Friday, November 19, 2010

The Devil is a Chain Smoker - Book Extract #2

SHOOT: In late 2009 David Bullard sent me an email congratulating me on getting fired.  Other ex-workers have said that if you do not get fired from [a particular company] there must be something wrong with you.

Note: Below is an extract based on a true events.  'The Devil' chronicles the more memorable episodes of  the ridiculous cast of characters that occupy one of  South Africa's major media houses - I documented them between 2007 and 2009. The story is a sometimes critical, always satirical look at media organisations. Published each Friday afternoon and written by Nick van der Leek


These are some of my daughters Hildy, Helga, Hoola, Heidi, and Hedy. Hedy, Heidi, Hildy, Helga: Hi!  And Burt from Accounting, and Misses McGillicuddy. And Mr. FarFoogin of the ClooginFarFloogins. And the old man in the bathtub. – from Horton Hears a Who!

If you’ve gotten this far I might as well go the whole hog and introduce you to the cast.  It’s quite a list, but going through them must be done, so please don’t be intimidated.  If you can’t remember a name, don’t worry, they won’t have remembered yours if you worked there either. We’ll leave The Devil for last (believe me, once you’ve met her you’ll want to be somewhere else.)

As I said, I work in the Big City’s leafy suburb of Bougainvillea Hill, at Treacle Media.  It’s a big styleless building constructed out of faded yellow bricks.  Across the road is SUM Oil, and there’s lots of construction going on around the construction of the City’s Gum Train. Periodically roads collapse and workers in their cars fall down an abyss never to be seen again, or otherwise are shot in the parking lot on the way to the door, but otherwise Treacle appears to be a conventional corporate operation. Over the parking lot is Bougainvillea Mall, and the Bougain Village Centre (where I often went to watch movies after work – sometimes during).  So we’re in the middle of it.

You walk up some steps to enter the building.  There’s an odd yellow bench on your right as you enter.  It’s dedicated to all the Sunday Express reporters wrongly accused of plagiarism who had to be fired (since the company wasn’t prepared to pay for their defense). Of course, all those who have been fired have since been ‘restrucured’ back into the company, as one would recycle out of favour politicians. One the names inscribed on the armrail is Liezel Vermaak, someone I had 'falsely' accused of plagiarizing one of my stories.  She was never fired, but was honored nonetheless.  As you can see already, it’s an interesting company with colorful employees and even more colorful policies.

Through the turnstiles and I always say hi to the security manager, Clive.  “Hey Clive.”
“Hi Nick.”
Up the escalator.  Past the NU Tube movie posters. I know, NU Tube is a scandalous rip-off of YouTube, but they make some money playing second fiddle. They have other entertainment brands besides, such as Marshmallow Music (nothing mellow about us), and then various other publications like Business Way, JUNK magazine, Mmmedia, Your TV Guide, M magazine (for lesbian women), The Weekly, Financial Bill, and so on. 
I work on the first floor.  There is the option of entering the Express room and walking around the half moon console (it resembles NASA’s launch control, except the editors have their backs to the big screen behind them, with the odd result that you keep looking over their heads at the news while the editors constantly have their backs to images of news right behind them).
I usually duck through a side entrance.  Almost everyone here greets me, including an old man, lean though, who asks me about running whenever I see him and brings me running schedules whenever they come out.  There’s also a girl with dyslexia who smiles and makes a sort’ve choked attempt to say hello as I sail past.  Around the big pot plant and bush is Paul.  He works on mobile, and has dreadlocks, and I greet him and he greets me without fail every morning.  It’s usually at this point, when I come around the plant, that I realize I’m either going to have a great day, or a shit day.  Because once I reach this part of the building I can see whether The Devil (who sits with her back to me right in front of my desk) is here. 
On the days that The Devil is not at work – these are few and far between – the atmosphere lifts.  It is though a suffocating heat gets blown away by the air conditioners.  People approach people.  We work, but we’re also chatty and gregarious whilst doing our thing.  And ideas begin to flow once more.

