When I get into work (at 9.05, earning a glare from Geraldine who sits opposite), the photo's already peeking coyly from under my keyboard. Lee’s ripped it out of the Business Beacon newsletter and circled someone's head so many times that she’s peering out from a halo of green biro. Underneath, in block capitals, he’s written: IT’S HER.
Squinting, I make out the face of Carol Myers, from Personnel next door. Typical. Lee maintains that Personnel are a bunch of workshy, incompetent, borderline-criminal cocksucking motherfuckers who exist solely to do us in Human Resources harm, and I have to say that some days I agree. And Carol, (says Lee) is the worst of them. He’s had it in for her for a while. Ever since, in fact, he became convinced that she had it in for him.
Nobody knows when things between Personnel and HR got so bad, though it was certainly before my time.
(Sidebar: I'd just like to clarify that there's a big difference between Human Resources and Personnel, and that we actually do completely different things, but it’s not really something the layman can understand, so it’s best if you just accept it).
All you need to know is that:
a) HR and Personnel are sworn and mortal enemies, and have been since time immemorial (i.e. before I started), and
b) The two teams share a kitchen and bathroom, and these are the fields on which most inter-departmental battles are fought.
So, anyway: back to the note. Lee, my desk-neighbour, has noticed over the past weeks that various items in the shared fridge which rightly belong to HR are being, as he puts it, compromised.
I don’t know whether any of you have ever seen the inside of a workplace fridge? I should imagine so; you look tolerably employable, I suppose, but not really flush enough to splash out on Pret-a-Manger every day. And besides, you can’t nip out to Starbucks whenever you want a coffee; it’s not time-efficient. This is where the communal corporate fridge comes in.
Because the company no longer provides free tea and coffee and milk and biscuits for staff, if it ever did; not in these dark end-times. So if you want a hot caffeinated beverage during work hours, you’d better call a meeting and order refreshments (bookings must be made through Reception, 24 hours in advance) – or else bite the bullet and bring your own.
Which is where it gets nasty.
Because I don’t care what your job-title is, or how senior you are, or how long-serving: sooner or later somebody’s going to steal your milk. Your milk, with your name on it. Or your smiley-face, or initials, or KEEP OFF, or skull-and-crossbones, or whatever message or symbol you decorate it with to indicate that it is yours, and nobody else’s.
But here’s a newsflash, my optimistic friend: people will steal your milk. It’s a fact of life, like sexual disappointment; like broken photocopiers; like death and whatever comes after. In fact, perhaps they already have? Maybe they’ve been sneaking a drip here and there, just to top up their tea or whiten their coffee, right under your nose, all this time? Maybe you haven’t noticed yet. Maybe you’re telling yourself you don’t mind. But when you do, you will.
And someone had been stealing Lee’s milk. His weekly pint of semi-skimmed, marked POISON: DO NOT DRINK!!!!! with a CD-writer pen and five exclamation marks. And Lee was not happy. He'd identified a suspect. He thirsted for revenge. And naturally, he needed my help.
We rendezvoused in the break-out area at 11.15, as usual. Lee was tense and jumpy, his Top Man suit rumpled, with peculiar darkish stains on the knees. I didn’t ask: I didn’t want to know.
“Are you sure it’s her?” I murmured as we stood side-by-side, gazing vacantly at the white tiled splashback on the sink, waiting for the kettle to boil.
“Yeah,” he muttered, checking that nobody from Personnel was in earshot. “110%.”
“What you gonna do?”
He shot me a glance full of dire meaning. “I,” he said, “am going to make her reap the whirlwind.”
“What do I have to do?” I asked.
He pressed a 50p piece into my hand. “Get me a pint of semi-skimmed from the machine and a CD-writer pen,” he whispered. “I’ll do the rest.”
Next day, our phones were going mental. I got in at 9.03; Geraldine glanced significantly at her watch, and then at my phone, which was ringing. I dived for it.
“Hello HR, Marcy speaking!” I trilled, breathlessly.
“Is this Carol's assistant?” gruffed a voice. I sighed.
“I’m so sorry, you’ve got the wrong number. I'll put you through to Carol.”
“Carol’s not in. They said she’s off.”
Off what? Off on leave? Off sick? Off-planet?
“I'll take a message,” I said grimly, grabbing a Post-it.
This continued all morning. At 11.15, I slipped out to make my customary Nescafe (which I now drink with soya-milk, which I hate, because everybody else hates it too and at least that way nobody steals it).
“What’s going on in Personnel?” I hissed to Lee, as he pretended to toast a Pop-Tart and I pretended to wash my mug. He flashed me a World Cup grin.
“Carol's off sick,” he said. “Guess why?”
“You did not!” I hoped.
“Oh yes I did.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“What’s right with her, you mean. Vomiting, diarrhoea, oh dear oh dear. That’ll teach her to steal other people’s milk.”
“What did you put in it?”
He shrugged. “Antimony. Hey, it does say POISON: DO NOT DRINK!!!!! With five exclamation marks, too. She can’t say she wasn’t warned.”
Five minutes wiser, thanks to Wikipedia, I stormed back into the break-out area.
“Are you mental, Lee? Are you developmentally challenged? Should there be a quota for people like you?”
His hands mimed innocence. “What?”
“Antimony's a poison, you fucking knob! A real poison! It causes internal bleeding, organ damage and death! It doesn't just make you sick-”
“An emetic.” Lee supplied smugly.
“You could have killed her!”
