Dawn brought a fretful little breeze and Erastus Balloo lumbering along in his sepia hatchback, a car so undistinguished that whenever you looked at it you saw nothing aside from the mud peelings. Normally Mr Balloo parks near to the entrance of the half-mile of car park to ensure that he can get out again with relatively little argy-bargy come five o’ clock. The downside to this tactic is that he has to walk over thousands of empty parking spaces to get to the main building. At the reception he will exchange a guarded “good morning” with the security man. With that, Mr Balloo has reached the lift and, at that time in the day, it will as good as belong to him. He will be carried promptly to his floor without any other stops.
Mr Balloo likes to start work an hour earlier than his colleagues. He is bent upon getting straight to his workstation without being pestered by waves of gladdening beggars for the pennies of small talk. He sometimes wishes that everybody could agree to delete the phrases “good morning” and “how are you?” from the language. To him, they have been devalued out of any natural circulation.
On the morning of this story, Mr Balloo parked his car as usual on the outermost orbit of the estate and he noted to his satisfaction that only four other cars had so far appeared. When walking over the rows of painted rectangles towards the building, it was as though he was a king alone on the desolate board of some chess game in which all of the other pieces had been expended. At security, he nodded noncommittally and then… why, what was this?
Mr Balloo was staggered. There were two new black hulks standing between himself and the awaiting lift, gleaming as if they had been carved out of polished obsidian. He looked down at the small translucent plastic jaws that were not opening. He looked back at the security man and then he flinched and scrambled on the spot.
It was I. “How are you, Mr Balloo?” I inquired with a smile.
For a second or so, the feeling crowded in upon Mr Balloo that he did not know whereabouts in his own life he was. He remembered that I had left the bank several months ago, reportedly in high disgrace, and so maybe he was still in the past. Or perhaps we had met in some unexpected, ethereal realm such as heaven. No, the normality of what he was seeing stiffened and became firm like a jelly. “Mr Tycienski?” he hissed, looking about with frightened eyes. “Are you… er… meant to be here?”
“The bank has installed these new security barriers,” I explained. “And I am the only person from the agency who is trained to operate them.”
Mr Balloo took in the barriers again. They looked much newer than anything else in the foyer, like a UFO that had landed in a village churchyard. He felt compelled to compliment them, as though they somehow belonged to me rather than to the bank. “They look very fancy,” he ventured politely.
“So you take off your security card [these hang around all of the employees’ necks in plastic lockets]… and you place it here, on the orange spot.”
Mr Balloo fumbled to extract his fat head from the locket and to place the locket as indicated upon the orange spot. As I watched him, amused, the word “clitoris” flashed in my mind.
There was a shrill beep. It sounded rather like a life support machine being switched off in a melodramatic soap opera. An ice-cold, immobilising sound.
“Oh dear, Mr Balloo, I’m afraid that the system has rejected your card.” At this point, I always have to swallow my good humour and look very distant and serious. “You will need to be issued with a new one from headquarters. You will not have security clearance until you do.”
There was a quick shuffling of gears behind Mr Balloo’s face and then he too had made himself look just as distant and just as serious. “See here, I walk into this building every day. Of course I have security clearance!”
“I’m merely doing my job, Mr Balloo,” I said ruefully. “And we don’t know that you have clearance. The system has rejected your card. You might have been made redundant during the night.”
Mr Balloo regarded me severely. “That is highly unlikely. Can’t I just walk… around… over the barriers?”
“The system has identified you as an intruder, Mr Balloo. Besides, these barriers have cost over £30,000 to install. And I have been trained especially to operate them. After all of this, we can hardly ignore what they say, simply because it is inconvenient.”
“Headquarters?” Mr Balloo gasped. It had occurred to him that he did not know who currently owned the bank. Were the headquarters still in Norway or had he read recently that they had been transferred to Singapore?
“Elaine on floor seven is interacting with all of the personnel who have got issues with their security clearance.”
“So you’ll have to let me in,” Mr Balloo reasoned rapidly and craftily. “To get to floor seven.”