Where I sit, on my left, is Samantha McMuffin.  She is a very plump, sweet, single mom a little older than I am. She’s loud and jovial, and usually high spirited, which is a tonic in this environment.  She has suffered the ignominy of being impregnated by a man who also impregnated seven other women.  So the father doesn’t always honor his commitments, and so she has to work harder than most – being a single mom – to make ends meet. I respect that and have tremendous compassion for her situation.
She has seriously jeopardized my reputation in the past.  Possibly inadvertently she blabbed loudly [OH MY GOD NICK WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!] on two or three occasions where I received emails from two histrionic individuals (one male, one female).  These loud responses attracted my bosses attention and I have been hung out to dry for the same thing because of this ever since.  Even so, Samantha’s been forgiven, and we get along well.   
Before I joined Treacle, I wrote for a citizen website,  It was really based on these contributions, and my CV, that The Devil recruited me.  Now I work for one of Treacle’s smaller brands, Black Sweater. It may be small but it’s a  bestseller.  We publish information on the web about the latest fashionable jerseys and jumpers, and we sometimes go a lot further and also find fashionable hats, gloves and handbags to go with these sweaters.  It used to be Black Leather, a more fetish based publication, with a core following of bands, dedicated followers of fashion and celebrities, but since The Devil was brought in as editor, she wanted it to be sexier, more edgy and masculine, so she changed the brand name to Black Sweater.  This was also more in keeping with her dress sense.

Although Black Sweater was a roaring success, and everybody couldn't get enough of working for such a cool brand, 10 members of our team left to join other teams, some in the building, some several hundred kilometers away.  This coincided with several restructurings, and I too attempted to be restructured out of the Black Sweater team to a unit of Business Way stationed in Werth, Australia.  I failed, as I was apparently critical to the Sweater team, but many of my colleagues escaped.

Comic lover Burbidge, designer and programmer Randy Pomelenko, and Sophie Rajbansi – a difficult, obstinate woman who I became rather fond of – all moved right next to us in the open plan office, now exclusively with the bigger operation, The Express. This meant instead of being under the claws of The Devil, they reported elsewhere and so could avoid having the Life Force sucked out of them on a daily basis.

John D. Storey, a half Indian, half black man that had been The Devil’s right hand man, had found a job as senior reporter at the Sunday Express, upstairs, which was the country’s biggest newspaper.  I wasn’t sorry to see John go. Early on I had had a business meeting with a white girl, someone who turned out to be his girlfriend.  In the middle of the meeting he first sent her a text message, then called her, and later he appeared and was invited [by her] to join in.  Then she began to consult him, and he began to offer advice, which tended to be a number of reasons why this business initiative was a bad and badly conceived idea.  The two of them then began to conduct their own private conversation which rendered my presence there…er…unnecessary.  I excused myself from this irregular scenario, not happy with the manner in which extra-curricular relationships conveniently silly sallied into a work meeting.

I think John and his lady friend were affronted that I left without thanking them for their time and input.  I have a feeling he went behind my back to cover himself, probably neglecting to mention the girl in the meeting was his girlfriend and that she was probably here, after all,  under false pretences (to see him) rather than to make a real effort to pursue any business interests. The manner in which she began to discuss a partnership was immediately negative and defensive, whereas her emails were the opposite.  Strange.  I believe John may have emphasised how I lacked the social skills to deal with this encounter.  This same hypocrisy extended to Storey’s writing.  His favourite topic was how racist white people were, and he seemed not able to focus on anything else.  Perhaps he thought he could continue dating only white girls if he could convince himself and his readership that white men sucked, but white women were fair game.  Anyway, since I have known him, John has seemed incapable of having a relationship with any other race than white women. 
John and Randy (the designer/ programmer) moved in together soon after the restructuring.  Randy and I had become reasonably good friends, but with John now actually living with him, it complicated our friendship slightly.

