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Lynden Pater

Janet Law never married. She had no time for relationships, really. In the city she knew you had to make your own life and that was something she did very well. Every now and again she would just sit in her office and allow herself a few minutes to stop working and just to look around. She felt she could judge exactly how her life was progressing by the environment she worked in. So she spun her char ninety degrees so that she faced the huge window and toyed with her pen as she pondered the vast expanse of New York that was laid out in front of her.

Having grown up in the country she had worked very hard to get here. She didn’t see that she had much choice at the time. School was what she did from the age of four and that was almost all. Even at college she put her life on the back burner, working through the soundtrack of parties and drinking competitions that filled her house. As soon as she could afford it, which wasn’t very long after her second year at university, she moved into her own house and created her very own ordered environment.

She was perhaps the richest student she knew, but no-one else knew that because not a single other person knew her at all. She kept telling herself that she didn’t like socialising, but she suspected that the truth was that she just wasn’t a people person. Even that didn’t bother her. Most people, especially in the city, spent so much time trying to define themselves that they didn’t end up doing anything with their lives. Not really people she wanted to be around.

When she was little she believed she would meet someone who was different and he would fill that gap in her life, but now, in her mid-thirties she was beginning to come around to the idea that she had been falsely sold the American dream. Maybe that was why everyone was so false here. Thousands and thousands of people, all in those buildings in front of her, all milling around, working aimlessly, believing that they will all get what they deserve in the end. She almost pitied them.

She got up and switched off her television that was showing her muted pictures from CNN and sat back down in her chair. Turning back to her desk, she picked up the relevant sheets of paper, the only sheets of paper in fact, and leafed through them again. Her team was vast. They occupied three floors of the building and comprised nearly a whole department of over one hundred people. She was responsible for that section of New York’s mindless workers. Well, to be more accurate they were responsible for her.

If they didn’t meet their targets, then she didn’t get to keep the job she had worked so hard for. That was the one thing she hated about being in management; having to rely on people who weren’t herself. It always turned out that these people were less efficient, simply because they were less single minded than her, but that might cost her promotions that lead her even further up the ladder, and that could not be allowed to happen. With her pen she wrote a note to that effect on the bottom of the last piece of paper, and started to read from the start again. It wasn’t an effective use of her time but she had to steel herself for what she was about to do.

The top of the page was headed ‘ Smith, Phillis, Miss ’ and underneath it read simply ‘Marketing.’ Janet scanned the page briefly as she finally made up her mind and buzzed through to her secretary in the next room. “Yes, Miss Law?” Came the crackling response from the speakerphone. Without taking her eyes off the report in front of her Janet pressed the button again. “Will you get me Phillis Smith, please? She’s in marketing downstairs, I think. In Ken’s group.”

“Very good, Miss Law.”

She cleared her throat as the speaker went dead, put down the report and began to pace slowly around the room, thinking of exactly what she would say, what she would allow for and what she would not. It was always best to be prepared for an encounter such as this. Preparation was always one of the keys for her. If she didn’t know what she was going to do she always allowed herself some time to think it through. Improvisation was never good enough for her, because it wasn’t her best effort.

Her phone buzzed, so she sat back down and took a deep breath before she replied. This meeting wasn’t going to be easy. “Yes?”

“Miss Law? I’m afraid that Phillis hasn’t clocked in today.”

Janet took a second to check her watch and consider her next course of action. “Thank you, Jean,” she replied as politely as she could manage against her mood. She hung up on her secretary and dialed downstairs. The phone rang twice in Ken’s office and just as Janet was beginning to think that Ken wasn’t in either, he answered. “Hello?”

“Ken? Janet. I’m glad someone is at work today in your department,” she said curtly.

“What do you mean?”

“Has Phillis phoned in today or not?”

“She hasn’t phoned in sick, if that’s what you-” Janet hung up. The rest of the conversation was needless. Ken would have presented her with many varied excuses as to why Phillis hadn’t arrived yet, and that she would no doubt arrive soon etc, etc. Ken was concerned about his group working well together, so he would lie and pull strings to get them out of trouble. He was a person that was too attached to his group. If they didn’t get the work done then they weren’t an effective group, simple as that.


“Yes, Miss Law?”

“Go down to Ken’s group. As soon as Phillis arrives send her up here, then you can get back to work, okay? I mean as soon as she arrives.”

“Very good, Miss Law.”

Janet would have asked Ken to send her up, but that meant that he would take a few minutes to talk to her about the matters that concerned Janet, which would give her a bit of an advantage in the meeting. Not that it would help her, but it could make the meeting last longer and there simply wasn’t any purpose in that. Picking up the report and walking over to the window, Janet began to think again about how she was going to conduct this meeting.

On the street below, people strode in directions that seemed entirely random from up here. Some of them jumped into cabs and began to move faster, but still with no obvious purpose. They all knew where they were going, they all had a single individual intention, but that was all they were thinking about. No-one considered what they would be doing in a week from now, a month, or even a year. Not whilst they had to pick their way through the busy streets. From here they all looked like a single person replicated hundreds of times. She couldn’t see any features of any of them. Everyone was the same worker ant, trying to get somewhere else. If this was the view that God had then there had to be some justification in making your own way.

