Our manager Ken had been indisposed indefinitely, leaving a vacuum in leadership and brainpower at the hospital canteen. I had been sucked helplessly into this vacuum, the agency consenting to a broadening of my role to that of caretaker manager.
Rather as the human body would run perfectly without a mind there to create instability and mess everything up, any organisation will settle into running like clockwork once it is rid of its manager. I was fulfilling the indispensable functions of a manager – looking after keys, signing for deliveries, fielding telephone calls – but I could not make any dramatic managerial decisions. I had some cronies – every manager needs cronies – and I would occasionally confide in my co-workers Noah and Renata whenever I wanted to feel connected to the organisation I was effectively leading pro bono.
But what had become of Ken? He was “off sick” – just generally sick, without any particular illness – and there was no saying when he would recover. “Off sick” is a euphemism used by those higher up the organisation when a manager is being investigated for theft or fraud. They are worried that we will be demoralised by the possibility that one of our managers may not be supremely perfect. More to the point, they are afraid that we might question why the police have not been called, as they certainly would be if one of us was accused of theft or fraud.
Yet Ken’s case was complicated. One day, a higher manager appeared and the workforce congregated to receive her angelic tidings. Ken had suffered from a stroke and he would be spending the next few months recovering his speech and learning how to walk again. Nobody believed her, but it was highly unusual for the “off sick” excuse to acquire specific details. There had never been an example of a manager actually being ill before – they always turned out to be under investigation for theft or fraud – but clearly Ken must be implicated in a truly monstrous larceny for the higher managers to have to resort to such an unprecedented fiction.
I was in an impossible condition. I bought a “Get Well Soon” card and left it on the common room table for the staff to sign. After three days, the card was still completely pristine. The canteen workers evidently thought that by signing the card, they would give their formal consent to being deceived. I finally took the card to the Cloisters bar, bought everybody a round, and collected thirty or so messy signatures.
I was also in an unenviable position. The employment agency was taking my manager’s wages and giving me the cut of a regular worker. I had to stay behind for two hours after work every day, to cash up and lock up, but I could not receive these unpaid hours back as extra holiday time, as Ken would do, because I was still only an agency worker. I finally decided that Ken would have to return.
There are three little schoolboys who can be found on most days under the elms in the Meadows, playing with a large clattering remote controlled car. They were in the Meadows as usual on the day of my decision. I approached them without any great stealth. I scooped up the shiny car and clamped it under my arm, the wheels still whirring away furiously. The boys were speechless with astonishment, and the one with the remote control merely yelped under his breath as I fished it out of his hands. They screeched at my back as I walked away, but it was as dumb as a dartboard.
I had taken a fancy to the bell jar whilst I was wandering around the old Summerhall vet school. I was not sure if it was an exhibit or merely detritus. The brain was a sheep’s brain, purchased at a Nicholson Street butchers. There is apparently an occasional custom from the Chinese community for fresh brains.
The next morning at work, I called together the team.
“Some news,” I announced blandly. “Ken is back.”
The team looked nonplussed and then a little suspicious.
There was a long pause. Renata finally huffed with exasperation. “So where is he?”
“Ah yes,” I looked around absent-mindedly. “Ken?” I called, as if to a dog.
The bell jar with the brain floating inside it trundled in on its plastic wheels. It veered around, froze, and then rolled up to us.
The remote control had been taken to pieces and the crucial parts were fitted inside the sleeve of my shirt. I had to discreetly incline my elbow against my side to make Ken roll forward, and flap my arm about very slightly to steer. There was no concealing the aerial, and so I simply tucked it behind my ear. The voice controls were on the pads of my fingers, the wires running up my sleeve.
“GREETINGS” Ken said – or rather replayed – in a flat electronic voice.
“Is everything okay Ken?” I inquired.
“WORK. BACK TO WORK. WORK. GREETINGS.”
Ken trundled off around the cafeteria, demanding that the passing chairs and tables “WORK.”
I waved the workers towards me, into a conspiratorial circle. “Clearly there have been side-effects to Ken’s treatment,” I whispered. “The crucial thing you need to know is that the fluids in his floatation tank have to remain at an exact temperature. There is a thermometer protruding from the tank so that you can monitor this. But over 38 °C and he starts to issue deranged orders. Under 38 °C and the brain begins to die.”
The trundling wheels could be heard approaching again, and the voice reciting “WORK. WORK. WORK.” I clapped my hands and the workers dispersed. Renata looked distinctly unimpressed, but Noah was grinning with amusement.
Ken could only make fleeting appearances, otherwise I would start to lose sensation in the muscles which were needed to operate him. He could only harangue the canteen staff to “WORK,” and nobody dared to try and exchange pleasantries with him.
