now this. No explanation, no farewell lunch, no gift, just a slip of paper in my pay packet. I’d copped a bad appraisal, but so had most other staff. I sat at my battered little desk, stunned. My heart sank. The lump in my throat got heavier. How could they?

I lit a cigarette. You could still smoke in the office in those days. I drew long and hard, tossed my head back and exhaled. In front of me, my reports and notes on interest rates and customer service and the housing market were suddenly like distant memories. I had been a good employee. Sure, I’d stuffed up once or twice, like the time I caused the computer system to collapse. Staff couldn’t get into their databases. Customers couldn’t withdraw their money.

Perhaps it was all a big mistake, I thought.

“It’s no mistake,” my boss Jim Henderson said. “The chief told all managers to cut back.”

“But why me? My pay’s next to nothing.”

Henderson slouched in his leather chair and gazed out the window. His view of the city and across the suburbs to the bay was unsurpassed. An original oil painting hung on the wall of his office, a room bigger than most lounges. The top of his huge mahogany desk was empty except for a box of cigars and a fake gold astray. I had never seen him do much work. But his job seemed safe.

“The market’s so competitive these days. We’ve got to reduce our costs,” he said, shrugging.

I stood next to the door, ankle deep in plush maroon carpet. “But that’s what I’ve spent the last three years doing,” I said to him, “finding ways to cut costs and get more business. I’ve saved millions and made millions for this place and that’s the thanks I get.”

“Let’s face it,” he said, “most of those things were my ideas.”

What! I could hardly believe it. What an a###hole My hackles rose. “Let’s just say you took the credit for them,” I said.

He glared at me. “You can finish this afternoon. Your final pay will be in your account.”

“Then I may as well finish now,” I said, and stormed out of his office. No use arguing with him. He had an answer for everything. Gift of the gab type, he was.

“Suit yourself,” he called out as I hurried along the corridor and back to my desk.

I wish I’d told the chief about him ages ago. But all the managers were the same. And they stuck by one another.

I tidied my desk and packed my bag. Two other blokes working in my area got redundancy slips too. We consoled each other. One had been there twenty years. At least I was single and didn’t have a mortgage.

I decided to jam the computer again, this time on purpose. They wouldn’t suspect me. They’d think it was just another breakdown. The system was old and falling apart. But they worried about costs too much to replace it. I knew what to do to stuff it up so no one here could fix it. My mate in the computer room had shown me how. They’d have to fly a contractor up from the capital. And it was too late to do that until next day.

Just as I was about to tap the relevant keys on my terminal, Henderson strolled in. “I thought you were going,” he said.

“Er, yes, I am,” I said. “I’m tidying up a few computer files and I’ll be gone.”

He folded his arms and stood behind me. I sensed him looking over my shoulder. Did he suspect? I doubted it. He didn’t know the first thing about computers. But I’d got him wrong before. So I fiddled around swapping files between directories. He stayed put. Damn him. I swivelled from side to side in my rickety old chair, hoping the squeaking would send him away. It didn’t. He picked up Business News from the next desk and started to read it. Didn’t he have a meeting or something to go to? He was probably making sure I wasn’t going to nick anything before I left. Or did he want the personal satisfaction of actually seeing me out the door for the last time?

He was soon engrossed in the newspaper. I arranged the shutdown for half past six that night. Just before sunset. Staff would be long gone by then. It’d give Henderson and the other managers something to do, I thought, while they stayed back till all hours for the sake of it, trying to impress the chief by being last to leave the car park.

The very moment I finished, he threw the paper aside and said, “Come on, I want you gone, now.”

Phew! I’d made it. “Alright, alright, I’m going. Can’t you see I’m packing my stuff.”

There wasn’t time to photocopy any of my reports to take with me. He wasn’t even going to give me a chance to sign the underneath of my desk. I grabbed my bag and left.

“Good luck,” Henderson said. “I’ll give you a reference if you need one.”

What! He gives me a lousy appraisal, fires me, and then says he’ll give me a reference. He was just trying to soften me up, the useless b##tard, scared I’ll dob him in to the chief.

I got into the escalator, yanked off my tie and pressed ‘B’ for basement. The contraption grated and wobbled its way down. Henderson’s gleaming white Fairlane and other executives’ cars were parked in large well-lit bays. I walked down the ramp to the lower basement. No lifts to this level. I ducked under the air-conditioning pipe and fumbled in the darkness to get the key into the door of my trusty old Datsun. I opened the door as far as the concrete pillar would allow and squeezed in.

I drove up to the exit and spoke into the speaker. I’d already handed in my swipe card needed to open the huge iron gate to the outside world.

“Wait a minute and someone will come,” a voice said.

I lit a cigarette and waited a few minutes. No one came. I activated the speaker and spoke into it again.

“Name please, sir,” a different voice said.

I gave my name.

“Sorry, sir, there’s no one by that name on my list. Are you a visitor?

They’d struck me off already! Proof they could do things quickly when they wanted to. “No, I’m not a bloody visitor. I’m a long-suffering inmate trying to escape once and for all,” I yelled into the thing.

Before anyone came, another car appeared from the lower basement. I reversed and let it through, following closely behind. I glanced in my mirror as the gate shut. Freedom.

I needed some food and things to take home, so I drove to the public car park. At least I’d be able to exit when I wanted to. I trudged toward the main shopping area, sweating under a broiling sun. Dust rose from the roadway as cars sped past. In the distance a heat haze blurred the hills. I went to the ATM to get some money. I keyed in my details and waited. “Balance $6.28,” it said. The mongrels hadn’t put my pay in. Or had the computer failed a few hours too early? I stood aside and watched as the next person withdrew a wad of twenties. The ATM was in order. That meant the computer was working. I withdrew five dollars and bought some takeaway. I’d been too busy sorting out one of Henderson’s stuff-ups to have lunch.

I rang the pay clerk from a public phone. She told me she hadn’t received any advice about my leaving, and so far as she knew my normal pay would go into my account later that night as usual. She’d make enquiries and sort it out as soon as possible. She said she wished she’d got a slip too.

Great. No job and no money. And I was low on cigarettes. I sat on a bench near the mall and watched the world go past. I stared at the steel and glass monstrosity a block away, where I’d slaved every day to make Henderson and his cronies look good. It was the tallest building in town. Gold-coloured windows glowed as they reflected light from the sun. They became brighter as the sun got lower, almost blinding. The windows on the second floor, where the computer was, wavered like a mirage. They were brilliant yellow, with a tinge of orange, blazing. There was a fire in the computer room. Flames leapt high, rapidly engulfing the building. Fire engines wailed, but they couldn’t do much. It was a towering inferno. By dusk it had faded. The building was gone. Nothing was left.

I got my money though, later that night. When I set the shutdown time, I had switched my account to the off-site computer, just in case.