When the alarm clock went off, I awoke with a grunt, automatically made my decision, disabled the alarm clock and settled down once more to a deep, dreamless sleep. My clothes for the day remained laid out on the sofa; my boots were still planted beside the front door. My Starbucks thermos beaker, the final piece in the jigsaw, stood ready on the kitchen worktop.
Let me explain. That morning I was scheduled to attend my agency’s annual conference on “health-and-safety in the workplace.” They always enrol the entire agency on this training event, they pay us full wages, and they even put on a complimentary lunch. I have never missed a day’s work in my life and if the Devil had mislaid a pound coin I would journey to hell and crawl around on my hands and knees looking for it. There was, however, a principle in jeopardy somewhere within all of this health-and-safety training which is of infinitely greater value than any sum of money. They treat us like children.
No one year is distinguishable from any other. Everything is always waiting as usual under the ceiling of a cavernous warehouse. We are led to our own designated places at tables which are lavishly set with wine glasses and bottled water and presentation packs, as if we were attending a cut-price awards ceremony. Up on stage, the comperes make announcements and introduce videos. For three hours we sit stupefied, unutterably bored but prevented by the unrelenting sensory bombardment from thinking of anything else. Finally, the conference ends with an “exam,” and the comperes always connive extravagantly to ensure that nobody can fail. Here is a typical question (which I have encountered seven years in a row):
“You find a pool of water on the floor. Do you:
“a) Ignore it. Somebody else will clean it up.
“b) Take off your shirt and use it to wipe up the water.
“c) Send a text message to your girlfriend/boyfriend to warn them.
“d) Mop up the water and leave a “wet floor” sign.”
The correct answer always comes last, but even with this hint some delegates had evidently struggled, and so the comperes now resort to reading out the questions from the stage whilst hundreds of us chorus the answers and dutifully put our ticks in the correct boxes.
At my first conference, I found the slander upon our intelligence to be intolerable. At one point I was even on my feet, urging everybody around me to boo the comperes. Their health-and-safety agenda is based upon the conviction that our common sense is undependable in the end, and so needs to be replaced with standardised regulations. Slips, trips and falls are regarded as desperate existential crises; merely laughing off a grazed knee is now viewed as being scarcely less old-fashioned and eccentric than smoking a briar pipe. Litigiousness is no longer seen as sort of depravity, but as an expected human tendency.
Seven years on, however, and I had conceded that it was useless to make a fuss. At these conferences, I now conducted myself like an amiable uncle, who has been hauled into the middle of a children’s game which he does not think it worthwhile trying to understand. Yet this was the first time that I had failed to attend a conference and I spent the rest of the day worrying about how the agency would punish me. The next morning I phoned them to receive the day’s shifts, but they did not allude to my transgression. I was being sent to the hospital canteen, to start at ten.
Upon arrival, my day took a ghastly, mysterious plunge. From behind one of the tills, my friend Renata cocked her head at me. “Biggy, are you speaking to me today?”
“Speaking?” I echoed.
“When I tried to talk to you in the break yesterday, you simply ignored me.” She laughed uneasily. “You were sitting there taking page after page of notes.”
My voice was stuck at the back of my throat like a crumb of toast. I knew that there was some meaning to what Renata was saying, but for now I did not care to hear any more of it. I padded off in search of the manager, Ken, to be assigned my jobs for the morning.
Outside Ken’s office, I found myself looking at a new item on the staff noticeboard: a glossy colour photograph, which had been apparently printed off the office computer. The photograph depicted several hundred agency workers arranged in a vast shield in front of the previous day’s conference venue. Some of the workers were kneeling down and others were sitting cross-legged on the grass, leaving neat rows of sunny faces.
I was proceeding along the highest row when I was suddenly arrested by the semblance of my own face. Although it was smaller than a peanut, the features were perfectly clear. I gazed into my eyes, telling myself that I should be feeling something profound. I shook myself, as if this would make my flesh start creeping. My doppelganger was not smiling; his eyes were so cold and piercing that in this drab photograph, they glittered like stars in an otherwise empty sky.
When I opened the office door, Ken blinked at me in surprise. I blinked back, blood suddenly roaring in my ears. “You can’t be finished already!” Ken huffed. My doppelganger is here, I realised. He will be approaching from down the end of a corridor or he will appear without warning in a doorway. I inquired where “I” was supposed to be.
Ken was bouncing in his seat with outrage. “I told you to go and clean the back room!”