He rolled his eyes at the crumbling asbestos ceiling-tiles. “Come on. It was only a few teaspoons.”
“That’s double the lethal dose, you prick!”
Lee yawned. “Whatever.”
“You know what Lee, if you’ve killed her, it’s you and me in HR who’ll have to answer her bloody calls!”
I sighed. “God, Lee. Don’t you ever think ahead?”
But Carol didn’t die. She had a week off, true, and given that she hadn’t taken leave since the day she arrived (whenever that was, well before my time) I suppose it must have done her some good, because apart from taking her coffee black and a slightly increased tendency to cough up blood during meetings, she seemed pretty much unaffected.
But Lee wouldn’t leave it there. Now he’d marked his territory, showing Personnel exactly what happened when they infringed his milk rights, he did what all successful generals do: he got over-ambitious. Like Alexander the Great, he started looking for new worlds to conquer. And the world he chose was complimentary meeting biscuits.
There's an unwritten rule about meeting biscuits; any more than two, and you’ve either skipped lunch, you’re taking the piss or you’re a full-blown psychopath. Lee, obviously, was the latter.
I suffered the most, naturally, stuck in every meeting, my head lolling drunkenly on its aching stem as Geraldine pounded the Powerpoint. I'd minute the droning discussion of ever-tinier points of protocol and procedure, forbidden to speak but condemned to listen, and I'd watch him.
As debate dragged on, and my fingers tapped like impatient deathwatch beetles; as the sulphurous clouds dripped cold poison onto the empty rain-black streets outside, I'd watch Lee, hypnotised, consuming biscuits. Two, three, four. An argument sputtered; I touch-typed mechanically as I saw Lee use the diversion to cram a fifth, sixth, seventh custard-cream into his crumb-filled mouth. He didn't even like custard-creams. At least it stopped me from driving untwisted staples into my legs until the blood oozed just to stay awake. But Lee shouldn’t have done that in front of Carol. That was his mistake.
I found him in the Gents’ an hour later, bucked over a spreading pool of his own bloody vomit. He hadn’t even made it to the sink. I dropped down beside him, trying to avoid the mess.
“Shit, Lee! What's wrong?”
“The biscuits,” he croaked, succumbing to a wave of dry-heaves. Muddy bile splashed down his shirt. He was breathing heavily and sweating, white as photocopier-paper. “I’ve been in training. Don’t eat breakfast any more. Or lunch. Just – just custard-creams.”
He gagged, wiping scarlet spittle from his lips. He clutched his stomach as another spasm hit him. “Check Wikipedia, Marcy.”
“What for?” I asked.
“Arsenic,” he said, and pushed me away with a wet, feeble hand.
When I dreamed that night, it wasn’t the usual one of rotting flesh and rivers of blood on fire. It was a happy dream, I suppose. There was a feast at an infinite table laden with delicious food, smelling like Pot Noodles and Pop Tarts but a thousand times better and sweeter. Like tea from a real bag. Like coffee that wasn’t the afterbirth of a machine. The food was steaming and succulent, but all the diners were skeletal, skin hanging off their bones like raw bacon, eyes huge in hollowed sockets, lips drooling and cracked. They were as thin as the huge wooden spoons that hung, unused and dusty, by their sides, too long to let them feed themselves.
Then suddenly one guest picked up his spoon and dipped it, wavering, into the bowl of the woman sitting opposite.
“No chance mate,” I thought, “you’ll never get that in your mouth.”
But then he did the most extraordinary thing. He raised the full spoon and put it hesitantly between the slack, open lips of the woman. She started at the touch, at the taste; she opened her mouth, and took it in, and chewed and smiled. Then she lifted her own spoon, and fed him back.
Lee was back at work next morning. He looked a bit pale, bent and cracked somehow, but otherwise he was his normal self. We rendezvoused in the kitchen. I noticed that Angela from Personnel was wearing a scarf, her head at an odd angle. Lee saw me looking and grimaced.
“Jamal caught her using his mug. Apparently he’d nicked her stapler. Got a bit ugly, He pushed her down the stairs and broke her neck.”
Something flashed in my head: the memory of a memory, perhaps, of when things were better, or different, or at least not this. I don’t know where it came from, but it vanished in a second. Maybe it was never there.
“Lee,” I said, “shouldn’t she be dead?”
“You’re telling me,” he grinned, and winked. On the teabag between his fingers was written in CD-pen: LEE’S. POISON. DO NOT USE!!!!!
“No,” I said, “I mean …” But I didn’t know what I meant. Only something about a dream I couldn’t remember.
“Lee,” I said, as we stood side-by-side, gazing vacantly at the white tiled splashback on the sink, waiting for the kettle to boil, “do you ever think we might be in hell?”
He shot me a puzzled look. “What?” he yelled, over the angry bubble, as he splashed boiling water over his teabag and my hand. “What d'you say?”
I shook my head. “Nothing. Doesn’t matter.” I watched thick yellow scum rise from my simmering soup of freeze-dried coffee-granules.
“I’ll tell you what I do think though,” said Lee, staring hard at the open fridge, his face darkening with blood, his voice thickening with fury, “I think that bitch Geraldine’s been stealing my fucking milk.”
© E. P. Henderson, 2008
Human Resources was read by Patsy Prince at the Liars’ League War & Peace event on Tuesday November 11, 2008.
E. P. Henderson works to live and lives to write. One day she's hoping to spend more time writing than working. She is a Londoner by adoption rather than by birth and is working on a novel.