I resumed my normal duties at the cafeteria, although I still had to put in a bit of overtime during the evenings to ensure that the sheep’s brain which was leading our organisation did not get rumbled.
One day a chef came to report to me that Ken was behaving rather oddly.
“Nothing to do with me,” I replied, with a sort of silent chuckle. “I am no longer managing this canteen.”
“He’s making a lot of noise,” the chef complained, his eyes following the wires which ran from my fingertips to behind my ear. “I cannot hear myself think. Can’t we turn him off?”
“You want to “turn off” our manager?”
“Perhaps if we put a heavy blanket over him he would go to sleep. Like with a parrot.”
“Have you monitored the brain temperature? Perhaps it has exceeded 38 °C?”
I amused myself for a while by getting the staff to chase the brain around the cafeteria. Most of the customers were on their feet, cheering and clapping. Renata finally cornered the brain with a broom.
“BOIL YOUR HEAD. PISS IN THE SALAD. PISS ON THE CUSTOMERS.” Ken ranted.
“He must have overheated,” Renata said to herself testily. “He’s all steamed up.”
“COCK MY SUCK YOU DYKE.”
“Well put him in the fridge for a while,” I told Renata. She glared at me for a cool three seconds, before turning on her heel and stalking away with the ranting brain in her arms. The fluid was rocking choppily inside its bell jar, but it was not the time to fuss over these particulars.
“Biggy?” Noah was at my elbow. “There’s a small problem Biggy…”
“It’s okay. He’s now cooling down in the fridge.”
“Biggy. Listen to me. Ken is here.”
“He’s in the frid…. Oh sir? You’re here?”
Ken was indeed here, standing next to Noah. He looked different but the same, as if redrawn by an inferior hand. He was not so distinct a shape in that suit and his hair was thinner and accomplished with less detail. He wore the same weary, peevish look, however, and he was now updating me with his old military clarity. He had always been a man who spoke in bullet points.
“I’m back to resume control of the organisation. I assume that nothing much has changed?”
“If I may be so bold sir, we thought that you were seriously…?”
“I’ve had to spend a couple of months in prison. Nothing very serious thank you. I’m back now.”
“Nothing very serious?”
“These are personal matters Biggy. I have to inform you, however, that – and this is a legal thing – I have to nominate somebody in my workplace. I am wearing this electronic device around my ankle. If it starts to emit a shrill bleeping sound, you are obliged to perform a citizen’s arrest. You will have to escort me to the nearest police station.”
“Very good sir.”
“So, shall we look over the last few months’ accounts? I can no longer be left unsupervised with them I’m afraid.”
“Of course. I’ll keep an eye on you sir.”
“I’m also full of suggestions for improving the canteen,” Ken brightened up at this, looking more like his old self again. “I had an opportunity to observe how they run things in the prison canteen, and they are years ahead of us… what is this?”
“He’s back to normal,” Renata reported, as Ken’s brain trundled in. At the sight of Ken, Renata was suddenly smiling with a vicious delight, like a fiendish little girl who has clapped eyes on a pony. I observed gloomily that I must have been operating the brain without conscious awareness for quite some time. To my horror, it trundled straight up to Ken’s feet. “GREETINGS.”
Ken was aghast. “Which of you have done this? What is this horrible thing?”
“This is your brain sir,” I heard myself saying. “It has been running the canteen in your absence.”
Ken’s scream surprised us all. His eyes were huge and very scared, and he was scrambling up on to the counter behind him to escape the brain. “My brain? Get it away! Get it away from me!”
“WHOSE THE DICKHEAD?” I must have pressed this one unconsciously.
We all jumped back as Ken seemed to swoop off the counter and on to the brain. There was a loud clap and the bell jar crumpled open like an egg. The smell was so bad that Noah was gagging and he retreated to a corner, shaking his head and clucking to himself.
It took all of my strength to haul Ken over. His face could have stopped a clock.
“He’s had a stroke!” Renata announced without surprise, as if this was the predictable result of my stupidity.
“I’ve got his brain all over my shoe.” It looked like somebody had bathed Ken’s chest in porridge. I tried to brush the broken glass off his body, but it was everywhere.
“We’ll have to call an ambulance Biggy.”
“GREETINGS. The disembodied voice now issued from the next world. Perhaps it had been reunited with its original sheep in heaven, and the rest of the sheep were astonished by its new vocabulary. “BACK TO WORK.” I stamped furiously on the remains of the device to kill it forever.
We had a visitation from one of the higher managers yesterday. She told us that Ken would be off work indefinitely. The canteen workers are still a little wary, although a good half of them signed the “Get Well Soon” card this time. The agency said that they did not mind me acting as a manager, just as a stopgap.