If the man upstairs can’t tell you from the next person then how is he going to watch over you?

Pity washed over her in an unwanted wave. In a second she was dry again. There wasn’t anything she could do about other people’s lives, she knew she could only shape her own. She sat back down at her desk.

Jean buzzed through to her.


“Miss Smith is here to see you.” Janet left a brief pause for effect before answering.

“Send her in.”

Phillis pushed the door open as slowly as she could and shut it timidly behind her, before walking over to where Janet sat, looking her up and down. She was short, overweight and her suit didn’t quite fit. Her long blond hair was in need of another dying, as roots of pale black were beginning to show. She looked exhausted and scared, but she met the gaze of Janet with blinking eyes. Janet blinked for the first time as she glanced down at her report.

There was only one way to begin. She spoke very softly. “Let me tell you the reasons for which you are being fired, Phillis.”

Phillis’ gaze shifted to the floor, the eyes no longer looking expectantly. They had received the information they were waiting for, and now all she could do was contemplate. When there is hope that you will not be fired then there will be bluster and promises and denial, all of which are unnecessary if you will still be fired anyway. This way should prove to be the shortest.

“Your performance is the weakest, not only in my section, but I would guess in the whole of the building. Your work, when finished, is shoddy, inaccurate and often incomplete. It is frequently late, letting down not only Ken, who is not an unreasonable man, and his team, but also me. I know that Ken has already issued you with several warnings about your poor attendance, illustrated by today, I think you’d agree.”

There was silence in the room for a few seconds. The worst was over. Phillis cleared her throat, but Janet knew that there was nothing she could say that would get her out of this decision. It had already been made.

“This job,” Phillis began, “is more than just a job to me. It is the only job I am liable to be able to do professionally in the city. I have an apartment that needs the rent to be paid. If I lose this job then the truth is I will never be able to afford it. The chances are that I’ll have to leave here and move out of the city,” her eyes began to water, but they never met Janet’s again.

“You have tried your hand at the big city, and you couldn’t quite cut it. That is a fact. If you want to still stay here then your lifestyle is going to have to change. You cannot keep a job with this many responsibilities. You will, of course be paid for the next month. May I suggest that you use the rest of your day to clear out your desk?”

That was it. The job was done; there was no more information to be given to Phillis, so Janet turned her attention to her computer. After a second or two, Phillis caved in to the inevitable and got up from her seat. As she got to the door she stopped. Before she could speak, Janet realised that she hadn’t quite said all she needed to. Without looking up from her computer she answered Phillis’ unasked question.

“As I think you are unsuited to a job of this nature, a glowing reference would be out of the question, I’m afraid.” Phillis left, closing the door noisily behind her. The evaluation report was now useless, so Janet screwed it up in her hand and placed it in the waste paper basket, and began typing up the notes she had made on Phillis’ vacant position. She hadn’t finished writing the first line when her desk shook. It shook so violently that she had to let go of it. The shaking spread over to her chair, and the very walls themselves began to vibrate. Out of her window she could see the taller of the buildings stretched out over New York shake alarmingly. Her phone trembled closer and closer to the edge of her desk.

Out of control, Janet could only sit and watch her whole city vibrate. The buildings that were at the edge of her window swayed in and out of view as the building she was in swayed back and forth. She didn’t have time to fear for her life, because just as quickly as it had started the earthquake stopped and the faint rumble was replaced by a commotion from the city streets loud enough for Janet to hear from her office. That meant that all morning would be filled with discussion about the earthquake and what could have happened, rather than getting some work done. The figures would certainly suffer.

It wasn’t for another two weeks that she received those figures. She was the first in the building, as always, and she examined everyone’s desk as she made her way to her office. Anything she considered to be too much of a distraction she noted mentally for further reference. She knew the production figures would be on her desk. She knew because she had asked for them, and she could be quite persuasive when she wanted to be. She entered her office and shut the door behind her. The figures were on her desk, so she took a few seconds to examine them.

As she had expected, overall production for that day was down just under twenty percent. As she began to read the individual breakdown of each department in an attempt to place blame she absently switched on the television in the corner. Automatically it began showing pictures from CNN. People were crying, desperately trying to get to their loved ones buried under tons of demolished houses. Very slowly her attention swung from the figures in her hand to the pictures of the disaster in India. The man dubbed over the pictures began his estimation that twenty five thousand people were dead or trapped under the wreckage of their own houses.

Janet stood without realising she had and took a few steps towards the television. Pictures shot up, each one cutting into the last. A man grasping at his child’s hand jutting out from under the rubble, a fire engine battling a fire with seemingly no effect, a body, covered in a red tarpaulin being carried by a group of friends over to a pile of similar bodies, a solitary child, crying.

Pity washed over her in an unwanted wave. She shook. She shook again. Frowning, she told herself that there simply wasn’t anything she could do about other people’s lives, she could only shape her own. Only shape her own.

But it wasn’t until she turned off her television that she sat back down at her desk.

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