We have an overflow section of the cafeteria which is closed off after breakfast for cleaning. Tables have to be wiped; the floor has to be swept and mopped.
I raced to the back room, determined to seize my doppelganger by the arm and drag him out into the light. I crashed through the door and a wet floor sign which had been placed directly in my path fell over with a slap. Across the room a man in an apron had dropped his mop and he was now diving for the exit behind him.
At first it was like catching sight of myself in a mirror, but once my doppelganger had turned, I was unnerved by how strange he looked from the side. He was unexpectedly squat and stocky. I stepped forward in pursuit, but my heel slipped on the wet floor and my leg shot up in the air like a startled pigeon. For a fraction of a second, I reflected upon my fall with dismayed composure, and then the floor slammed into my back with a shriek of shock.
I clambered to my feet and hobbled after the imposter. Through the swing doors, I found that he had swiftly unloaded a string of boxes from the store cupboard and crudely barricaded the corridor. I seized the first box and hauled it aside, but it was heavier than I had anticipated. The pain shone like a sunbeam on my back; a dazzling and perfectly-formed shape. I bit my lip, tears springing to my eyes.
In the back room, there was nothing to do but pick up from where my doppelganger had left off. I noted that he had wiped crumbs from the tabletops all over the chairs and I collected a handful of stray cornflakes which had escaped his brush.
“Been in the wars?” Renata asked as I joined her on the tills.
“I’ll live,” I threatened. “Where is everybody?”
“Ken is giving his talk, although I think he called it a “workshop.” On the beehive.”
I was in no mood for Ken’s beehive, but then it struck me that my doppelganger might be there amongst the team impersonating me. I was the real me and I was not going to have my title taken.
Ken is a great believer in these team-building educational projects. Attending them is voluntary, but Ken always rounds everybody up beforehand and when put on the spot nobody can find a way of explaining that they do not wish to go. Most of the workforce were now out in the car park dutifully inspecting the beehive. Ken had rolled up his shirt sleeves and assumed an attitude of command.
“So the bees that we are going to meet today are a crossbreed of Russian and Carniolan honey bees. They were first bred by the monks of the mountain kingdom of Bhutan. For the connoisseurs amongst you, these bees produce a dry, mild honey with a great deal of body, and subtle hints of lotus and jasmine.”
I had taken in the meeting at a glance and my doppelganger was not there.
“These are organic free-range bees which will provide sustainable solutions to our on-going carbon challenge. We will use natural food rather than pollen substitute; and natural essential oils instead of pesticides…”
“By the way,” one of the kitchen porters piped up. “How much did this cost you?”
“I funded it out of the tips money,” Ken replied blithely. “This is an investment on behalf of all of us.”
It was as if the sun had gone in. Nobody in the team was now smiling.
“So it’s time to open up the hive and meet the colony,” Ken announced. To general amazement, he extracted a pair of rubber marigolds from his briefcase and slipped them on. “And of course, it’s time to sample the honey!”
He lifted up the lid of the hive and there was a hideous papier-mâché clot affixed to the underside. An infuriated hum foamed from the box, as if it was a diabolical hurdy-gurdy with hundreds of oddly-tuned strings manufacturing some feudal melody. The bees were suddenly prowling on the air, lunging and dipping in unexpected directions, their tiny bodies as imperious as kings.
“Sir,” I asked sharply. “Shouldn’t a beehive have honeycombs?”
Ken shook his head. “No, the man told me that these are an unusual strain…”
I sighed as the people around me started to edge back. Somebody had to break the news to him. “Are you certain these aren’t wasps, sir?”
Ken ignored us. “I think that after a few more of my workshops you will be confident enough to tell bees from wasps. Now let’s taste the honey!”
Our budding apiculturist began to probe into the side of the bees’ nest with a spatula and he eventually coaxed out a black treacly substance. He smeared some of this on to a crust of bread and handed it to the head of human resources. By now the circle of workers was perceptibly retreating. The human resources manager took a bite from the bread and her face froze. Her hands shot up to her mouth and she began to squeal with distress. There were cries of “first aid!” and then the workforce had bolted.
The rumpus was still unfolding on the floor of the canteen, but I had work to do. I slipped into the kitchens only to find myself suddenly scrambling back in panic, face-to-face with my health-and-safety doppelganger. He boldly met my gaze; his hands were busy on the worktop and then they had located a pair of oven gloves. He pawed up a hot china plate and threw it to me to catch. I stupidly ducked forward and it landed in my hands. I yowled and it leapt out of my hands again, breaking with a crack on the floor.