“You will have to phone her, Mr Balloo. From your car perhaps. Or from the Starbucks nearby – no barriers have been installed there, yet.” In truth, I wondered whether Elaine would come into work today, after the 800% increase in her workload that had coincided with the erection of the barriers.
“You know, I am minded to make a formal complaint about this. And are you really the only person from the agency with the training?”
“Unfortunately, yes. They have to switch them off when I’m not here.”
Seth Panke, the regional chief executive, had been equally unimpressed with my restoration to the bank. “Training! All he does is stand there! Stand and watch the technology malfunctioning!” His card had been rejected, to my enormous delight, and he had spent several minutes threatening me darkly before his request for security clearance had been fast-tracked. These barriers had been imposed on him by headquarters.
Manning the barriers was a tough job for a hard man. Over the last day, I had heard every conceivable formulation of threat and every possible strain of wail. I was as patient as a rock in the sea that a million futile waves break over.
Luckily, the card of my friend Trudy, Mr Balloo’s secretary, was included in the third or so that did not make the barriers beep. Otherwise I would have had to discreetly bundle her over them. It was Trudy who remarked about how small the gates were. She was far closer to five than to six foot and yet the gates barely came up to her waist.
“They were actually manufactured in Laos,” I informed her. “The standard person in Laos is presumably much smaller.”
We both studied the barriers but their innocuous black surface revealed no further clue about these exotic origins.
“It’s in the Far East, isn’t it?”
I laughed. “Ah, but can you tell me which countries border Laos?”
“Without looking at my smartphone? Cambodia, absolutely. I’d say that Vietnam is also a strong possibility.”
She looked up Laos on her smartphone to check and it turned out that she was right. “It’s one of those small, cute countries. They eat sticky rice and drink their coffee out of plastic bags filled with ice cubes.”
“It sounds harmless enough.”
“Oh yuck! Apparently, licking toilet seats is this nation’s defining sexual fetish. There are erotic nightclubs where people go to lick toilet seats together. I mean, without the cocaine!” She showed me a picture of a man lying asleep in his bed and fondly cuddling a disconnected plastic toilet seat as though it was his girlfriend.
“They have all these kinks, don’t they, over there? They no doubt find regular sex as weird as we do their toilet seat fetish.”
“Laos is also the most bombed nation on Earth. There are still American bombs lying about everywhere. Farming is a nightmare. Your barriers could be made out of recycled shrapnel.”
“There could be an undiscovered bomb inside them. You could put your card on the orange spot and KABOOM!”
Later, when Mr Balloo came back with his card rebooted for a second try, he found me puzzling over the barriers.
“Listen,” I whispered. “Every five minutes or so they make this peculiar double-beep. Even when nobody is standing near to them.”
We both stared at the barriers until the silence became unbearable. It was when Mr Balloo had at last exasperatedly broken out into, “Are you being silly? Is this a joke?,” that the barriers emitted two stunted beeps. It sounded almost as though they had coughed.
The barriers let Mr Balloo through. “You are no longer Stranger Danger, Mr Balloo” I congratulated him. He stomped off, clearly maddened at being two and half hours late for his work. I continued to observe the barriers closely.
Five minutes later there was another double-beep.
After half an hour Elaine was sent down by the senior management to register a complaint.
“We were assured that the barriers would beep only when there is an intruder. But at the moment they are beeping every five minutes. Mr Panke is trying to hold a meeting which is you do not know how important to the future of the bank. Nobody can concentrate! Everybody is waiting for the next beep!”
I chuckled. “Like with Chinese water torture.” I wondered whether this torture had originated in Laos.
“You’re meant to do something! You’re the one with the training!”
“I’m sorry,” I confessed. “We went through all of the beeps that the barriers can produce at the training and this wasn’t one of them. I’ve never heard it before.”
“You still have to do something!”
“Mr Panke’s secretary will have the manual for the barriers. Maybe you should consult it.”
“Me! Why me?”
“Well, I have to stay here and watch the barriers. There could be an intruder.”
