They had sprouted like mushrooms, perched on their little stalks in the dusty corners beneath ceilings where once only a spider on its thread would have held sentry. These CCTV cameras were an object of common suspicion, and whilst it was unlikely that anybody was actually planted in a chair, fondly watching over the blank rooms as if they were sleeping babies, one could not help vaguely fearing that any little personal embarrassment – sneezing messily, or tripping over one’s own shoelaces – would be captured, and perhaps preserved on a database or an internet profile, until Judgement Day arrived and one was finally reacquainted with every slip up and momentary disaster, a history of perfectly remembered failings.
There had been an exodus of things from the canteen’s kitchens, and on a couple of occasions some catering packs of cereal had gone missing from the dry goods store. The most annoying disappearances were those of the bright yellow wet-floor signs, which are supposed to alert customers to potential slippages. The canteen had once possessed ten signs. There were now only two.
“Where are all the wet-floor signs?” Renata howled one afternoon. A customer had walked away leaving the tap of the coffee machine still switched on, and a large lake of scalding black coffee was now spreading across the floor.
“I think that they’re all on the moon,” I sighed. “There’s a lunar crater filled with millions of our lost wet-floor signs.”
Renata and I found ourselves retreating, with the rest of the customers, until we were all backed up helplessly against a wall. The coffee reached our ankles, and everybody was hopping up and down and exclaiming at the heat.
“Somebody…” I said, “has a house full of our wet-floor signs. I can imagine them sitting down to tea in their living-room, with all of our yellow signs framed and mounted on the wall over the television.”
One morning Renata and I arrived at work with the rest of the agency staff, and the manager, Ken, sailed out of his office with a face of fury. We all gathered in a little crowd and awaited his address. We are all very interested in these often unhappy examples of Ken’s leadership, and afterwards we will typically dissect them with the acidity of theatre critics reviewing the latest Lear.
“There is a thief amongst us!” Ken boomed. “It could be somebody behind you, or in front of you, or…” he gestured feverishly and some of us nodded to indicate that we had got the point. It transpired that the day before our friend Noah had left fifty pounds in a changing room locker – which, like most of them, was somewhat lacking in the lock department – and that the money had gone missing. The police, it was agreed, were hopeless timewasters, and so there was no point in calling them. Ken was bombarding us with the downfall of our morality – we were all, it seemed, unspeakable brutes – when it became time to interrupt his outpourings.
“Isn’t there a CCTV camera watching the changing room door?” I asked. “It may have picked up something.”
The manager was astonished. “I say, you may have a point. Very smart thinking, Biggy. Come on everybody, let’s see what’s on that camera….”
We all trooped into his office. Ken was explaining that the camera tapes could be speeded up, so that we would not need to watch the previous day unfolding again in real time.
“Now, Noah was on shift between seven and three-thirty, so the money obviously went missing between these times.”
We watched a grainy flickering image of the changing room door, now finally elevated to its great moment of fame and stardom. Nothing happened with a sense of furious activity. Then there was a brief scrabble of figures darting in and out of the door.
“Now…” Ken reasoned triumphantly. “These staff were only in the rooms for a couple of minutes – not enough time to search through the lockers for money.”
“And here’s Renata,” I said mischievously.
“Hey!” Renata cried.
“She has just finished the early shift…” Ken noted.
We watched for a while as she failed to come out of the changing rooms. And then there was suddenly a terrible sense of apprehension – we all found that we had stopped speaking. Eventually Renata appeared again on the screen.
The manager leaned forward and paused the tape. “You were in there for forty minutes,” he said quietly.
Renata’s face was reddening. “This is very intrusive!” she snapped.
“What were you doing in there for forty minutes?”
Renata hissed with exasperation, clenching her fists. “This is a violation of my privacy.”
“What were you doing?”
Renata rolled her eyes. “I was in the toilet.”
The manager shot up, outraged. “You were in the toilet for forty minutes!”
Renata admitted that this was true. “You just lose track of the time in there.” She spun around to hit me on the arm. “Stop laughing! This is not funny!”
“I think that Renata is a red herring,” I said very responsibly. “Shall we continue the tape?”
The previous day rolled on. “Here’s Jamie finishing his shift,” Ken said keenly.
Jamie was seated beside me and he had turned very pale. He is what the Scots call “daft.” He was now gibbering slightly.
Ken leaned forward again to pause the tape. He then swivelled around in his chair to face Jamie.
“About half an hour. What were you doing in there for so long?”
“For half an hour? It takes five minutes to get changed.”
Jamie bubbled like a kettle, his face aghast as if escaped lions and tigers were running amok in his mind.
“Did you steal the fifty pounds?”
Jamie looked around helplessly before bursting into tears. “Yes!” he barked.
There were fierce gasps and mutters.
“This is too much,” I said quickly. “You’ve made him so anxious that he’s said yes just to end the suspense.”
“I think that this investigation is concluded,” Ken declared, glowing with the feeling of for once being on top of things. “I will call the police and they will remove Jamie from the premises.”
And then Noah popped his head into the office. “I say, where are all the staff? It’s anarchy out there in the canteen.”
“Noah,” Ken said grandly. “We have found the thief who took your money!”
Noah groaned. “I’m sorry I forgot to tell you. I found the fifty pounds in my kitchen drawer last night.”
The manager could not believe his ears. “The thief put the money back in your kitchen drawer?”
“The money was never stolen in the first place,” I explained quietly to Ken. He frowned.
“And so Jamie is totally innocent!” Renata laughed, shaking the silly boy by the shoulders until his eyes goggled.
Later, walking to the bus stop with Renata, I moralised loftily about the characteristic ghastliness of the manager in intimidating a mentally disabled worker. And when I rummaged in my bag to find some money for the bus, the fifty pounds which I had earlier taken from the cash-point in order to pay the month’s council tax was – of course – as sure as the nose on your face – missing.