My doppelganger was once more making for the exit but I cut him off, trapping him in a corner. He flung himself against the far wall and I jumped again into his path, only to reel back in astonishment. My doppelganger had been carrying a pair of scissors by the handle and they had pierced my belly. I pressed my hand against the throbbing, slippery ache.
My doppelganger was now at the back door, triumphant in the afternoon light. There are a fleet of vans parked outside the kitchens; those of us with licenses use them to make deliveries around the hospital or to pick up supplies from Costco. My doppelganger wrenched open the door of the first van and as soon as he was at the wheel, it tore out in a great arc. I tumbled down to get at the second.
Yet once within the warmth and calm of the interior I had unexpectedly paused. The epiphany was so sudden it was as if reality had crashed down on top of me like an avalanche. From seven years of health-and-safety videos the narrator’s words reached me with an unearthly clarity and I fished for my seatbelt…
Across the car park, I caught the doppelganger’s eye and he sat bolt upright with fear, his hands suddenly clawing all around him. I gave him a rueful smile and then accelerated straight into the side of his van. Everything terminated in a tremendous crunch which for a moment pealed out in the air and in my bones like the bells of a cathedral. The glass slid out of my van’s windows and the airbag flowered in my face. Kneading the airbag back down, I glimpsed my doppelganger drooping in the wreckage of his van. His face was pinched in death; little wounds trickled from where his skull had been broken. My hand shot up to tentatively pat the back of my head and there was no pain.
I reversed away from the van without looking in my rear view mirror and then stopped with a loud thud. In the mirror, there was an empty space where the beehive should have stood. Next I could discern the swarm pulsing against the sides of the van, teeming and pressing.
I drove around the building to the entrance and pulled up outside the security box.
“Do you have any brandy?” I gasped at the guard on duty.
The security guard was an ancient, wizened little gentleman who had last seen active service during the Suez Crisis. He retrieved the bottle and I nodded vociferously as he silently poured out a tot. I drained it and it was good stuff.
The old soldier shuffled in his seat. “What ails thee laddie?”
“I’ve crashed a van outside the kitchens. There were bees everywhere – somebody must have disturbed the manager’s hive.”
Ten minutes later, the health and safety officer sent out an inter-departmental email:
“I hope you’re all having a constructive afternoon.
“Our bees are out and about being busy and collecting pollen. Unfortunately a large swarm has gathered outside the kitchens and we are obliged to initiate the following health-and-safety procedure. You’ll be pleased to know that we have carried out the relevant risk assessment and we are now cascading this information down to all departments.
“Please remain indoors and keep all doors and windows locked. Draw any blinds and curtains and turn off the lights. Flush all flowers and sweet food down any available toilets. Keep checking your inbox for further information.
“Any failure to carry out these procedures will constitute a Code B disciplinary offense and DISCIPLINARY ACTION WILL BE TAKEN.
“On a lighter note, we are still selling raffle tickets as part of our green agenda initiative. Buy a ticket from your supervisor and you can win the chance to have your own tree planted.
Within five minutes, the first of many subsequent emails had appeared in reply:
“WFT! Are you saying I can’t leave my fucking office? I HAVE TO COLLECT MY KIDS FROM SCHOOL BEFORE 4. DO SOMETHING! I am going to report you you CLOWN!!!!”
Like the stiffening of a corpse as it succumbs to rigour mortis, the will of the bureaucracy began to spread slowly across the hospital. The car park and the ground floor were evacuated; patients and visitors alike were herded up flights of stairs out of danger. Incoming ambulances were diverted to a hospital on the other side of the city. The bees roamed around the hospital like a barbarian army whilst those indoors monitored their progress from between closed blinds.
For fifteen minutes, Ken sat in his office gibbering. This was one of those bad situations when people came and shouted at him and he did not know what to say. Renata finally prevailed upon him to call the pest control company.
When apprised of the situation, the lady down the phone was not unsympathetic. “You see sir,” she explained, “we remove wasps’ nests and in your circumstances the nest is already destroyed.”
“They’re bees!” Ken snapped petulantly.
The lady decided that it was somebody else’s job to correct him. “I’m afraid that you will just have to wait until the was… until the creatures build a new nest. Then we can help you.”
Ken saw that the game was up. “I have to wait until they fly away?”
“I’m sorry sir.”
The hospital settled down for the night, cast in almost total darkness. Nobody knew whether bees were nocturnal.
[The previous “Agency Workers” story is here. Ed.]