Elaine had been angry when she left but when she came back she was literally shaking with rage. “It’s written in… Chinese? Thai?”
“Ah, but you have Google Translate?” I inquired mildly.
Her shriek of fury concurred with the perplexing double-beep from the barriers, creating a sort of jarring, musical, electrical whinny. I gazed at her in amazement and even she looked disconcerted by this noise that she had made or contributed to. “Google Translate,” I reiterated encouragingly. “You can download the correct software – with the right keyboard – to type the Thai characters. It will be fun. A new experience for you. Something eye-catching for your CV.”
But she had already stalked away.
It would have taken Elaine over three months to translate the manual into English by herself, but soon she had roped every available underling and intern into helping her. Since over half of the bank’s staff were interns, this placed a massive army in the field. Weeks of work were reduced to hours. And shortly after lunchtime, they had finally penetrated deep into the interior and located the section that dealt with the barriers’ repertoire of beeps.
It was Trudy who brought me the news. It was her, I believe, who had translated the relevant passage. She took me to one side and briefed me in a thrillingly low and confidential voice. “There’s going to be an earthquake.”
“There was a gigantic earthquake in Laos a few years ago and since then all of their barriers have been fitted with earthquake detection technology.”
I looked responsible. “I don’t wish to mislead people. I think I should point out here that my training did not detail what to do in an earthquake.”
“We have to E-V-A-C-U-A-TE,” Trudy mouthed. “At once!”
Mr Panke spent his lunchtimes prowling around his lair, a playroom filled with gym equipment that was annexed to his offices. Everything was constricted to his personal use. Presently, his favourite item was the trapeze. He now always wore the spandex shorts under his office trousers and at lunchtime he would loosen his officewear and fling it aside impatiently. He would then oscillate vigorously on his pendulum until whatever yawning gulf within his psyche that required this had closed up again.
After the trapeze, he would roam down to the cafés, still bare-chested and wearing the damp spandex, in search of a protein milkshake. Today, however, the building’s central stairwell was immensely still. There were no other footsteps and no voices scurrying under the marble eaves. Mr Panke became very alert. It was as though he had been placed in that eerie science-fiction scenario in which a random commuter wakes up to discover that time has stopped or that the rest of the planet’s population have been removed to another dimension.
And indeed, in the shopping arcade at the foot of the stairwell it appeared that everybody had dropped everything. Mr Panke put his head around the door of one café and saw to his astonishment that an espresso was still finishing its pour, the only moving thing in a scene that was otherwise as frozen as a display-room in a museum.
When he reached the barriers, he glanced up, not expecting to see a security guard still manning them. He flinched and scrambled on his feet.
It was I. “How are you sir?” I inquired with a smile.
The regular scowl flooded back into his face. “Where is everybody? Did I give my permission for the bank to be abandoned?”
I pretended that this was not a rhetorical question. “Mm, I don’t think so sir?”
I briefed him about the earthquake. He looked bored and then tired during my explanation, as he does with everything that takes longer than a sentence to convey. When I was finished, he was back with a snap. “So why are you here, brother?” he raged accusingly. I knew by now that he only uses the term “brother” to express intense hostility.
“I still have to protect the bank, from intruders, sir.”
“So the staff are all outside, at the fire assembly point?”
“No, they are up on the hill sir.”
“We are quite close to the sea. There was a consensus that if there was an earthquake then there would be inevitably a tsunami as well.”
The hill was tiny and covered with gorse bushes and fewer than half of the bank’s staff could fit on it. The rest had climbed up any tree to hand.
“I’m going outside to command them back to work,” Mr Panke decided.
“Will you need a megaphone sir?” We had an ancient ceremonial megaphone that was used during the annual, all-departmental, surprise fire drill.
“No, I will not need a megaphone!” With a megaphone, his thunderous voice would be heard deep in the jungles of Laos. “Tell me, is that thing still beeping?”
Amazingly, as if they were a performing dog that had been waiting all of this time for a signal, the barriers beeped. Mr Panke snarled and he spun out.