Agneta Acacia is the Greek woman in the fishnet stockings, that appears to be suntanning on a desk.  The windows shake slightly when she speaks, and her image appears in almost every issue of The Express where she shares her latest titillating experience.  She’s an attractive woman, but she’s a Diva with an ego to match.  She’s likable until she disagrees with you, and then the thorns come out.  I suppose you judge some people by the company they keep.  Agneta’s right hand man is Bobbie McBourbon, a skinnymalink who pretends in his movie reviews to find certain actresses superhot, but visits gay bars where people speak a different language on Sunday nights in a small town over the mountain.  For all the macho bravura of his writing, he tends to wear scarves and sashes in a variety of ice cream and lollypop colors, he always seems to have walked off the ‘Alright Sport’set of either Chariots of Fire, or an all white cricket or tennis match from the 19th century.

Another wannabe Diva is Kookee Tweedle.  She is even louder than Agneta, but shorter and squatter.  Kookee seems to think that by being louder she might appear more attractive.  Amazingly she is never asked to shut up because everyone seems to be aware that she’s trying to get attention, and ignoring someone is less an option when you’re not noticing them anyway.

Sadie Bratwurst is another Diva, also working on The Express. She works at the far end of the room, in line with my desk, but on the opposite side of the building.  When I get an email from her I tend to look up and see her fingers moving delicately if minutely on her silver notebook that costs more than my car.  She is as quiet as Kookee is loud, and probably the prettiest young thing on the floor.  Sadie takes her time to do most things, probably because daddy got her her job, and she’s half the age of almost everyone around her.

Stan Kidney is the tall fella siting next to Agneta. He reminds me somewhat of mild mannered Clark Kent.  He spoke to me once, I think, in 14 months.  He read a word on the back of a shirt I wore one day.  That was all.  So the one word he may have said to me may have been BILLABONG or BALONEY, it’s hard to remember.

Joe thinks I’m a genius.  He is a Portuguese fellow with blue eyes who often wears only black.  He is a sub-editor who used to sit behind me but has since moved.  He often brings me his phone to program, or set the time on or asks me to find something on the internet.  Sometimes he’ll ask me to explain a word or a technical paragraph.  Joe is almost twice my age, and I’m happy to help him.  His colleagues are all behind me, noisily offering advice on what words mean or the latest news-before-it’s news (Madonna’s divorce, a nuclear bomb exploding in Tehran – that sort of thing).  While they create a racket around us, they are quick to pounce on anyone who dares to open a video or sound clip with sound ‘ON’.  ‘Would you mind turning that off?’  Presumably absolute silence is required in order for stand-up comedy and cleverisms to reach as far as possible throughout the target/captive audience of colleagues scattered around the open plan office.

The Devil habitually opens video files that trumpet  something about ‘DELICIOUS, SEXUAL SEDUCTIVENESS’ and for many embarrassing seconds (for her) isn’t able to turn this off.  Although The Devil does this at least once a day, no one laughs or even sniggers, and few of the sub-editors behind me dare to ask her to turn these raucous clips down.  The Devil will explain – note, not apologise – to no one in particular, afterwards, in a yellow drawl: ‘That was an icecream commercial.’  For a web editor she is tremendously talented, although her weakness is never learning how to lower the volume on her computer despite working on computers, one imagines (based on her know-it-all comments), for several thousand years.

Biff Clam is a bald, elephant-like man.  He works in distribution.  He has his work cut out because lorry loads of newspapers are going missing on Sunday morning’s, and many others are turning up spoilt by rain or torn.  Yes, large, but bald in the sense that he has no eyebrows, no hair at all on his face.  He sometimes wanders into our space.  He’s a jerk.  We’ll get to him later.

Beet Rogers is the hot young writer at Sunday Express who all the Diva’s want to have sex with.  I saw Agneta at the last office party unsuccessfully try to sneak through a succession of locked doors with Beet in tow, holding her hand, his beach blonde hair flashing (and also her wedding ring) as he followed close behind her.