He was soon back. The impromptu meeting had been angry and lots of comments had flown about thickly in the air. The staff would not come back to work until the barriers had confirmed beyond all doubt that there would be no earthquake. Until then, they would not abandon their trees or their hilltop.
“You speak to them,” Mr Panke ordered. “You have the training – they’ll believe you!”
“I cannot leave the barriers, sir.” Mr Panke looked apoplectic at this; his huge body became as rectangular as a door and his fists clenched. Eying his fists carefully, I suggested that if I scripted a brief message, then he could read it out to the staff.
He brought me a pen and paper since I could not leave the barriers unattended. He was so angry at this that he threw them at my feet, so that I had to stoop to pick them up.
This was my message:
“Friends and colleagues, I would like to assure you that there is no imminent danger from an earthquake. The most likely cause of the mysterious beeping is that the barriers are over-sensitive and that they have mistaken the shuddering from the nearby Edinburgh bypass for the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates. I would like to remind you that the last time that Edinburgh experienced an earthquake was in 907AD and that, even then, the dramatic death toll was predominantly due to the lack of modern infrastructure and healthcare. Statistically, you have in fact a greater chance of being killed by a Giant Panda on the streets of Edinburgh than by any earthquake.”
“How am I supposed to read this crap out?” Mr Panke spluttered furiously. “Your handwriting is illegible! And does that really say ‘Giant Panda’?”
And so the regional chief executive had to man the barriers for me whilst I trooped out to serenade the trees and the hilltop. They took my message rather well, on the whole. There was some dispute from a particularly sceptical silver birch about the death toll that I had invented for my earthquake. I had told them that over three thousand people had died in 907AD but one bank manager, who had obviously taken part in too many pub quizzes, was adamant that this figure was larger than Scotland’s population at the time. This did not kill the deal, though, and everybody eventually climbed back down.
When the workforce arrived back at the main building, they discovered that every toilet seat had been stolen from all of the lavatories, be they male, female, gender-neutral or disabled.
There was universal scandal and excitement at this. Mr Panke, the only available suspect, managed to roar and bluster his way out of the various aspersions that were being cast on his character. Most people nevertheless thought that he had done a less than competent job at manning my barriers.
The barriers were subdued by the evening. The double-beeping still occurred intermittently, but the cards of the overwhelming majority of the departing employees now activated the gates. In any case, I could not imprison people inside the bank if their cards did not work. I had fashioned a kind of makeshift stile out of various chairs so that anybody with a dud card could climb over the barriers.
I stopped Trudy on her way out. She was following Mr Balloo, who sometimes gave her a lift home. She was hectoring him about the stupendous distance that he had parked from the building. “Trudy,” I growled, “I am responsible for security at this bank.”
“Yes, Mr Tycienski.”
“And somebody has been doing quite a bit of monkeying about today.”
“Oh dear, who do you think that could have been?”
“When I am finally able to leave these barriers to examine the security footage, I shall find out.”
“It will be somebody tiptoeing about in the national costume of Laos, probably.”
“A breakthrough! And can you tell me just what such a costume comprises?”
“How should I know? But I fancy that it will be something very baggy, with a floppy hat to obscure the face.”
This was the real her, this magical personality that it was my great privilege to see shining out occasionally, like the silvery crescent of an otherwise dimmed moon. It would be the side of her that she showed to builders who hooted at her from scaffolding; the side that would delight and enchant nephews and nieces. The side that was calm, wry, mischievous, and made her as certain of herself as a small, irascible household god.
“And it was also you who had translated the troublesome term ‘earthquake.’”
“Ah, a wee mistake on my part there. The double-beeping means that you need to email them the code on the side of your barriers to activate the warranty.”
“It is rather bitter that this information has reached me so late.”
“Warranty and earthquake are actually the same word in Loa, but it’s the accents that enhance the precise signification.”
“I daresay that ours is just one in a very long list of misunderstandings. Thank you Trudy, thank you so very much.”