I haven’t mentioned anyone else in our team, have I?  I’ve mentioned Samantha, who sits next to me, and referred quickly to The Devil, who sits right in front of me (with her back to me), but I haven’t mentioned the other three or four. Okay, sitting opposite Samantha, is a short, pretty Indian girl.  That’s Blasé Patel.  I took her and her boyfriend to a movie once.  More on that later.  I’m neither sure of the names of the two or three others in our team or what they actually do. They feel the same about me, I’m sure.   See, they are so quiet (like mice) and The Devil keeps them under her thumb so well, that they never make a peep.  I can count the diary conferences I’ve attended with this team on one hand.  The Devil will say, “I want to hear your ideas on what we should do so I’m not going to say anything…”                                

 Leaving the room, 2 hours later, The Devil has informed us exactly what she knows, in her expert opinion, and thus shared ‘our opinions’ with us.

Which brings us to…The Devil.  There she sits, right in front of me, the spitting image of Eva Braun risen from the dead, still wearing the same faded orange-earth-colored dress (it resembles dried blood) out of the mid-40’s.  She has a footstool, as you’d imagine The Devil would.  There is a miasma of death and toxicity that follows her like a dark, poisonous veil. You try not to get too close to her. Small insect carcasses can be seen under her chair, where unsuspecting critters wandered into her personal space and died on those Hellfire fumes.  John couldn’t stand to be near this deadly dark energy himself. After John quit to go upstairs, The Devil asked me to sit beside her.  I would rather have set myself on fire, or chewed off my thumb.  When it became obvious that she was on her own, she asked Samantha to move in beside her, and unexpectedly, Samantha squirmed, saying she was quite happy where she was: ‘D-do you mind if I stay here?  I can m-move, but all my files, and my computer is here…’

She finally moved an intern next to her.  The poor fellow has lost weight and the capacity to speak since then.
The machine ratatatatat of her fingers on the keyboard sometimes sounds like a machine gun.  Often, especially after we’ve spoken, those keys really get pummelled.  She has mousy brown hair, usually greasy or like some dirty mass of hair you’d pick up off an old broom.  Sometimes she pulls it back in a ponytail, which makes her look something like a heron.  You can see the snaky lines in her neck.  The Devil pretends to have a real name, she says it’s Esther Spynful.  Some refer to her as ‘S’. Have you ever heard a name like that? It sounds like ‘HISSS!’ It’s rumoured that she’s half Jewish, half Nazi, like Hitler.

Her body is snake thin, and if you could put a paper bag over her head, you might be drawn in by those slinking curves.  Once you see past her ears though, you see puke green eyes filled with bitterness and contempt.  They flash with anger behind thick half moons of glass – and this happens at a moment’s notice.  A hard mouth with cruel, thin, oxygen starved purple lips, and skin that reeks.  The skin itself is puffed up slightly, but hard and wrinkled in appearance.  It looks lizard-like.

Next to Spynful, Cruella de Vil is pretty and sweet. Next to Spynful, Heidi’s Juffrou Rottenmeiter would win Miss Personality in a Miss Sweetcorn contest.
You almost feel sorry for her until she opens her mouth.  Her voice is a loud, contemptuous groaning.  Otherwise it is a sharp cynical rebuke or parched yellow sounding instructions.  She will offer someone half the day off not to be kind, but to rub it in for whomever else that stays behind for offending her.  There is not an ounce of tenderness in anything she says.  The sound of her voice has the leathery texture of upholstery in an old car that has been in the sun much too long.  Being in her company is claustrophobically unpleasant – like being in that old hot car with the windows closed, and the innards hot and smelling of rotten milk and cigarette ash.  In her company everything becomes hot, smoky and incinerated.  I feel like a solitary potato in a swimming pool of oil, and when she approaches, the oil bath begins to boil around me.

This thin frame is not the frame of a mother, or a lover, or a friend. It has all the beauty of a black hole, of a moth trapped in a urinal, of flies glinting green on a freshly laid dog turd. There is no beauty in it at all.   It is an editor, whose job is not make but to break.  Not to do but to think, to analyse.  Not to understand but to be understood.  Not to have any ideas or any original thoughts.  It cannot make so it mocks. 
The Devil sucks the flame through the cigarette of life, and leaves behind elegant wisps of smoke, a thin burning peel of heat, and trails of ash. And then she lights another and brings the filter to those oxygen starved purple lips.

[Read last weeks #1]

No comments: